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State Senate authorizes work on Tribal education compacting pilot project

Joel Isaak, Tribal Liaison for the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development testifying on the bill in the Senate Education Committee.
Olivia Ebertz
Joel Isaak, Tribal Liaison for the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development testifying on the bill in the Senate Education Committee.

On April 4, the Alaska Senate passed its version of a bill that would clear the way for the state and Tribes to begin work on education compacting. The Senate’s bill has been updated to give Tribes more time to plan out pilot projects and will now head to the House.

The bill, SB 34, was originally written to allow the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development to allow a series of Tribal compacted pilot project schools. Under this version, the schools would have opened as soon as the fall of 2023.

The Senate Education Committee substituted it with another bill that gives the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development and Tribes more time to flesh out what the pilot projects will look like. The bill also establishes a firm deadline for Tribes to sign up to be a part of the pilot program. Once the schools and Tribes have plans in place, the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development will have to present its final plans to the next Legislature.

Alaska Department of Education and Early Development Tribal Liaison Joel Isaak said that this extra time is critical for the Tribes to plan the schools they want, and to get legislators on board.

“The immediate effect is the time to scope, the time to come up with a plan, and it brings Tribes directly into the process,” said Isaak.

The bill says that five schools will be chosen for the pilot projects and, if all goes well, they could open as soon as fall 2025.

In Tribal education compacting, Tribes can tailor their students’ education to their own needs and hopefully address low rates of graduation and attendance in Alaska Natives. Tribal-education compacting in Alaska is based on the success of Tribal-compacted schools in Washington state.

According to a study done by Evergreen State University, students at three compacted schools in Washington showed improvement in the following areas: graduation and retention rates; reputation; enrollment; teacher recruitment and retention; and student connection to culture.

This Tribal education compacting bill is part of a larger effort this year by the Alaska State Legislature to tackle poor student outcomes in Alaska. This legislative session, House and Senate committees have considered improving student achievement through secondary trade schools, bilingual education, and reading standards.

The Senate passed SB 34 with only one nay vote from Eagle River Sen. Lora Reinbold. Reinbold said that she opposed it on the grounds that she doesn’t understand how Tribes get their members.

“The head of AFN tried to define how Tribal members are brought into a Tribe, and no one could give me clear guidelines. I guess each Tribe gets to bring in members how they wish. When they want sovereignty and when they wanna create their own schools, we need to know exactly what the Tribe is, what they stand for, who’s allowed to be in, etcetera,” said Reinbold.

Several Tribes from the Y-K Delta have expressed strong interest in Tribal education compacting. Isaak said that list includes, but is not limited to: Hooper Bay, Akiak, Akiachak, and Tuluksak. He said the that Association of Village Council Presidents is also interested.

The Senate bill will now head to the Alaska House of Representatives where it will meet up with its House counterpart, HB 351. The House version differs from the Senate version, but the two will likely be reconciled in the House. Both the Alaska Federation of Natives and the Alaska Department of Education support the Senate’s version of the bill.

Copyright 2022 KYUK. To see more, visit KYUK.

Olivia is a News Reporter for KYUK. She previously worked in the film industry in New York City. Her documentary films have screened at festivals worldwide. In 2020 she was an artist-in-residence in Petrozavodsk, Russia. She speaks English, Norwegian, Italian, Spanish, and Russian with decreasing fluency in that order.
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