Hughes aims for more bang for education buck

Alaska’s achievement gap in education places it among the lowest test scores in the nation. Graduation rates also lag dismally behind.

Severe budget woes mean the State of Alaska can’t mend its way to academic successes through hiring more teachers and creating more education programs anytime in the near future. But “transforming” education might have a chance, according to the ideas behind a Senate bill created by Sen. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer.

Senate Bill 96 is making its way through hearings to what Hughes hopes will result in House action before the Alaska Legislature adjourns.

SB 96’s aim focuses on a number of shortfalls from making sure teachers are highly qualified in their subject areas to cutting requirements for how much school districts must pay their bus drivers. A dozen issues are taken up in this omnibus bill, which include:

• Raising certification test score requirements in Praxis, a standardized test for teachers.

• Incentives to districts to pool their resources with grants for cooperative agreements with other districts, government agencies, businesses and non-profits

• Training teachers in virtual education at no extra cost to the district

• Districts may hire bus drivers for less than the required amount (twice minimum wage) and allows for one inspection per year rather than two

The centerpiece proposal seeks to solve a teacher-and-funding shortage problem through a virtual education consortium, or VEC.

A VEC offers a chance to augment daily instruction through quality learning from a central source, and it means districts won’t have to hire more teachers in a specialized topic area, according to the bill’s premise.

Hughes said a VEC solution evolved during numerous joint meetings between the Senate and House aimed at finding new ways to improve academic outcomes.

A virtual classroom works in real time. It allows for multiple interactions — between the classroom teachers and the virtual teacher, between students in one classroom and students in another.

“It doesn’t take away the teacher from the classroom,” Hughes said. “It isn’t parking kids in front of a monitor; there will be a teacher on the other side in two-way live broadcasting. Students from multiple locations will be in real-time communication. We’ve had testimony from students who have that. They forget they are in a virtual classroom and feel the human connection.”

So far, the president of the National Education Association-Alaska likes several provisions in the bill. Tim Parker testified in Juneau before Hughes’ education committee March 30. The NEA-Alaska represents teachers and education staff throughout the state.

“The concept of virtual education, that is my favorite part, though I do have a lot of questions about how it would be funded. Training will be needed. There will be infrastructure and start up costs,” Parker said.

Digital and visual learning has proven a popular choice for districts throughout the state. The challenge is that sometimes it can be done poorly.

“It comes down to implementation,” he said.

Lower Yukon School District Superintendent Rob Picou isn’t impressed by the plan.

“There is nothing inherently transformative about virtual education,” he said in written testimony. “Providing increased educational content from urban to rural Alaska without a sustained effort in staff development and increased broadband in a district with a 30 percent staff turnover… is not necessarily transformative,” he wrote.

He recounted the impact of $1.3 million in deficits already impacting the vast district that encompasses 22,000 square miles.

Monitors, equipment and training pose predictable costs, but Hughes said the biggest factor is obtaining affordable broadband Internet throughout the state. A number of agencies and legislators are now at work on that question because in Alaska, the “information highway is the economic highway,” Hughes said.

Sen. Anna McKinnon, R-Eagle River, rolled out legislation hoping to ease broadband costs for school districts that would increase the minimum megabits broadcast to rural communities from 10 to 25 megabits.

It provides funding through a Broadband Assistant Grant that comes from the federal government in much the way the free school lunch program is calculated per student.

Though nationally there’s a teacher shortage, in Alaska the problem is even more acute, Hughes said. Teacher turnover was 100 percent in one of the villages. It costs $50,000 to recruit each new teacher.

“We’re hoping we can bring in great certified teachers to help close that gap,” she said.

Other aspects of the bill generated more controversy.

The concept of combining schools that fall below a certain enrollment percentage has proven contentious over the past several years of proposed education budget cuts. Hughes had placed the formula requirement at 70 percent enrollment.

But that section is being removed, said Hughes Aide Josh Banks. Instead, the Alaska Department of Education will be looking at ways to consolidate schools wherever feasible.

Praxis, requiring a higher test score for certification, also raised concerns. The Anchorage School District worried that it’s already difficult to recruit teachers in a time of teacher shortage. Praxis requirements could discourage applicants, according to ASD Superintendent Deena Bishop, whose office responded in writing.

NEA-Alaska’s Parker, representing teachers, supported the Praxis provision as a way to make sure an instructor has ample knowledge of the subject.

A section dealing with school buses has raised a few red flags. Buses would no longer need to be inspected twice a year. Districts would not be required to pay bus drivers twice the minimum wage, which is the current guideline.

Of the testimony so far, Teamsters Union Secretary-Treasurer Rick Boyles said the bus driver provisions are troubling.

But the matter of high transportation costs was brought to Hughes’ attention by some of the biggest school districts in the state, said Banks, Hughes’ legislative aide.

Mat-Su, the Anchorage School District and the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District all have expressed support for having more latitude in paying wages and inspections.

The second-term senator said the impetus for the bill came from insights while raising her four children while living in diverse communities such as Hoonah, Bethel, Fort Yukon, Fairbanks and Palmer.

“I remember the struggles and difficulties,” said Hughes, head of the Senate Education Committee. “As I was coming into the chairmanship, problems in (education) got worse because funding wasn’t able to bring up the quality of education. Yet, we have an obligation to our students to give them excellent education.”

Closing that gap in Alaska’s dismal ranking is the primary goal.

“Alaska has one of the lowest rankings, in a country that ranks lower than other countries,” Hughes said. “We can’t just reform education. We have to transform it.”

Naomi Klouda is a correspondent for the Journal. She can be reached at [email protected].

04/05/2017 - 1:36pm