Education secretary receives valuable lessons in Alaska

Posted: Tuesday, May 20, 2003

Education secretary Rod Paige got an eyeful and an earful on the problems of educating kids in rural Alaska during his two-day tour of Alaska's village schools last week.

Paige is a career educator born in Monticello, Miss., and his parents were public school educators. He has been a teacher, a coach, a school board member, a college dean and superintendent of the nation's seventh-largest school district in Houston, Texas. He probably thought he had seen everything in the way of difficult teaching conditions.

But teachers sleeping in closets and on mattresses dragged into special education rooms was something new, even for him. And schools in remote sub-Arctic villages with 30 percent annual turnover of teachers put a whole new slant on the problem Alaska faces in meeting the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

The visit by a member of President Bush's Cabinet was engineered by Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Ted Stevens and hosted by Murkowski as a way to create high-level awareness of Alaska's special problems. Murkowski knew well the difficulties involved in enforcing the law here and convinced Bush's education chief that it was time to see for himself.

The No Child Left Behind law is a good one and could bring much-needed improvement to the nation's substandard schools. Its intent is to eliminate the inequities between schools and teacher standards in rich and poor neighborhoods.

But imposing it on Alaska's village schools creates special problems that will require innovative solutions and time to implement them.

Among the problems fairly unique to Alaska is that the law requires teachers be highly qualified for their jobs and hold a major or college degree in the subjects they are presenting. But village teachers routinely teach subjects outside their specialty because they are the only teachers available.

Bringing in additional staff people for small schools with little or no housing would create a major cost burden that could actually make the problem worse than it is now. And requiring village students to commute to distant schools is an equally impractical option because of the cost and distances involved and the impact on the youngsters.

Paige went away obviously impressed by what he saw here. He made no public commitments on how his department's approach might be modified to help Alaska's village students.

But the education secretary came, looked and listened. Hopefully Alaska's educators will now have a friend and advocate in a very high place.

The Voice of the (Anchorage) Times

May 12

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