My Turn: Special needs kids need more

Posted: Wednesday, January 25, 2006

"The legislature shall by general law establish and maintain a system of public schools open to all children of the state, and may provide for other public educational institutions. Schools and institutions so established shall be free from sectarian control. No money shall be paid from public funds for the direct benefit of any religions or other private educational institution." - Article VII Section I Alaska Constitution

As the quote above shows, the Constitution of the State of Alaska placed responsibility for providing a public education to all children squarely in the hands of the Alaska Legislature. This year's 50th anniversary of the constitutional convention provides a good opportunity for citizens to reflect on the constitution's influence over education and on the history of public education in our state.

For the first 17 years of statehood, Alaska's education system was anything but open to all. There were, instead, two systems of public schooling in place: one for non-Native and Native children in urban communities and another for Native students in rural villages. While children in urban areas enjoyed access to state-funded public schools from kindergarten through 12th grade, most Native students in rural communities attended primary schools operated either by the Bureau of Indian Affairs or missionaries. Native teens in rural areas had no access to secondary education in their home communities and were forced to choose between attending a boarding school or living in a boarding home while attending school in an urban area.

In 1972, a lawsuit was filed against the state challenging the constitutionality of the state's secondary school system for rural Alaska Natives. The case, commonly known as "the Molly Hootch case," was settled as the Tobeluk v. Lind consent decree in 1976, with the state agreeing to construct local high schools throughout rural Alaska.

However, now that the state has taken responsibility for educating all children, there still remains the question about whether this is sufficient. Does the state need simply to operate schools wherever children reside? The answer to that question is provided not in Article VII, Section I of the Alaska Constitution, but rather in Article I, Section I, where the constitution states, "all persons are equal and entitled to equal rights, opportunities, and protection under the law" Under this "equal protection clause" the state must provide an equal education to all students, regardless of race. But what does this mean? Should all schools receive the same per-pupil funding, with just some adjustments for higher costs in rural Alaska? Or is there another way to look at the idea of equal education?

The federal government tells us, via the No Child Left Behind Act, that schools must bring all groups of students to acceptable levels of achievement. If we take that as a guide, then we must look at education outcomes, rather than inputs, as our measure of equality. Creating equal opportunities does not mean simply providing the same access and resources to all children across the state. Instead, it means creating conditions under which all children can achieve to a high standard. Equality of inputs does not always result in equitable outcomes for all students.

In Alaska, there is a significant gap between the achievement of Native and non-Native students, and despite No Child Left Behind, it is not narrowing. We need to look for different approaches to meeting the needs of all students in order to erase this gap. Students come to school with different levels of preparedness and resources on which to draw. However, their ability to learn and achieve is not dictated by these factors. Educators can and should teach all children so that they reach high levels of competency across subjects, and so that they develop both a love of learning and a desire to be engaged citizens within their community.

Additional resources are needed in those schools serving students who lack basic skills when they enter school. A concentrated investment early on in the education of those children most in need of extra help - whether urban or rural, Native or non-Native - will lead to much more equitable outcomes in the long run. If our goal is equality of opportunity for all students in Alaska, then we must do no less.

• Diane Hirshberg is an assistant professor of education policy at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

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