In Alaska, school equality elusive

The state must improve education in rural areas before requiring students to pass the state exit exam, a judge recently ruled.

When Bill Bjork and Debby Drong-Bjork taught school for six years in Arctic Village, Alaska, their tasks extended far beyond the classroom.

They had to chop ice on the Chandalar River and pump drinking water for students in the isolated Gwich'in Indian village. They coped with temperatures so cold that, every winter, their mattress froze to the wall of their teacher housing. And, because no grocery store was nearby, they had to learn from the school cook how to take meals from the caribou that migrated through that part of the Brooks Range foothills.

"She helped my wife and me learn to hunt, which was not a pretty sight at first," says Mr. Bjork. The transplanted Minnesotans embarked on their Arctic Village teaching adventure after a 1977 summer canoe trip on the Yukon River.

Teaching in rural Alaska has always been fraught with unusual challenges. Now, in the face of federal mandates, standards tailored for mainstream suburban culture, and costs that are rising at uneven rates across Alaska's expanses, there are new tests.

Educators, parents, and state officials are trying to comply with a recent court decision that found state funding for rural schools to be adequate but some of the schooling to be deficient.

The decision, issued June 21 by Alaska Superior Court Judge Sharon Gleason, found that while funding levels for far-flung districts met constitutional requirements, education quality was so poor in certain areas that students there should not be required to pass exit exams to get diplomas.

"It is fundamentally unfair for the State to hold students accountable for failing this exam when some students in this state have not been accorded a meaningful opportunity to learn the material on the exam – an opportunity that the State is constitutionally obligated to provide them," Judge Gleason said in her ruling. The state must do more to improve education in troubled districts, located in generally impoverished areas of rural Alaska, before reinstating the exit-exam requirement, Gleason said. It must report back on its progress in a year, she said.

The ruling came in response to a lawsuit filed in 2004 by an assortment of parents, teachers, and school district officials who believe state funding decisions shortchange their students. The plaintiffs say they found Gleason's conclusion puzzling. How can there be better service to rural Alaska, they ask, without more money?

"There seems to be a pattern of judges who are unwilling, as they look upon it, to intrude upon the domain of the legislature," says Bjork, who is now president of the Alaska chapter of the National Education Association, one of the plaintiffs in the litigation.

State officials see the decision as a defense of Alaska's overall funding approach, as well as a call to employ some more creative educational styles. But they still struggle to ensure that children in remote areas get an education that conforms to state and federal standards.

Educators have cited several reasons for rural schools' woes: poor language skills among students, a dearth of early education opportunities, alcohol abuse and other social problems in the communities, and a difficulty in attracting and retaining teachers. The last is probably the biggest challenge, said Eric Fry, spokesman for the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development. "If you don't retain teachers, you get, by definition, inexperienced people," he says.

The state is making progress on retention through a Department of Education mentoring program now in its fourth year, Mr. Fry says. The program, pairing about 400 new teachers and 80 new principals with experienced educators, is starting to result in better longevity, he says. "That should be reflected in student performance," he says.

The legislature, meanwhile, has formed a task force to review and possibly rewrite the state school-funding system to help address rural education. Recommendations from the task force, which was established before Gleason issued her ruling, are due Sept. 1.

Unlike other states, where schools are funded locally, Alaska considers school funding to be a state responsibility. It uses a per-student formula, adjusted by a cost-of-living multiplier.

While the overall idea is accepted, many see the formula as outdated and simplistic. A 2004 cost-differential study by the University of Alaska Anchorage's Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER) concluded that it is wildly inaccurate. Spiking fuel prices have made energy and transportation costs highly volatile, affecting rural districts more dramatically.

Some of the most persistent complaints come from the Kenai Peninsula Borough, the local government for the mountainous, forested coastal district south of Anchorage. The borough has economized as much as can be expected, closing some schools, reducing programs, slashing bus routes, and filling gaps with hikes to local taxes, says superintendent Donna Peterson. If the formula were adjusted to the ISER report's recommendations, "it would fix it," she says.

Meanwhile, other state efforts, too recent to have been in the evidence that Gleason considered, have started to bear fruit, Fry says. The state won some flexibility in the No Child Left Behind Act mandates and launched initiatives, including an Alaska-specific reading program.

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