Senate transforms Education Transformation Act

The Senate Finance Committee heard Senate Bill 96 on Thursday morning with a changes to a controversial section that called for the consolidation of schools at less than 80 percent capacity that are located on the road systems within 25 miles of each other.

The bill, being dubbed the Education Transformation Act, now directs the Department of Education and Early Development to analyze schools with under 70 percent capacity and any unintended consequences that merging schools may bring, said Sen. Shelley Hughes (R-Eagle River) during the committee hearing.

“Where it makes sense, we want to make sure (consolidation) can happen,” she said. “So, that will be something that comes back to us coming next year, but the department will be working on it.”

Currently, 53 percent of Alaska schools are under capacity with 229 schools falling under 75 percent utilization, Hughes said. The bill is asking that the department look at schools that fall below 70 percent capacity and are located within 25-miles of another school via year-round, state maintained roads.

Sen. Donald Olson (D-Golovin) questioned whether or not this could include schools located on the marine highway.

“We’ll try to get the information from the department about whether they plan to analyze the marine roadways. I only think it’s fair, if we’re using the brick and mortar highway that we look at the marine highway as well,” said Senate Finance Committee Co-Chair Sen. Anna MacKinnon (R-Anchorage).

In the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, the Susan B. English school in Seldovia is located on the marine highway and could be negatively affected with this inclusion in the bill, said Pegge Erkeneff, spokesperson for the school district.

“Seldovia is on the marine highway, but there is not a daily service back and forth between Seldovia and Homer for transportation of students on the marine highway,” she said.

Other sections of the bill look deeper into transforming Alaskan education with an overall reduction in administrative costs.

“There is a large achievement gap that has plagued us for too long,” Hughes said. “Our testing scores and graduation rates have put us at the bottom of the pile of the 50 states. It’s our obligation to do better and that’s what SB 96 is about, to provide tools to allow districts to improve classroom instruction and reduce admin cost.”

The bill will incentivize districts to collaborate with neighboring districts, local businesses, government and other organizations, Hughes said.

“Every dollar spent on administration is a dollar diverted from the classroom. This bill provides districts the tools to streamline and modernize,” Hughes said.

In a further effort to move money from school administration to the classroom, the bill sets forth the groundwork for a virtual education consortium which would allow Alaska schools to share virtual classes for students and professional development for teachers.

“It’s not about parking students in front of computers,” Hughes said. “Our goal is to have interactive courses where certified teachers that are experts in their field can inspire students across the state and students will have a menu of courses that they would not have otherwise, including ones that are very relevant to them that will go on to inspire them to graduate and do great things.”

District Board of Education member Mike Illg of Homer voiced concerns about how virtual education would be implemented on the peninsula during public comment.

“Our Alaskan learners are diverse,” he said. “Our district is broad in size and diversity. Students learn in village schools, Russian Old Believer schools, home-schools, brick and mortar schools. … As you move forward, I ask that you thoughtfully keep in mind that what works in urban schools may not work in rural schools.”

Illg also asked that the Senate work closely with the Department of Education and Alaska Education Challenge as they move forward in addressing virtual education.

“When we have this bill up again, we will have the administration of (the department) speak to us on the plan,” MacKinnon said. “We do plan on advancing this piece of legislation this session.”

Reach Kat Sorensen at kat.sorensen@peninsulaclarion.com.

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