Legislators, educators praise, resist scholarship plan

Posted: Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Legislators and educators are praising the goals of merit scholarship promoted by Gov. Sean Parnell, and endorsed by the Legislature last year.

But they’re also raising concerns about its fairness to the state’s smaller and rural schools because of the advanced classes required to qualify for the scholarships.

That risks the Alaska Performance Scholarship program becoming an “elitist scholarship,” that goes to the same students who are already doing well and have many opportunities, said Sen. Albert Kookesh, D-Angoon.

Four years of math, science and language and other advanced classes are only available at the state’s bigger high schools, located in the biggest districts.

“These classes are not available in the districts I represent,” said Kookesh, representing mostly tiny communities from southern Southeast to the Interior.

“The governor’s response to me was correspondence (classes). To me that is not adequate or fair,” he said.

“It’s a wonderful bill, I love the message,” said Rep. Alan Dick, R-Stony River, and chairman of the House Education Committee.

He, too, doubted the scholarship plan would be fair to everyone.

“How can we meet the requirements in the remote villages so those students can qualify as much as somebody from Anchorage can?” Dick asked.

Superintendents who testified before the committee said their experience with distance education did not suggest that it was an adequate replacement for an actual teacher.

“With distance delivery you have to have a higher level of motivation among the students,” said Norman Eck, superintendent of the Northwest Arctic Borough School District.

Even in his district’s largest school, Kotzebue, it’s difficult to present all the classes needed. In his three single-teacher high schools, it’s impossible, he said.

“We have bright students, and they deserve to have all of the post-secondary education and vocation education opportunities as everyone else,” he said.

Sitka School District Superintendent Steve Bradshaw said Sitka tried to use distance education to provide third- and fourth-year French to students after they lost their French teacher.

“Because I had a French teacher for years I could not leave those kids hanging out there, he said.

Sitka offered years three and four of French online, he said.

“It wasn’t real successful,” he said.

Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, said legislators have been told by the Parnell administration new technologies such as distance education can make higher level classes available anywhere, but she doubted that the necessary broadband capacity has reached all of Alaska.

Eck said that despite a $1 million a year subsidy for broadband, in many of his Northwest Arctic schools it was too choppy to be fully effective.

“The pipeline just isn’t large enough,” he said.

Bradshaw said the college scholarships might not even be the best way to spend the money.

“If I had a magic wand and could wave it I would invest this money at the pre-K level and not the college level, and I think we’d end up with more kids in college” and technical or vocational school, he said.

Parnell has asked the Legislature for $400 million to create a scholarship endowment. The expected annual cost is about $20 million, according to the Department of Education.

Kerttula commended Parnell for his effort, but said it needs to be reworked to ensure rural students are treated fairly.

“I do not fault the governor for trying to do something good,” she said. “Now we’ve got to figure out how to make it equal.”

At a hearing before the House Education Committee Tuesday, small district superintendents agreed with the legislators.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 586-4816 or Patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.

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