Judge again faults state for rural education

Posted: Friday, April 09, 2010

ANCHORAGE - A state judge is threatening to appoint a special master to oversee rural Alaska schools.

Superior Court Judge Sharon Gleason said in a court filing that state oversight of rural schools is so flawed, she might order someone to take over to ensure a basic education for students.

Gleason said the Department of Education and Early Development is still failing despite previous court orders. She gave the department two months to show a remedy, according to her March 31 order in the Moore v. Alaska case.

The lawsuit was filed in 2004 and started from rural districts asking for more money. It has turned into a question of what role the state plays in rural school districts.

Deputy Education Commissioner Les Morse told the Anchorage Daily News it's not clear from the judge's order what role a special master would play. Legislators from the House and Senate education committees are meeting Wednesday to discuss the order.

Anchorage School District Superintendent Carol Comeau, who is not involved in the case, said the judge in effect is asking for a shift from the Alaska Board of Education's hands-off policy that has favored local control.

Morse said that his department has helped rural districts but major change demanded by the court takes time. For example, the department has hired expert teachers to drop in on schools for teacher training, he said.

Rural educators face a host of challenges, including high expense, cultural differences, and high teacher turnover. Some schools have only one teacher.

One directive Gleason gave was that curriculum must be aligned with state tests. Yupiit School District Chief School Administrator Howard Diamond said that burden needs to fall on the state, which has more resources.

"You can't start telling teachers in our school districts or our small offices that we wear several different hats," he said. "We need the state to do that work, and not expect the individual districts to all of a sudden magically have all of these incredible people to accomplish that task."

Northwest Arctic Borough Schools Superintendent Norman Eck would like preschool offered. He also wants something the Department of Education cannot provide.

"The single most important thing that can be done to improve education in the Bush is to have public safety in place," he said. "We have our students in villages with no police officers and families suffering from violence and bad activities and kids who are under a threat of feeling unsafe."

Many students, he said, come to school exhausted because they were up all night or there was too much drinking in the household.

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