Education issues likely to command attention of new Legislature

Posted: Sunday, January 07, 2001

JUNEAU -- Education issues ranging from the new high school exit exam to the state's complex system for handing out money to local school districts to replacing crumbling schools in the Bush will loom large when the 22nd Alaska Legislature convenes Monday.

The exit exam will likely produce the most conflict. Approved by the Republican-controlled Legislature in 1997, the test will be required for a diploma beginning with the graduating class of 2002 -- this year's high school juniors.

Those students began taking the test on math, writing and reading this spring -- and two-thirds failed the math portion. A smaller group retook the test in the fall, and only 22 percent passed. Thousands of those failing students did so poorly that they're not expected to improve enough to graduate on time, according to a test consultant for the Depart-ment of Educa-tion and Early Development.

The high failure rate prompted Gov. Tony Knowles to call for a delay in the exam requirement and more money to help schools prepare their students. The state Board of Education -- appointed by Knowles -- recommended a four-year delay.

''Schools need more resources, not fewer, to help students meet higher academic standards in reading, writing, and mathematics and to be held accountable for student performance,'' said Knowles, a Democrat.

But such a delay irks the test's GOP sponsors, who argue that it's a measurement of the basic skills schools should already be teaching.

''Please make me understand how waiting a year or two will make a difference,'' said Rep. Con Bunde, R-Anchorage, the test's prime sponsor. ''The school districts have known this was coming.''

However, Democrats and some Republicans argue that the test is inherently unfair to some students, including those with disabilities that make learning difficult.

''It's just narrow stuff that doesn't test other things like your ability to run a Skilsaw or the ability to play music,'' said Rep. John Davies, D-Fairbanks. ''It's a real narrow assessment of your worth as a citizen and yet it takes your ability to get a job away.''

Some members of the Republican majority say they're amenable to a shorter delay.

''If a delay today makes it a better tool for education a decade from now, then I'm ready to delay it,'' said Sen. Gary Wilken, R-Fairbanks.

The Legislature's last big foray into education policy will make a return appearance early in the session. The Department of Education and Early Development is scheduled to present lawmakers a report on the impact of Senate Bill 36, the 1998 rewrite of the formula the state uses to allocate basic education aid to school districts.

The bill rewrote the complex formula to direct more money to urban districts. Lawmakers also poured money into the system to prevent cuts in most rural districts, but representatives from the Bush opposed a provision that gives rural schools a smaller increase for new students.

''What we've done is identified some areas that we consider to be problem areas,'' said Eddy Jeans, the department's school finance manager, who wouldn't discuss the specific findings of the report. ''Our recommendations are not specific recommendations about how to fix it, it's areas of weakness within the formula.''

While the new formula has critics on both sides of the Legislature's political aisle, many consider a wholesale revision unlikely in the coming year.

''Those discussions are going to be suppressed,'' Davies predicted. ''It's very complicated and there's a lot of urban-rural and Anchorage-Fairbanks and a lot of different politics that get involved in that discussion.''

Knowles, who supports revising the formula, has asked lawmakers to approve additional money for education, and he's appointed a task force of education, government and business leaders to make recommendations on school funding.

Another education-related issue sure to pop up during the session is rural school construction. Tight budgets in recent years have kept the state from replacing or renovating crumbling schools in the Bush, prompting a lawsuit accusing the state of violating the Alaska Constitution and federal civil rights law by providing substandard schools in predominantly Alaska Native districts.

Budget-writers in the Legislature have balked at paying for many rural school projects because the high cost of construction in the Bush drives up the price tag. The lawsuit is still pending after lawmakers earmarked money for six new rural schools last year. Knowles' proposed budget includes no money for rural school construction, but he's expected to introduce a bond package after the session begins.



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