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Alaska's rural educators out of step with state regulators

Posted: February 2, 2012 - 1:08am

JUNEAU — Educators from a rural school district told lawmakers Wednesday that their relationship with state regulators was plagued by a lack of meaningful dialogue and filled with inconsistent priorities.

Howard Diamond is superintendent of Yupiit School District, which serves three western Alaska communities. He and assistant superintendent Diane George trekked from Akiachak across a frozen river to Bethel and went another thousand miles by plane to Juneau to outline for the House Education Committee what they consider failed state efforts to enact improvements and to collaborate with struggling districts on plans that account for local culture.

Yupiit is one of five districts in which the state has intervened, according to Education Commissioner Mike Hanley, and it is the only district to be appointed a trustee that has the authority to restructure instructional efforts without approval of a school board.

The state’s approach has been described as punitive by some, Diamond included, and there have been calls for an approach that is more collaborative when crafting solutions.

Committee chairman Alan Dick said bill HB254 aims to immediately strip the ability of the state to “punish districts” as the Legislature reconsiders the state’s overall approach to rural education.

Hanley said he understands the frustration that districts feel when an outside authority is given say over schools, but he insists state intervention is legally required because of Moore v. Alaska, a 2004 case that found the state had violated the Alaska Constitution.

Superior Court Judge Sharon Gleason wrote in her June 2007 decision that the state failed to maintain schooling to all children, a constitutional mandate. She cited the state’s lack of oversight of certain rural districts, and called for more supervision efforts and a remedy to failing districts.

A proposed settlement from that lawsuit calls for an $18 million payout by the state to a few rural districts, education advocacy groups and individuals.

“The state was pretty harshly reprimanded,” Hanley said, adding that Yupiit was singled out in the case. “Courts say that we have to intervene.”

Hanley said that court decision was the primary reason the state stepped up efforts before he took his current job last February. He expressed concern at new laws that might hamper those efforts, though he declined to comment specifically on HB254.

Another point of contention at the committee hearing was an alleged lack of dialogue and local perspective leading to and during the intervention process in Yupiit. Rep. Bob Herron, D-Bethel, spared few words in criticizing the state.

“They don’t live there,” Herron said. “They don’t understand what’s going on in the community ... so the parents, the teachers, the students are forced to have a single-minded focus (on test scores).”

“Yup’ik parents are not confrontational; it’s not in their makeup. So I’m going to speak on their behalf and say some impolite things about what’s gone on,” he said.

Alaska has had five education commissioners since 2005, creating inevitable shifts in direction based upon leadership styles and moral preferences, he said.

Hanley and other educators from rural Alaska were scheduled to testify Friday morning; a state legal expert will also be present to help the committee weigh legal concerns.

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