State approves ‘Educational Bill of Rights’ initiative for signature gathering

(Photo by the Alaska Division of Elections)

The Division of Elections has cleared a ballot initiative seeking to enact an “Educational Bill of Rights” for Alaska students to begin the signature-gathering process.

The state reviewed the application, finding that its provisions dealing with everything from Pre-K to university tuition, meets the requirements for voter initiatives. It is the second initiative the state has cleared for signature gathering.

In a prepared statement, Alaska’s 2016 Teacher of the Year Amy Jo Meiners said she was pleased to see the initiative approved.

“As a teacher, I am ecstatic that this important initiative is moving forward,” she said. “All Alaska students deserve a quality and continuous public education system that invests in our next generation. This initiative does just that.”

The initiative deals with education in Alaska broadly, touching everything from pre-K and K-12 to higher education. Specifically, it updates the roles of the Department of Education and the University of Alaska’s Board of Regents to include what the initiative group calls the “Alaska Students’ Educational Bill of Rights.”

For the Department of Education, the legislation calls on it to do the following in regard to public education:

  • Incentivize voluntary pre-K programs so they’re “as available, affordable and high-quality as possible” that are data-driven with the long-term outcomes of the students in mind.
  • That schools are empowered to recruit and retain teachers through competitive salaries and benefits.
  • One-on-one time between teachers and students is prioritized through smaller classrooms, caseloads and educator workload.
  • That curriculum is comprehensive with options for students to study “career and technical education; engineering; world languages; language arts; mathematics; physical education; science; social studies; technology; visual and performing arts.”
  • That public schools work on “culturally sensitive curricula,” including but not limited to promoting and teaching Alaska Native identity, language and culture.

The initiative also updates the roles of the UA Board of Regents:

  • Ensure that university education is “affordable and accessible to Alaskans of all economic means and provides a clear value when compared to universities in other jurisdictions.”
  • Collaborate with the Department of Education and the Department of Labor to “ensure that Alaska’s students are prepared for a productive career that meets the needs of Alaska’s employers.”
  • Encourage policies that bolster opportunities in both rural and urban Alaska.
  • Provide for the proper maintenance of university facilities.

The legislation stops short of specifically implementing any of the new duties, which could run afoul of the constitutional prohibition against initiatives that allocate state resources. Instead, the provisions of the initiative focus on the overarching policy goals for K-12 schools and for higher education.

The initiative group will have until the start of the 2020 legislative session on Jan. 21, 2020.

Why it matters

The initiative doesn’t directly change education policy in Alaska but instead sets out a series of new expectations for the Department of Education and the University of Alaska Board of Regents. This gets around the limitations for what can be done through a voter initiative and also gives both groups flexibility in how they’re implemented.

Though education didn’t feature particularly prominently in the 2019 legislative session, expect it to be one of the hot topics this next session.

The 2020 legislative session will be the first time under Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy that education funding will be on the table. The 2018 Legislature put education funding out of reach of Dunleavy’s cuts by forward funding it, but that won’t be true for the 2020 session.

Dunleavy proposed deep cuts to Alaska’s K-12 system before being stymied by the Legislature. He did deliver deep cuts to the University of Alaska.

There has been some talk from the Dunleavy administration about a new suite of legislative changes aimed at K-12, but it’s yet to be seen how that would work with what are also expected to be deep cuts to the state’s share of K-12 funding.

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