Alaska Senate authorizes work on pilot project for schools led by tribes

A man in a suit talks to other men in suits
Joel Isaak, Tribal Liaison for the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development, testifying on Senate Bill 34 in the Senate Education Committee. (Olivia Ebertz/KYUK)

The Alaska Senate on Monday passed its version of a bill that would clear the way for the state and tribes to begin work on education compacting.

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 Native students. 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 Alaska Department of Education and Early Development originally proposed a bill to allow a series of pilot project schools. Under its version, the schools would have opened as soon as the fall of 2023.

The bill approved by the Senate gives the state education department and tribes more time to flesh out what the pilot projects will look like. 

The bill also sets a firm deadline for tribes to sign up to be a part of the pilot program: Dec. 31, 2022. Once the schools and tribes have plans in place, the education department will have to present its final plans to the next Legislature.

Joel Isaak, the department’s tribal liaison, 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.

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.

The Alaska Senate’s tribal education compacting bill is part of a larger effort this year by the Legislature to tackle poor student outcomes in the state. 

House and Senate committees have also considered improving student achievement through secondary trade schools, bilingual education and reading standards.

The Senate passed Senate Bill 34 with only one nay vote from Sen. Lora Reinbold, R-Eagle River. Reinbold said 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,” Reinbold said. “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, etc.”

Several tribes from the Yukon-Kuskokwim 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, House Bill 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.

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