Alaska Legislature considers comprehensive reading, pre-K bills

The Alaska Legislature is considering bills that would implement a statewide pre-kindergarten program and launch a comprehensive reading initiative.
Published: Feb. 1, 2022 at 7:29 PM AKST
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - The Alaska Legislature is considering bills that would implement a statewide pre-kindergarten program and launch a comprehensive reading initiative, but there are questions about costs and how impactful the proposals would be in rural Alaska.

Senate Bill 111, known as the Alaska Improvement and Modernization Act, is being heard in the Senate Finance Committee and is supported by a bipartisan group of senators after years of work. Sen. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer, said it could be a “game-changer” in improving Alaska’s education outcomes by focusing on ensuring all students are proficient in reading by the age of nine.

Anchorage Democratic Sen. Tom Begich, who joined Gov. Mike Dunleavy in advocating for a previous iteration of the bill two years ago, said this version combines accountability with a wise investment of state resources.

“That’s why this bill must be policy in the state of Alaska if we’re going to turn the curve,” he said to the Senate Finance Committee last Wednesday.

Alaska’s fourth grade reading scores are the worst in the nation. This bill, partly modeled off legislation from Florida and Mississippi that helped improve reading scores in those states, tries to change that. It includes:

  • A financial incentive for school districts to implement “high-quality” pre-K programs through a stair-step model of grants over the next several years. It would sunset in 2034 unless the Legislature extends it.
  • The state would hire six reading specialist positions to help train teachers across Alaska.
  • It requires new training and testing requirements, focusing on ensuring that all kids can read by the end of the third grade.

Some members of the Senate Finance Committee have been concerned about the bill’s costs, particularly with other expensive legislation on the agenda like the governor’s public safety initiative. The pre-K program alone is estimated to cost $17 million annually at its peak.

State Education Commissioner Michael Johnson said “it is an expensive bill,” but that it would make the $1.2 billion the state spends on K-12 education work better. Anchorage School District Superintendent Deena Bishop also testified in support of the bill.

“It empowers our schools and teachers to ensure students are readers and thinkers in today’s global society — while at the same time providing accountability for the dollars spent on public education in Alaska,” she said.

There have been questions about how the legislation can be implemented across rural Alaska and if it would be impactful. Begich testified that pilot pre-K programs have been in place in the Lower Kuskokwim School District and around Nome for the past 12 years and have been successful.

Johnson spoke about the Yupiit School District as an example, saying the bill would help deliver additional resources and people there to benefit all students. Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, sounded skeptical.

“I want to work closely with your office to assure that the statements you’re making at this table today have the chance to be proven true,” he said to the commissioner.

Similar legislation is being heard in the House Education Committee. There are amendments being considered to hire more reading specialists and questions how it would work in rural Alaska.

Rep. Andi Story, D-Juneau, said she hopes to see the bill pass this session, but says it shouldn’t be rushed.

The House bill still needs to go before the House Finance Committee before heading to the floor. If both chambers pass a reading bill, and one chamber won’t consent to passing the other’s bill, the differences between the two versions would need to be ironed out through compromise before it was sent to Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s desk for his consideration.

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