6 things to know about Alaska charter schools and why they’re No. 1 in the nation

Alaska Native Cultural Charter School Principal Sheila Sweetsir asks a student a question during the morning assembly on Feb. 20, 2024.
Alaska Native Cultural Charter School Principal Sheila Sweetsir asks a student a question during the morning assembly on Feb. 20, 2024. (Tim Rockey / Alaska Public Media)

A recent Harvard study found Alaska has the top-performing charter schools in the country, and Gov. Mike Dunleavy has taken note.

“There are models of excellence, and in Alaska we are the top of the United States in charter schools,” Dunleavy said during a December press conference. “I hope that’s the headline somewhere at sometime: ‘Alaska’s charter schools are No. 1.’ We’re going to find out and see if we can duplicate that for all kids.”

While education advocates are pressing for an increase to the Base Student Allocation — the per-student component that largely determines how much money schools get from the state — Dunleavy said he would not approve an increase to the BSA without changes that would expand the number of charter schools, among other conditions.

Alaska Public Media spoke to six charter school administrators. Here’s what we learned about these schools.

1. What is a charter school? 

All charter schools in Alaska are public schools. State statute prohibits charter schools from being religious, and charter schools must accept special education students. What sets a charter school apart from a neighborhood public school is how they are governed and run. In neighborhood schools, districts make decisions about curriculum, staffing, facilities and transportation. But charter schools manage operations by themselves. Each charter school has an academic policy committee that serves the same function that the local school board serves for neighborhood schools.

Members of academic policy committees are parents, teachers and school employees. 

Some charter schools require parental involvement, often in the form of volunteer hours at the school. All charter schools require families to apply for their students to attend. They cannot charge tuition. When applications exceed a charter school’s capacity, state law mandates that students will be drawn at random. 

Anchorage School District Director of Charter Schools Jason Hlasny said families seek charter schools for a variety of reasons. 

“Maybe they are looking for something more structured, or they want a standards-based approach or a German immersion approach, and I think that makes it successful,” Hlasny said. “It’s its own community with its own governing board, and it’s almost like a mini district within a district.” 

A charter school enrollment graph
Alaska charter school enrollment from 2010-2023 (Alaska Department of Education and Early Development)

2. How many charter schools exist in Alaska, and where are they? 

Alaska has 30 charter schools, most of them in Southcentral. Seven charter schools serve students off the road system, and Western Alaska has just three. Charter school attendance has steadily increased in Alaska. The state’s 7,000 charter school students make up 5.5% of the student population.

The nation’s first charter school opened in 1991 in Minnesota. The Alaska Legislature passed legislation permitting charter schools in 1995. A 2001 bill raised the cap on the number of charter schools from 30 to 60. A 2010 bill removed the cap altogether. Unlike other states, Alaska does not allow for-profit charter schools. 

Anchorage is home more than one-third of all Alaska charter school students. Twindly Bridge Charter School in the Mat-Su is the state’s largest, with 584 students. 

Charter schools often operate in buildings that were not designed as schools. State law says school districts must offer charter schools a chance to lease space in an existing school district facility if that building is safe and suitable. 

3. How are charter schools funded? 

When charter schools launch, the state provides a one-time grant of $500 per student. Then charter schools receive money for each student who attends, according to the Base Student Allocation formula, in the same way that other public schools do.

Neighborhood public schools have parent teacher organizations that are able to fundraise for specific activities and clubs, and they retain autonomy over how those funds are spent. Similarly, charter schools can raise money through their academic policy committees or parent organizations.

Charter schools have greater flexibility than neighborhood schools in how they spend school funds. Charter principals can spend money on curriculum or other school programs without district approval. 

Anchorage STrEaM Academy started operating in 2016 and is the newest charter school in the Anchorage School District. Principal Adam Mokelke said it’s the only charter school in Anchorage to give preference to students who live nearby. 

“If we were at the exact same school we are now but a neighborhood school, we’d have the same exact funding,” Mokelke said. 

