School districts would be free to drop programs for gifted and talented students under a bill moving through the Legislature.
In conforming to federal law, which does not allow money from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to be used for gifted programs, legislators propose to eliminate the state requirement for such a program. Gov. Tony Knowles had proposed conforming to federal law merely by separating the gifted program in state law from other special education programs.
Rep. Fred Dyson, an Eagle River Republican who is chairman of the House Health, Education and Social Services Committee, acknowledged that it's "a profound change" for Alaska.
"Kids with disabilities have a far greater claim on the taxpayers' dollars," Dyson said during a hearing earlier this month. "It's a finite sum of money that's available, and we need to exercise some triage."
Parents of gifted children have "lots of options" compared to parents of disabled children, he said.
The state provides 20 percent above the basic per-pupil
foundation funding aid to districts for a handful of programs, including bilingual instruction, vocational education, children with disabilities and those considered gifted and talented. For the most part, districts decide how those funds are allocated among the programs, but the programs are required. The HESS committee substitute for Knowles' bill would rescind the requirement for gifted and talented programs.
Rep. Sharon Cissna, an Anchorage Democrat, opposed the change. Without appropriate education, giftedness "becomes a handicap," she said.
Rep. John Coghill, a North Pole Republican, said separating gifted children from the mainstream "stratifies the educational community." But he said he expects "no small stir" from eliminating the requirement for a gifted program.
Coghill said he remains open to taking another look at how to deal with the gifted and talented, but not in this year's legislative session, which is scheduled to adjourn May 8. Dyson said he'd entertain new ideas but probably wouldn't propose anything himself.
Margo Waring, a Juneau parent involved with a support group for gifted and talented education, said: "It's very short-sighted, very wrong to throw away a 30-year commitment to gifted children."
"What happens to them now?" asked Carl Rose, executive director of the Association of Alaska School Boards. "That really is a question. ... We have a lot of concerns, because we don't know what it means."
Another Juneau parent, Gretchen Keiser, said that it could be tempting for the school district to drop the gifted program.
"I think the school district is scraping for every nickel and dime," Keiser said. Even with the program requirement, "I have had to assert for my kid. You've got to be involved."
The problem that advocates face is the perception of elitism, even though, like all other parents, they merely want their children to perform to their ability, she said. "It's not really politically correct in many senses to advocate for G-T kids." But without adequate stimulation, they often end up underachieving, she said.
Peggy Cowan, assistant superintendent of schools in Juneau, said she expects no change locally as a result of the pending legislation.
"The Board of Education has taken a special interest in the gifted and talented program," Cowan said.
There are about 350 Juneau students identified as gifted, or about 6 percent of the school population, she said.
About 5,000 students were identified as gifted statewide in the 1998-99 school year, said Harry Gamble, spokesman for the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development. The rate generally is 3.5 to 4 percent of the student population.