Alaska: Rich in Resources, Poor in Educational Success

Anchorage Superintendent Carol Comeau

Anchorage Superintendent Carol Comeau

Challenges of education are arguably unique in Alaska. Though the state is rich in oil and gas, has no state income tax and boasts a vigorous economy, it has serious issues in education. In rural areas there is an almost constant struggle to find and retain qualified and dedicated teachers willing to live in remote areas where plane rides are the only travel option, and cold, dark winters in stark landscapes are the norm.

Both large and small communities have been adversely affected by the migration of families from small communities to larger towns and cities. Student populations in rural districts are decreasing, and with lower enrollment, funding is disappearing and services shrinking while larger communities strive to find the resources to serve the unexpected increases in student enrollment.

Over the course of this school year, Anchorage has absorbed an additional 700 students above expected enrollment. In a district that has approximately 8 percent Alaska Native students, more than 50 percent of the new students were identified as Alaska Native. Though Alaska has more economic resources than many other states, it holds the highest dropout rate in the country. According to recently released statistics from 2005 – 2006, Alaska has a dropout rate double the national average. The Native population of Alaska accounts for a disproportionate percentage of this number.

Though these many challenges continue to haunt educators, some changes are in the wind. Recently Gov. Sarah Palin indicated that she would accept federal stimulus funds for education. Early in the process, she objected to funding for any purpose other than infrastructure, particularly for those projects which would support construction of the proposed natural gas pipeline. An outcry from educators across the state may have convinced Palin to reconsider.

Anchorage Superintendent Carol Comeau praised Palin for her acceptance of the funds, which includes $160 million for education.

“I am very pleased the governor has acknowledged overwhelming public sentiment and now plans to accept education stimulus funds that will be used to increase student achievement for our neediest students. We are grateful for the support of this community who spent the last month urging the legislature and the governor to support federal education funding.”

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, was also in favor of state acceptance of the stimulus funds. While she repeatedly indicated she understood Palin’s hesitation in accepting temporary federal funding for state expenditures, she noted that it would be a benefit to the state and Title 1 schools in particular. Murkowski has long been an advocate for education and has worked diligently to raise awareness on the federal level about specific conditions affecting education in Alaska Native villages. Though the No Child Left Behind Act may not be reauthorized, she is advocating alterations to the act that will give more flexibility to schools serving Alaska Native communities. Among other modifications, she hopes to delay standards testing until the sixth grade, particularly for children who are gaining knowledge in American Indian, Alaska Native or Native Hawaiian languages as part of their schooling.

At a field hearing Murkowski held in Alaska last November, she heard suggestions that dovetail with measures under consideration by the Anchorage School District for the use of its share of the federal stimulus funding. Early childhood education was one priority mentioned in stemming the state’s dropout rate. Comeau said in the next two years, the Anchorage School District is expected to receive $12.9 million from stimulus funding for Title I programs and $12.9 million for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and special education programs. She said the district is considering adding more preschool programs and special education training to all teachers.

The rest of the approximately $135 million in education funds will be distributed to other Alaska school districts.

Neva Reece
Indian Country Today

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