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Legislation the key to future educational Tribal compacting

Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy's administration has been discussing plans for possible legislation with federally recognized Tribes that will allow for educational tribal compacts in Alaska. During a presentation and listening session last month, the governor gave examples of what that could look like in rural Alaska communities.

Department of Education Project Coordinator and Tribal Liaison Joel Isaak describes exactly what tribal compacting is.

“A compact is an agreement between governments that allows for flexibility through the negotiation process by creating a unique, tailored agreement that can meet specific needs of a situation,” Joel Isaak said.

When asked about the specifics of educational compacts, Isaak had this to say:

“In this case the need is education, and it allows for the innovation and flexibility at a systemic level for Tribes and local communities to address the educational needs for themselves,” Isaak said.

Western Alaska has not utilized educational compacts to create new State-Tribal Educational Compact Schools or STECs before. But, even if this becomes an option through proposed legislation, there are concerns about implementation.

Bering Strait School District, for example, currently does not have plans to implement a STEC school. As BSSD Superintendent Bobby Bolen explains, there are some challenges that can hinder a district wanting to start one of these schools.

“We have talked about in the past some type of language-immersion school, but in a district the size of ours it’s difficult," Bolen said. "Where do you locate it is? Is there land available in the villages or by bringing them to Unalakleet or even Nome; a central location? Some of the challenges [are] obviously housing. Is it boarding school? It’s tough to board K-3 students without parents. Things like that.”

Nome Public Schools’ Superintendent Jamie Burgess weighs in on the added challenges stacked against creating a tribal school in Nome.

“Part of our challenge (is) which Tribe would be responsible," Burgess said. "Would it be Nome Eskimo Community? Would Solomon and Council and Wales weigh in? We have many of our students that are here and part of our district that are actually from our surrounding villages, so would it be a consortium somehow?”

Even if NPS had a plan to implement a STEC school, compacting discussions between the governor’s office and Tribes have not progressed further.

In an email, Rochelle Lindley the Public Information Officer for the Department of Education and Early Development states that there has been no new progress since the discussion sessions in Anchorage and Fairbanks last month.

But the conversation about educational tribal compacts could continue in the Legislature.

Senator Gary Stevens has pre-filed SB136 which, in its current version, allows for admissions and employment to prioritize tribal members at STECs. It also mandates that “not later than one year after the effective date of this Act, the commissioner of education and early development shall establish an application and approval.”

This bill is scheduled to be introduced on the floor of the Alaska House during the second regular session.

The benefits may not end there either. Isaac goes on to reference a Canadian study that links knowledge of indigenous language to suicide rates. Isaak says the study concluded that when half or more of the tribal members in the community spoke the local, indigenous language, the suicide rates dropped, “effectively to zero.” According to Isaac, the baseline suicide rates in the study were comparable to ones in Alaska.

Sandra Kowalski, the former Director of Indigenous Programs at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and a former K-12 principal, speaks to why tribal compacting is desired in the first place.

“Quite often, students are in a classroom that reflects a curriculum and a language and an approach that doesn’t reflect who they are and where they come from,” she said.

Isaak echoes Kowalski’s sentiment, adding that in the education realm, compacting allows families to be more engaged as well.

According to the Department of Education’s website, the DoE believes when STECs are established, “Tribes have greater ownership and local control over education, [and] student outcomes in their communities will improve.”

While there is no plan to create a new school in Western Alaska, under a potential tribal compact, Burgess says the plan for an Inupiaq immersion kindergarten class in Nome is still on track to start next year. She goes on to stress that compacting is voluntary, referencing Bethel’s immersion school, Ayaprun Elitnaurvik, as an example of what can be implemented through tribal compacting.

According to the superintendent, the Bethel school was a model the governor mentioned as an example. This is the same school that Joel Isaak says has a peak ELA score that is approximately 50 percent higher than all other schools in the district.

While the future of educational compacting is in the Legislature’s hands, and the timeline remains uncertain, the public can still go to the DEED’s website to share their input on the process.

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