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Bill heading to governor creates roadmap for establishing Tribally operated public schools

James Brooks
Alaska Beacon
Alaska state Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, is seen in the Alaska State Capitol on Wednesday, May 18, 2022.

A bill that creates a roadmap for establishing Tribally operated public schools has passed the Alaska Senate and House, and is headed to the governor’s desk. Senate Bill 34 directs the Board of Education and Early Development to work with Alaska Native Tribal entities on an agreement that would formally recognize the Tribes’ authority to operate and oversee K-12 schools.

“This creates an option for self-governance in the delivery of culturally relevant place-based education in Alaska, essentially empowering Tribes and their communities to have a direct role in transforming systems and providing the cultural support many students need to succeed,” Bethel Democratic Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky said on the House floor Tuesday night. The body voted 37-2 to pass the bill.

SB34 had already passed the Senate April 4. “The state-Tribal education compacting is a tremendous opportunity, I believe, to embrace the Alaska Indigenous history, its culture, its language and put that into our curriculum for these schools, not just for Alaskan Natives, but for all students in our state,” bill sponsor Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, said on the floor that day.

(Editor's note: This story was originally published on Wednesday, May 18, 2022, by Alaska Beacon. It is republished here with permission under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.)

The bill does not create the compacts or the schools. Instead, it establishes a timeline and lays out a process for the creation of up to five demonstration schools open to all students. Through that process, Alaska Native Tribal entities and the state Board of Education and Early Development would reach a compact, or an agreement, that sets forth the terms and conditions of the relationship, and formally recognizes the Tribe’s authority to operate and oversee K-12 schools. That proposal then goes to the Legislature.

Joel Isaak-Łiq’a yes said SB34 brings Tribal voices into the process – along with the state, the school district and teachers union: “So that what the Legislature is seeing is something that comprehensively accounts for these voices in a way that has not been seen previously in our state.” Isaak is project coordinator and Tribal liaison for the Department of Education and Early Development, and spoke during the May 6 House Education Committee meeting on the bill.

“When Tribes are coming to the table, there’s trust. We’re able to start at a very firm foundation that the state is committed to this work. Because historically in Alaska, there hasn’t been the most positive relationship between Tribes and public education. So we’re really taking that historical knowledge as informing this process as well,” Isaak said.

Tribes from across the state have expressed interest, according to Isaak, “and now that we have something that’s solid, we’ll have to see who goes through the process and works with us on this.”

About Alaska Beacon: Alaska Beacon is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Alaska Beacon maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Andrew Kitchenman for questions: Follow Alaska Beacon on Facebook and Twitter.