Trial in school-funding suit starts

Parents say state falls short in providing education to Alaska Natives

Posted: Tuesday, October 03, 2006

ANCHORAGE - The "tremendous disparity" between test scores of Alaska Natives and white students shows how the state is falling short of providing an adequate education required by the Alaska Constitution, a lawyer said Monday.

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The lawsuit contends that the state has set academic standards for students but does not give schools, particularly those in rural areas where costs are higher, enough money to meet those goals. In Alaska, high school seniors who do not pass state proficiency exams do not receive a diploma.

The lawsuit, filed in 2004, was brought by a group of parents and the Bering Strait, Yupiit and Kuspuk school districts, as well as Citizens for the Educational Advancement of Alaska's Children and NEA-Alaska, affiliated with the National Education Association. The state tried unsuccessfully to have the case dismissed.

Plaintiffs' lawyer Collin Middleton said Monday in his opening statement that test scores in the three districts illustrate the problem.

"Alaska Native children as a whole perform dramatically more poorly than Caucasian children and anybody else," Middleton told Superior Court Judge Sharon Gleason. "There is a grave disparity."

Plaintiffs are asking that the court order a cost analysis for providing a constitutionally adequate education and then order the state to fund accordingly.

Middleton said the goal of public education is to graduate students with certain skills, such as critical thinking, to enable them to become good citizens. However, he said, in some areas of the state, many courses don't get taught because there is not enough money.

Some test scores in the Bering Strait School District are 40 percent below the state as a whole, Middleton said. Test scores in the Yupiit School District are even lower, he said.

"It is not that Alaska Native children are stupid. It is to teach them requires additional resources," Middleton said.

Neil Slotnick, representing the state, said Alaska's funding of schools provides "robust opportunities" for Alaska's 131,000 public school students. In 2006, school funding totaled $1.45 billion dollars with approximately $11,000 going to each student.

Funding has increased over the last four years, Slotnick said, in refuting the plaintiffs' claim that education funding has not kept up with inflation.

And, he said, the view that city schools are getting more than their fair share of the money is mistaken. For example, Anchorage with 49,500 students or 37.5 percent of the state's public school students received $8,708 per student in 2005, below the state average of $10,500.

Compare that to the Bering Strait School District, which received more than $21,000 per student, he said.

"The evidence will be the state is putting a lot of money into education," Slotnick said.

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