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Opinion: A legislative path to accountability for schools

  • By Mike Bronson
  • Wednesday, March 1, 2023 5:26pm
  • Opinion

The last time families took the state to court for inadequate instruction, they lost. In Moore v. Alaska, from 2004 to 2012, Judge Sharon Gleason heard evidence from the state’s defense lawyers that 60-80% of students were proficient in math and reading. With that, she said legislators largely met their constitutional duty to maintain an adequate school system.

Although she denied most of the claims of inadequate instruction at the time, Judge Gleason went ahead and defined a legal floor for education adequacy. She made clear that the Legislature is responsible under the constitution to maintain adequate schools, although it can delegate some of the work to school districts and the education board.

Judge Gleason’s criteria for education adequacy might interest us more now. She wrote that bad conditions within a community do not diminish the state’s constitutional duty to maintain a system of public schools open to all children of the state. The judge also said “if basic learning is not taking place for a substantial majority of a school’s children, then the Constitution places the obligation upon the Legislature.”

She used Arkansas as an example. Its supreme court had said Arkansas was not meeting its constitutional duty to provide adequate education because it had low student scores and abysmal education rankings. Judge Gleason applied that approach to Alaska and made academic success a barometer of school adequacy. She explained that funding for public education becomes inadequate if it does not “accord to children a meaningful opportunity to be educated.”

Not long after Judge Gleason found Alaska schools were generally adequate, however, student scores turned worse. Performance no longer resembled the evidence she earlier had accepted as proof that schools were generally adequate.

What happened? In 2014, the Alaska education department raised the reading and math standards up to other states. Student scores fell by half. The Legislature stalled its school funding. Class sizes ballooned. Student proficiency fell further. Reports now show that about 75,000 out of Alaska’s 128,000 students don’t become proficient, and that the state ranks abysmally nationwide. Only 30-40% of students can do math and reading at their grade level.

What do you think a court would say now about whether the Legislature is maintaining adequate schools?

How to account for school adequacy

Judge Gleason’s decision may show a path toward legal accountability for school adequacy. Her findings in Moore v. Alaska point to math and reading proficiency as the main criterion whether the Legislature has “accorded a meaningful opportunity to acquire proficiency to all children” as the constitution requires.

The Legislature could forge a path to constitutional compliance for itself. It could develop a statewide plan focused on math and language proficiency. For example, to improve their own public schools, thirty other states have conducted adequacy studies. The studies vary in their methods, but they support school funding decisions by legislatures and legal decisions by courts. The so-called successful schools method, for example, first defines success and then finds the most successful local schools. Success is generally academic scores, graduation rates and attendance rates. Then the means for bringing other local schools up to the levels of the successful schools are calculated.

Anchorage schools looked at the adequacy of their instruction a few years ago. Their national consultant, Picus and Odden Associates, recommended several changes to make academic gains, and listed the costs. They mainly recommended hundreds more classroom instructors. The results were based on local professionals’ suggestions, a close look into the classrooms, and data on successful schools elsewhere. The Anchorage schools reduced its faculty and raised class size rather than putting the improvement plan into play. But perhaps a statewide plan for instruction adequacy using a similar evidence based approach based on successful schools could offer the Legislature a path to accountability under the constitution.

• Mike Bronson is a parent and volunteer for the Anchorage branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He is not related to the mayor.Columns, My Turns and Letters to the Editor represent the view of the author, not the view of the Juneau Empire. Have something to say? Here’s how to submit a My Turn or letter.

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