Alaska history bill failing

Senate says curriculum should be chosen locally

Posted: Tuesday, May 07, 2002

Legislation requiring school districts to make Alaska history part of their high school curriculum appears to be dead.

A House-Senate conference committee on a bill addressing both the history requirement and compulsory attendance ended in deadlock this morning.

Rep. Mary Kapsner, a Bethel Democrat who successfully pushed the history bill in the House, said afterward that she didn't see any opening for compromise with senators before next week's adjournment of the 22nd Legislature.

"The bill won't pass this year on the Senate side," Sen. Gene Therriault, a North Pole Republican, said flatly.

A separate bill with the history requirement, which includes a Native studies component, has been languishing in the Senate after passing the House 36-0 in February.

The issue has become part of debate about the urban-rural divide.

On subsistence, "People don't understand the basic premises of the legal debate we're having," Kapsner said.

At the 2001 annual convention of the Alaska Federation of Natives, delegates issued a "demand" for requiring one semester of Alaska history for all high school students.

The idea has been endorsed by Darroll Hargraves, executive director of the state association of school administrators.

"You will not often hear support from me or other superintendents for legislation that mandates specific courses be taught in the public schools," Hargraves wrote to Kapsner early this year. "We can't mediate all of the social ills in our society through our schools, but people need to know where they come from."

Therriault and another Republican senator on the conference committee, Gary Wilken of Fairbanks, said they oppose placing "unfunded mandates" on school districts.

"This is very much a local control issue to me," Wilken said. "It ought to be an idea that comes through our local school boards."

The Anchorage school board has made Alaska history a required course. But it remains an elective in Fairbanks, Juneau and Sitka, Kapsner said.

Therriault's bill started out as an attempt to stop some parents from using schools as child-care centers.

It requires that once children who are 6 years old are enrolled in first grade, the parents or guardians can't remove them. Teachers invest too much time in keeping pupils up to speed when they attend sporadically, Therriault said.

The House, along with the history requirement, added an amendment allowing 6-year-olds to be withdrawn from school within 60 days of enrollment. School attendance is uniformly required at age 7.

Therriault and Wilken objected to having the original bill "hijacked," although they didn't oppose the 60-day exception.

"We're hurting a good effort," Wilken said.

But Sen. Donny Olson, a Nome Democrat, said it's premature to say the Alaska history requirement can't pass the Senate.

"I've seen bills grow legs and walk right through that I thought never had a chance," he said.

Therriault said he'd call for another meeting of the conference committee if anyone changes position.

Bill McAllister can be reached at billm@juneauempire.com.



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