Giving public school teachers an annual retention bonus, and introducing a so-called “don’t say gay” and gender-restrictive policies that are generating widespread controversy nationally were proposed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy during a combative press conference Tuesday.
The governor, acknowledging “I’m raising my voice” when questioned about his “parental rights” proposal, aggressively denied it’s meant to be divisive or is modeled on states such as Florida that have enacted such policies, instead asserting “we’re trying to bring people together.”
However, many of the provisions appear to match Florida’s law, such as prohibiting discussions about sex and gender before the fourth grade, and written permission is required from parents for other sex or gender discussions or addressing a student by a different name or pronoun. Lawmakers in at least 22 states have introduced more than 40 bills with language and restrictions similar to the “don’t say gay” law, according to Education Week.
The restrictions proposed by Dunleavy apply to clubs and activities as well as classrooms, and there are also provisions mandating physical separation of students by biological sex in locker rooms.
The announcement came three days after a news report revealed language protecting LGBTQ+ residents from discrimination was removed by Alaska State Commission for Human Rights at the request of a conservative Christian group in the midst of Dunleavy’s reelection campaign last year. The governor, through a spokesperson, has denied involvement with the state Department of Law’s advice on LGBTQ+ discrimination cases.
Key legislators denounced Dunleavy’s parental rights proposal as a distraction from legitimate classroom problems, including state Sen. Löki Tobin, D-Anchorage, who said it won’t get a hearing if it’s referred to the Senate Education Committee she chairs.
Dunleavy — holding his news conference in Anchorage with about 30 kids, parents and teachers on either side of him — invoked them repeatedly in defending his proposal, stating at one point “parents are not the enemy…kids are a good thing…teachers are not the enemy.”
“Any idea that this is a ‘don’t say gay’ bill or anti-anything is wrong,” he said, “It’s pro-parent.
“I can tell you as a teacher and a parent I wanted parents involved. I wanted parents to know what was going on. I cannot conceive of a teacher wanting to hide things from a parent. If so we’ve got a huge disconnect and a huge problem in philosophy.”
Tobin sharply disagreed, stating such policies are “infringing on student privacy” and preventing self-determination of LGBTQ+ youths with disproportionately high rates of homelessness and suicide.
“In many cases the only safe space they have is their public schools,” she said, adding “not every parent is a good parent.”
Leaders with the Republican-led House majority said they’re not yet familiar with the specifics of Dunleavy’s proposal and therefore don’t know yet if it will be supported by the caucus. But Tom McKay, an Anchorage Republican who is a member of the Education Committee and has introduced a bill (HB 27) prohibiting transgender girls from participating on girls’ school sports teams, expressed support for its intent.
“I’m a big advocate of parents’ rights,” he said. “As a father of five my children belong to me, they do not belong to the school. And when it comes to sex education and changing sexes and naughty books in the library, and so on and so forth, I believe parents have every right to know what’s going on in the schools they pay for.”
Dunleavy’s proposal would also require teachers to inform parents about any information related to a student’s physical, mental or medical health (which would include a student confiding sexuality/gender preferences), unless it endangers the students well-being. Parents would be allowed to sue schools for any violations of the governor’s proposed policy.
Reading, writing, ‘rithmatic and retention?
Two bills, one for the retention bonuses and the other with the parental rights provisions, are scheduled to be introduced to the House and Senate by the governor on Wednesday.
The bonuses of $5,000, $10,000 or $15,000 — with the higher amounts awarded to those at remote and rural schools — would be paid to teachers completing a full school year during a three-year period beginning in 2024. Among Southeast Alaska cities, Juneau is in the lowest tier, Skagway in the middle and Pelican in the highest tier.
The estimated $58 million three-year cost is a tiny fraction of Senate and House bills that increase the per-student funding formula, and addresses a much broader range of what some lawmakers call insufficient education funding. Both Dunleavy and legislative leaders said it’s not necessarily a case of one-or-the-other between the retention bonus and funding formula increase.
“We’ve always said we need more resources in education,” Dunleavy said. “We may disagree on how much and we may disagree on where it goes. In the end I think we’ll able to come together on a few things.”
Leaders in both the House majority and minority caucuses expressed qualified support for the bonuses, with the provision they’re part of a broader discussion about the per-student formula, public employee pensions and other costs such as transportation and infrastructure.
“Teacher hiring and retention bonuses are a positive complement to a BSA increase and restoring defined (pension) benefits,” House Minority Leader Calvin Schrage, an Anchorage independent, said in a prepared statement.
Tobin said she’s concerned the bonuses, especially with a three-year time frame, may be counterproductive to long-term retention since she’s seen many teachers depart the state with their earnings and experience after five years.
“I think that just accelerates that process,” she said.
Dunleavy said the retention bonuses are based on studies from the past few years, ongoing assessments of them will be made if implemented, and whether the bonuses continue after the initial period will be up to the legislature.
“We believe that there will be teachers that want to stay,” he said. “What they do beyond four years, five years, six years or seven years, there’a no lifetime contract on anything.”
• Contact reporter Mark Sabbatini at firstname.lastname@example.org