Preliminary education task force report answers few questions

Juneau lawmakers want more detail, discussion

A two-page report by the state’s education task force released Thursday has left a lot to be desired by Juneau’s legislative delegation.


House Sustainable Education Task Force co-chair Rep. Lynn Gattis, R-Wasilla, said the report was only preliminary and that the group has until 2015 to complete a full report.

The task force was created by a House resolution in the last days of the 2013 session. It was appropriated $250,000 and was tasked with performing an analysis of public education funding. The resolution that created the task force was detailed in what the report needed to include. Cost estimates, evaluations and comparisons of everything from pension, health care, energy and pupil transportation costs to core academic requirements and the base student allocation were listed as items that should be in the task force’s report.

While the resolution specifies that the group will expire Jan. 1, 2015, it also says that “a report of findings and recommendations of the task force and submitting additional reports the task force considers advisable” be submitted to the governor, the Legislature and the Department of Education and Early Development by Jan. 1, 2014.

“It’s a big, big subject and to think that a group of people could answer all the questions — to not only a nationally huge question, but also Alaska, and we’re so different in different areas — we would be doing a disservice to public education if we thought we had all the answers in five or six months,” Gattis said Friday.

The task force hasn’t set deadlines to develop the many complicated aspects of the report, but Gattis said that it will be completed.

“The next step is to utilize both of the committees, the Education Committee and the Finance committee, to explore some other unanswered questions, to have a couple more task force meetings, and to, quite frankly, produce legislation that our caucus can move forward and say ‘This is what we need to do,’” Gattis said.

Gattis chairs the House Education Committee and the task force’s other co-chair, Tammie Wilson, is on the House Finance Committee.

The 650-word report released Thursday includes seven bullet points that outline the task force’s declaration that “Achieving a sustainable future will require new ways of thinking.”

• Invest in technology that is compatible with local infrastructure.

• Establish regional residential education centers to enhance secondary education .

• Expand public choice in education opportunities to include: boarding, charter, virtual, homeschool and neighborhood schools.

• Evaluate the current level of facility cost sharing between the state and localities. Consistent with local control, increased local contribution may not only be necessary but a better way to ensure that facilities are built and maintained efficiently.

• Standardize school facilities, with the goal of reducing overall construction and maintenance costs using “recognized best practices.”

• Analyze the potential benefit of school district consolidation and shared services between school districts and other entities.

• Review and eliminate unnecessary regulations.”It represents a start and I think it needs to be fleshed out,” Rep. Cathy Muñoz, D-Juneau, said of the report. “I think there’s a lot more information and detail that needs to be put into each of the categories.”

Muñoz said she thinks the Legislature should be focusing on getting more resources to school districts to decrease class sizes. She also said the report needs to include a cost evaluation of a bill introduced by Sen. Mike Dunleavy, R-Wasilla, that would bring the state’s 20,000 school district employees and their 30,000 dependents onto the State of Alaska’s health care insurance plan. Muñoz was wary of the task force’s suggestion to expand “public choice in education opportunities.”

“It’s interesting that they highlight choice, but they avoided the controversial question of vouchers,” Muñoz said. “A lot of those choice areas that they recommend are doable within the public school framework.”

Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, said that the task force is ineffective without more educators as stakeholders in the group. He said a different approach to determining the needs of Alaska’s education system should be considered. He suggested a joint House and Senate committee. He said a third-party contractor could also be considered.

“They got oil company executives telling you how to run the state, come on!” Egan said. “I just think we’re going in the wrong direction if we in fact do anything with this report.”

Gattis and Wilson appointed six others to the task force. Members from the business community include oil and gas industry consultant Brad Keithley and Anchorage Chamber of Commerce President Andrew Halcro. Rep. Charisse Millett, R-Anchorage, Andy Baker of Kotzebue, former state education commissioner Jerry Covey and math teacher David Nees also serve on the task force.

During a Dec. 31 teleconference, Halcro was at odds with the other task force members over whether the report should include a statement that says “...Alaskans should be made aware that current education spending is not sustainable.” Halcro argued that it was premature to say spending was unsustainable when the task force hadn’t fully investigated what cost-saving options were available.

The task force voted to include the language, with Halcro casting the lone dissenting vote. It’s that language that Egan said he also disagrees with.

“It’s appalling to me that we’re talking about a decrease in funding for education when we should be talking about an increase in funding for education,” Egan said.

The task force’s suggestion that the state should “invest in technology that is compatible with local infrastructure,” caught the eye of Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau.

“Now what does that mean?” Kerttula said. “If it means what I think they mean — which is they’re only going to go so far and not try to push technology in rural Alaska — well, that means we’re going to have a big digital divide.”

Kerttula said she strongly disagrees with some of the findings in the brief report.

“This just isn’t going to do it,” Kerttula said. “Sad waste of money in my opinion, and that sounds harsh, but really this misses the mark on what has to happen in Alaska for students.”

Kerttula said that she doesn’t have any confidence in the task force going forward.

“If this is what they came up with at this point, it shows a very sad lack of understanding in terms of what’s necessary for Alaskan students,” Kerttula said. “They need a new task force, obviously.”