Ashlyn O’Hara / Peninsula Clarion
State Rep. Ron Gillham speaks at a ribbon-cutting ceremony Aug. 6. at Kenai Municipal Airport.

Ashlyn O’Hara / Peninsula Clarion State Rep. Ron Gillham speaks at a ribbon-cutting ceremony Aug. 6. at Kenai Municipal Airport.

Gillham targets school reform in Juneau

Gillham said Friday that his bills are aimed at expanding parent choice in education

State Representative Ron Gillham has his sights set on school reform in Alaska.

The Republican lawmaker from Kenai released five bills last week that all address education in some way and mirror efforts in other states to review how the state’s students are taught. Among other things, they would establish a new scholarship program for students who do not attend public school and require schools to publish course syllabi and textbook lists.

Gillham said Friday that every bill is aimed at expanding parent choice in education.

“I’ve used the analogy before, the state does not have the right to go to a car lot and say, ‘Here’s a car, that’s your car you’re going to drive,’” Gillham said. “These are our kids. They should not have the right to go, ‘This is what your kids are going to be taught.’”

Upon arriving in Juneau after being elected to the state House, Gillham said, he thought most of his work would focus on fiscal issues, such as the state budget and the permanent fund dividend. However, he said there are already a lot of lawmakers working on those issues, and not as many on other issues that are important to him, such as education.

The new bills announced by Gillham last week are part of an “Education Reform Package.” That package includes eight bills, all of which are sponsored by Gillham and one of which will receive a bill number next week. One would establish a state scholarship of close to $6,000 for students who do not attend public school, while others focus on nondiscrimination.

Gillham’s scholarship bill would allow eligible parents to apply for scholarships of up to $5,930 from the state to support education alternatives for their children, such as in private school or University of Alaska tuition and homeschooling.

“It’s against the (Alaska) Constitution for the state to fund a private school, a Christian school or a private school,” Gillham said. “So what the scholarship would do is, the parents would fill out an application, if they qualified. The school money would go to the parent (and) the parent would pay the school. So it’s kind of a roundabout way for the parents to put the kid into a school that they desire.”

Two separate bills address nondiscrimination in public schools and “prohibited instruction” in public schools. Language in both bills would prohibit schools from compelling staff or students to “affirm, adopt or adhere” instruction that teaches “that a given category is inherently superior or inferior, or that one is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive,” or that those groups should be treated differently as a way of achieving equity, diversity or inclusion.

A violation of Gillham’s nondiscrimination bill could result in a civil action against the offending school, according to a handout from Gillham’s office.

Gillham said that his bills that deal with nondiscrimination in schools are a response to critical race theory, and that they mirror legislation introduced in other states, such as Florida. Critical race theory is an academic concept developed in the 1970s that looks at racism not just as a product of individual bias, but as a social construct reinforced through policies and institutions, according to Education Week.

“It was in response to the CRT bills that are being pushed and CRT curriculum in schools,” Gillham said. “It was just to kind of counteract that.”

Critical race theory gained popularity last summer and sparked debate across the country, including on the Kenai Peninsula. Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Superintendent Clayton Holland spent his first board of education meeting last year assuring community members that critical race theory is not being taught in district classrooms.

Gillham said that while there are “not a whole lot” of critical race theory bills that have been introduced in Alaska, his goal was to “get in front of the curve.” He summed up his understanding of critical race theory as, “I’m white, therefore, I’m racist.”

“I don’t agree with that, just because your skin color does not say who you are,” Gillham said.

Another of Gillham’s bill’s — H.B. 342 — would require public schools to publish course syllabi and a list of textbooks used for each class. It’s modeled after one introduced in the Tennessee Legislature, he said Friday, and would additionally require schools to link in the list a “publicly available Internet website that contains information about the textbook.”

“It gives the parents a chance to look and see what their kids are actually being taught and what books are being taught from,” Gillham said.

Gillham said he hasn’t spoken to many teachers about that bill, but that some members of the KPBSD Board of Education have voiced their support to him. KPBSD publishes information about curriculum by subject and grade levels on its website at kpbsd.org and conducts regular curriculum review meetings that members of the public are allowed to be a part of.

Gillham said he is planning to bring forth an additional bill next week that outlines proposed new required instruction in schools related to character development and citizenship. Gillham said the instruction would place emphasis on the qualities of patriotism and respect for authority, as well as “racial, ethnic and religious tolerance,” among other things.

Bills sponsored by Gillham were only some of the new legislation introduced last week that address education in Alaska. One, sponsored by Rep. David Eastman, R-Wasilla, would create a new social studies program for sixth to 12th grade students about “victims of communism.”

Under the bill, 45 minutes of instruction on “victims of communism” as well as different communist leaders from history, such as Joseph Stalin of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, Ho Chi Minh of Vietnam and Fidel Castro of Cuba — named, among others, in the bill.

The bills announced last week are only a fraction of the education bills that are currently before the Alaska Legislature: more than 40 bills have been referred to education committees in either the House of Representatives or the Senate that address a range of topics including reading intervention and school funding.

Ultimately, Gillham, who sits on the House Education Committee, said it’s his hope that introducing multiple discrete bills will give each better odds of making it across the legislative finish line than if he had put together one education omnibus bill.

“The bills are to open up a dialogue to the issues and start a conversation with the parents and teachers and the other policymakers,” Gillham said.

The full text of all bills introduced in the Alaska Legislature can be found at akleg.com.

Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at ashlyn.ohara@peninsulaclarion.com.

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