Alaska’s newest education commissioner discusses trans athletes, increasing child literacy and reducing turnover

A woman with glasses posses in front of a forest background.
Deena Bishop outside Alaska Public Media’s studio on Wednesday afternoon. (Matt Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

This week marks one month for Deena Bishop in her role as Alaska education commissioner. Before Bishop, 53, was appointed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy, she spent more than three decades in education, including tenures as superintendent of the Mat-Su Borough and Anchorage school districts — the two largest districts in the state. 

In a lengthy interview this week, Bishop discussed her goals for education, including increasing teacher retention and improving reading for students. She also discussed the controversial decision by the state board of education to exclude trans girls from high school girls’ sports.

Listen to the full interview:

Here are some of the key topics Bishop touched on: 

Bishop defends state board of education vote on transgender girls in sports

Last week, the Alaska Board of Education unanimously voted to approve a ban on transgender athletes participating in girls’ high school sports. The regulation says that schools that participate in the Alaska School Activities Association — the governing body for high school sports — must limit participation on high school athletic teams to “females who were assigned female at birth.”

Bishop said she doesn’t see it as a total ban on trans girls participating in sports.

“It is just mentioning that school districts that choose to have a ‘female only’ team, that they would be biological females or females assigned at birth,” Bishop said. “And it is in line with Title IX, and actually the new guidance for Title IX given out by the Biden administration that shares that for competitiveness and sports.”

Asked what she would say to transgender students who now can’t participate in sports based on their gender identity, Bishop pointed to current examples of girls competing on boys’ high school sports teams, like hockey.

“There is girls’ hockey in Alaska. But some girls are more competitive than others,” Bishop said. “And they have tried out for the, you know, traditional boys’ hockey team. And they’ve made the team and they played goalie in state championships. And so there are instances that the way I want to identify, the way I look, I can continue to look and identify that way, and still be competitive in sports.”

But the board’s decision on transgender athletes has been blasted by others, including Jharrett Bryantt who took over the Anchorage School District superintendent job from Bishop. In a statement, he and the School Board President Margo Bellamy questioned why the board was so focused on the topic, when there are so many other challenges facing public schools.

Alaska Reads Act implementation

The Alaska Reads Act, touted by Gov. Dunleavy, was signed into law last year, and went into effect in July of this year. It provides funding for pre-K programs, uses reading screeners to identify students falling behind and gives grants to low-performing districts.

Bishop says 1,100 teachers from across the state have been trained to implement the program, and literacy screenings began across the state this week. She says students who are shown to be far behind in reading will be given an individual reading plan, aimed at catching them up. It could include additional tutoring or other classes.

“The competencies and capacity that Alaska teachers are building in the science of reading is going to really impact, in a great way, students’ ability to read,” Bishop said.

School funding

Under Gov. Dunleavy, education spending has been relatively flat, with minimal increases to the Base Student Allocation — the amount of money per student each district gets. With no adjustment for inflation, flat funding has essentially equaled a decrease in education spending. Districts have been able to leverage federal money, such as CARES Act funding, to keep their budgets stable, but that funding will soon run out. The Legislature voted to infuse $175 million into schools as a temporary boost this year, but Dunleavy vetoed half that amount.

Bishop was superintendent of the Anchorage School District in 2019, when Dunleavy proposed a massive cut to education spending across the state. At the time, she was a major opponent of the cuts. Now, as Dunleavy’s education commissioner, she says school funding needs to go up. 

“It’s very evident that the BSA, and with the testimony, that we’re going to look at that,” Bishop said. “And that needs to be increased, especially when the CARES money in those fund balances go away.”

However, she noted that she believes in the “value of our investment” and wants to ensure that the money the state is spending on education— among the highest per capita in the nation —  is generating the educational outcomes it wants. 

“I know that when we demonstrate the evidence that the Reads Act will give us with the efficacy of learning and kids improving, that I don’t think there’ll be a question whether we should invest in public education in Alaska,” Bishop said.

Teacher retention

Hiring and keeping teachers has been a constant problem in Alaska, especially in rural communities. Dunleavy began a pilot program this year to give bonuses to new teachers, between $5,000 and $15,000 depending on where the teacher works. Additionally, Bishop was a proponent of a “grow your own” teacher model during her time heading the Anchorage School District, and she says she’d like to see a similar model statewide. 

“In Mat-Su, they’re working with kids directly from high school to be interested. Same with Anchorage,” Bishop said. “In some rural areas, again, like I said, they’re working with their paraprofessionals who might have some college but not all, helping them get the general education requirements, and then working through innovative programs, through our universities or other systems that can help broaden the aspect of how does one become certificated in Alaska.”

a portrait of a man outside

Wesley Early covers Anchorage life and city politics for Alaska Public Media. Reach him at and follow him on X at @wesley_early. Read more about Wesley here.

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