Alaska Legislature passes comprehensive reading, pre-K bill

The Alaska Legislature passed a comprehensive reading, pre-k bill, but some rural legislators are concerned.
Published: May. 24, 2022 at 7:15 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - The Alaska Legislature passed a comprehensive reading and pre-kindergarten bill in the final frenetic hours of the legislative session.

After the bill passed, Gov. Mike Dunleavy said during a press conference last Thursday that addressing Alaska’s low reading scores is a “moral imperative.”

Education Commissioner Michael Johnson spoke as well and said that “it’s a great day for students in Alaska.”

Dunleavy and Sen. Tom Begich, D-Anchorage, first proposed a version of the bill, known as the Alaska Reads Act, two years ago. It has been amended since then and passed onto the governor’s desk after being combined with three other bills.

The bill is set to expand voluntary pre-K programs across Alaska over several years at an eventual cost of over $17 million per year. Pre-K is also set to be part of the annual base student allocation formula.

There will be a new “read by 9″ program, adapted from Florida and Mississippi initiatives, that aims to ensure all students can read before they leave the third grade. If students can’t read proficiently by then, their parents would be asked not to promote them or that they undergo 20 hours of intensive reading education.

The bill includes grants for low-performing districts that Johnson described as a “turbo boost” to improve reading outcomes alongside additional resources and support. There are reading intervention specialists set to be sent out to improve how kids are taught to learn how to read, and a new virtual education consortium.

The Alaska Reads Act passed unanimously through the Senate twice this session but it faced skepticism and vocal criticism by some legislators in the House of Representatives. It passed there by one vote.

Rep. Bryce Egdmon, I-Dillingham, was scathing and so was Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, D-Bethel. She was concerned about protecting small school districts, and said that this is an “onerous policy” that would “unintentionally disadvantage” Alaska Native students.

There is an increase to the per student funding formula by $30 to $5,960, which is the first rise to the formula in six years. Edgmon called that increase “a joke” with high inflation and high energy prices, and suggested these changes would not benefit all of Alaska’s 53 school districts.

“This bill does not help rural Alaska,” he said. “If you were going to write a bill to help big schools, I would write it just like this.”

There were suggestions that the bill’s requirements are effectively unfunded mandates. The Alaska Department of Education and Early Development shows the bill will cost the state of Alaska $419 million over the next 11 years. Begich asked how spending like that could be considered unfunded.

Several members of the Bush Caucus supported the bill, including Reps. Josiah Patkotak, an Utqiagvik independent, and Neal Foster, a Nome Democrat. House Speaker Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, said she made her mind up to support it shortly before stepping on the House floor.

Stutes said she spoke to Dr. Larry LeDoux, Kodiak’s superintendent, to ask for advice. LeDoux, who is also a former state education commissioner, told her that it is a good deal.

The Alaska Reads Act divided the House in unusual ways. Ketchikan independent Rep. Dan Ortiz, who is a former teacher, voted “no.” He argued that designing individualized reading intervention plans is too time consuming for overworked teachers.

Rep. Ben Carpenter, R-Nikiski, opposed it, saying that it would take away local control from districts, echoing an argument from Zulkosky. Rep. Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage, supported it and noted there are provisions to protect students who speak English as a second language from being held back.

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