Alaska editorial: Failing schools still need state's attention

Posted: Monday, July 09, 2007

A state court decision last week delivered two thoroughly considered, well-reasoned judgments about Alaska schools.

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Yes, Judge Sharon Gleason said, funding for Alaska's public education system is adequate to meet constitutional requirements. But no, the state does not do an adequate job of supervising at least one district where most students consistently fail to meet basic state achievement standards.

The ruling was a blow to the statewide teachers union and other education funding advocates. They hoped the case would force the state to pour a lot more money into schools.

After extensive testimony and review of the evidence, the judge found that funding was in fact adequate, at least according to minimum standards in the Alaska Constitution. Education advocates can still make a good case for funding increases, but the place to make their case is the Legislature, not the courts.

On the second point, supervision of poorly performing districts, the judge did find fault. Is the state doing an adequate job of supervising the districts, making sure that every kid in the state has a fair shot at passing state tests required for a high school diploma?

Not in every case, said Judge Gleason.

Her ruling took a detailed look at three Western Alaska districts. It uncovered strategies that have worked, such as setting clear direction for what kids should learn, and training teachers in the appropriate curriculum.

A talented superintendent, Dr. Martin Laster, who had previously been an Alaska Superintendent of the Year, came into the Kuspuk District, and suddenly student achievement rose significantly. He changed the math courses based on teacher recommendations, and then made sure teachers were trained in the new method, the court decision indicates.

The judge also highlighted strategies that have not worked. The Yupiit District, for example, has a weak curriculum on core academic subjects.

The district, including the villages of Akiachak, Tuluksak and Akiak, had the lowest percentage of proficient reading students in the state in 2005. In 2004-2005, when three-fourths of Alaska students were deemed proficient in language arts, only 16 percent of the Yupiit students made the grade.

The Yupiit District has never made adequate yearly progress under the federal guidelines. It was among half a dozen districts that had not met yearly progress standards for at least four years.

Judge Gleason concluded the state is not doing enough to help, at least in the Yupiit District. She gave the state a year to fix things, until June 2008.

What about local control of schools?

Well, said the judge, Alaska's constitution makes the Legislature, and not local school districts, ultimately responsible.

Still, nobody in the case is suggesting a state takeover. In fact, one expert, Dr. James Smith, said it usually doesn't work for outsiders to move in heavy-handedly.

"When you take over a school district, it's much like taking over Iraq," Smith testified. The community and any holdover faculty reject it.

But superintendents, former and present state education commissioners and others made lots of other suggestions. Go lay out the problem to a community if the town's school system is failing, suggested one, and promise to stand by what the community wants. Intervene early, said another.

The kids who are not getting a good education now won't have another chance. It's long past time to figure this out.

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