U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens said he'll push for establishing regional learning centers and a statewide education standards system to help put Alaska in compliance with federal education reform laws.
In an address to the state Legislature on Monday, Stevens said the No Child Left Behind Act passed by Congress in 2001 poses problems for schools in rural Alaska that have few teachers and are in communities not connected by roads.
Stevens met with U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige today to ask for flexibility in implementing the new standards. A press release from Stevens' office said Paige agreed to visit rural areas of Alaska to see the conditions firsthand.
"I do not think we should avoid the problem, that is, I don't want to have any child left behind either, but we have to have innovative ways to reach the goals that were set by that act ..." Stevens said at a press conference after his address.
The federal law goes into effect in 2005 and includes requirements such as student testing and teacher qualification standards.
One of the changes under federal law requires that teachers be "highly qualified," meaning they have a college degree in every subject they teach. The requirement puts many rural schools, where teachers handle multiple subjects, out of compliance.
Stevens said he would request that Alaska only require teachers to have a degree in one of the core subjects they teach. He also will ask for time to figure out how to make sure all teaching aides have an associate's degree or 60 college credit hours.
In addition, Stevens said he would request federal funding for regional learning centers in rural areas as an alternative to schools that do not meet the federal standards.
"That is necessary because, as you know, if a student fails to respond to teaching in one school, the act gives the parent the right to request that the child attend another school," Stevens said. "Well how do you do that in a state that doesn't have roads in between those villages?"
At the press conference following the speech, Stevens said regional learning centers could be established at existing schools that have meet the act's standards. He said he would seek federal funding for schools that become regional education hubs.
Stevens also said he would try to change a new requirement making schools test students in English for math and reading skills by the third grade. He noted 109 languages are spoken by schoolchildren across the state.
"That's the same number of languages spoken by California students, but California gets about 100 times as much funding to meet the requirements of this act as Alaska," he said.
Following Stevens' address, the state House of Representatives unanimously passed a resolution asking the federal government to adopt the state's recommendations on implementing the No Child Left Behind Act in Alaska.
House Joint Resolution 13 notes a fifth of the 506 schools in Alaska employ three or fewer teachers. The federal government, however, has yet to allow waivers to any states on the regulations set out under No Child Left Behind.
Rep. Carl Gatto, chairman of the House Education Committee, said the state is not asking for waivers, just accommodations in implementing the law.
"A waiver is a way out of something. An accommodation is more like a handicapped person gets an accommodation. We don't deny them something," said Gatto, a Palmer Republican.
He said the state may pursue certifying teachers as "highly qualified" through correspondence study or moving teachers who do meet the standard to schools with teachers who do not meet the qualifications.
Rotating qualified teachers, though, could be problematic, Gatto said.
"I don't want to see that we have to pull the teacher out of the classroom and send them 800 miles somewhere to get a highly qualified rating so they can then come back a year later and in the end be no better," Gatto said.
Timothy Inklebarger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.