4. What standards do charter schools need to meet before they’re approved? 

Charter schools in Alaska face a rigorous approval process to get started. Groups that wish to start a charter school must first apply through their local school district, at least one year before they plan to open. The application must show “how it will specifically differ from other educational options available in the community.” 

If the local school district does not approve the charter, the group can appeal the decision to the state. After district approval, charter schools go through the state application process, which includes a review committee. Anvil City Science Academy Principal Lisa Leeper said their charter application to Nome City School District was just seven pages, while the state application was nearly 200 pages.

Approved charter applications then go to the State Board of Education and Early Development for approval. Charter approvals last 10 years. While the state can approve a charter school after a local school district has rejected it, the school district may close a charter school at its own discretion. 

Joshua Gill is the Principal at Ayaprun Elitnaurvik in Bethel, a Yup’ik immersion charter school. Gill won the National Distinguished Principal Award from the National Association of Elementary School Principals last year.

“Our current process is essential. I think that’s what makes us successful,” Gill said. “You need your local school board on board, and the state. And that’s how come we’re successful, because you have those checks and balances, and they’re needed. They’re needed to keep our schools operating at a high level.” 

Alaska Native Cultural Charter School students gather at the start of the school day.
Students at the Alaska Native Cultural Charter School in Anchorage gather at the start of the school day. They recite the pledge of allegiance in English and Yup’ik. (Tim Rockey/Alaska Public Media)

5. Who goes to charter schools? 

There are no statewide demographics on charter schools.

But charter school principals and other experts say transportation barriers and the application requirement often favor students from wealthier families. Just one of the Anchorage School District’s eight charter schools has more low-income students than the state average. Just five charter schools statewide serve more than the state average of low-income students, and three are in rural Alaska. 

The state does not require charter schools to provide transportation, and each school district has its own transportation policy. Charter school principals say a lack of transportation often prevents parents from choosing a charter school.

“When we talk about diversity in charter schools … transportation is a limiting factor for that,” STrEaM Academy Principal Adam Mokelke said. “Low-income families are going to have a harder time figuring out how to drive their kids to school than, you know, families with more means.” 

When establishing a charter, groups can designate a specific population of students they intend to serve, such as the Rilke Schule German School of Arts and Sciences in Anchorage or the Fronteras Spanish Immersion Charter School in Wasilla. 

6. Why do Alaska charter school students perform better than their neighborhood school counterparts? 

Many factors contribute to the overall success of charter schools in Alaska. Principals of charter schools often credit their dedicated teachers and involved parents, as well as support from their local school districts. 

The Harvard study used data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress from 2009-2019. The NAEP tests are given to a selection of fourth- and eighth-grade students every other year. The authors produced the first ranking comparing charter student performance among states. They did not research why performance varied.

“It is possible that results are skewed in some way by the challenge of controlling for Alaska’s distinctive Indigenous population, which makes up about 20% of K–12 students,” the study said. “However, Stanford economist Caroline Hoxby found Alaska among the top three states in an analysis conducted on scores in 2003.” 

Study co-author Paul Peterson said Alaska’s top ranking surprised him. 

“Alaska has had a lot of experience with non-traditional ways of reaching students,” Peterson said. “So maybe that’s why it’s easier for Alaska to move into the sector than it’s been for other parts of the country.”

Charter school principals all point to two factors that they believe can help boost achievement levels in charter schools: faculty and parents. Schools that require an application to attend and potentially a volunteer component often attract parents who are already engaged in their students’ education. Charter school principals also point to the longevity and involvement of their teachers in developing and administering curriculum that they feel passionate about. Charter school staff are able to take more ownership over what they teach and how they teach it, which can improve student outcomes. 

Tim Rockey is the producer of Alaska News Nightly and covers education for Alaska Public Media. Reach him at trockey@alaskapublic.org or 907-550-8487. Read more about Tim here

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