Many Alaska charter school principals oppose Dunleavy’s plan for state approval option

Academy Charter School in Palmer.
Academy Charter School in Palmer on March 1, 2024. (Tim Rockey/Alaska Public Media)

Gov. Mike Dunleavy is pressing lawmakers to pass his plan for a new state process for approving charter schools. He’s threatening to veto the bipartisan education bill overwhelmingly passed by the Legislature — partly because that provision, as well as bonuses for teachers and increased accountability measures, weren’t included. 

“We need to work on the charter school part so that we can ensure that anybody that wants to attend a charter school can do that so there’s a couple things we have to work on,” Dunleavy said at a press conference in late February. “We’ve got half the job done but if it’s just going to be about money and nothing else I’m not interested in having this bill become law.”

A Harvard study recently ranked Alaska charter schools first in the nation. That’s a fact Dunleavy has repeatedly touted as justification for his charter school proposal. He’s also highlighted waiting lists for students who want to attend charter schools.

Currently, groups seeking to start a new charter school must apply to the local school district first, then take that application to the state Board of Education for final approval. If Dunleavy’s proposal is approved, those applicants could go directly to the state board.

Alaska Public Media asked nine current and former charter school principals whether they support the governor’s plan. Just one principal fully supported Dunleavy’s proposal to allow charter schools to be approved by the Board of Education, which he appoints.

Cody McCanna is principal of Aurora Borealis Charter School in Kenai. He doesn’t think it’s a good idea.

“Should (the) charter school approval process just go right through the state board instead of our local school districts? That should not happen and I can tell you why — that is a recipe for disaster,” McCanna said.

Nearly all of the charter school principals who shared their thoughts on Dunleavy’s proposal favor the existing approval process through their own school districts, and many had further questions about allowing an additional approval process at the state level. Although charter schools mostly operate independently without direct school district oversight, many rely on their local districts for bussing, facilities and logistical support.

Students at Alaska Native Cultural Charter School hold up letters that read "quyana" during an assembly.
Students at Alaska Native Cultural Charter School hold up letters that read “quyana” during an assembly on Feb. 20, 2024. (Tim Rockey/Alaska Public Media)

McCanna said that on the Kenai Peninsula, district administrators help new applicants understand the impacts that a new school might have on the existing schools in the district, and work with the groups to improve their application. McCanna said without initial approval from the district, charter schools would struggle to get going. 

“That local control, I think, is really important,” McCanna said. “If that’s not the case, what I’m afraid is going to happen is we’re going to be diluting the quality of charter schools in Alaska.”

Lisa Leeper, the principal at Anvil City Science Academy in Nome, has over two decades of experience in Alaska charter schools. She said that rural charter schools would also struggle without the foundational support of their local school district.

“I think going straight to the state level without approval of the district would cause a lot of confusion and issues in the rural areas,” Leeper said. 

Six of the nine principals Alaska Public Media talked to for this story say they support the charter school provision the Legislature passed in February. The bill creates a coordinator position within the state Department of Education and Early Development to support charter schools with navigating state regulations. Principals say that currently, questions about state regulations or legal issues are often answered by the Alaska Association of School Boards. If the Legislature’s bill becomes law, the charter school coordinator would then become responsible for handling those issues.

Barbara Gerard has been principal at Academy Charter School in Palmer since it opened in 1996. She said DEED used to have a charter school coordinator position that was cut due to budget constraints over a decade ago.

“I am in full support of having a coordinator,” Gerard said. “I think it’s a really important piece of charter schools and having that accountability.”

Currently, applicants that are denied by their local school district can appeal that decision to the education commissioner. Local school districts can revoke a charter if they stray from the school’s mission, and that decision cannot be appealed to the state.

Dunleavy declined an interview request for this story. In an email, Dunleavy said he “wants to increase the availability of charter schools. By providing a streamlined authorization process, new charter schools could enroll their first cohort of students sooner. If there were an equilibrium of charter school demand and charter school supply, this proposal would be moot, but demand is greater than supply.”

The governor’s press office recommended an interview with Jessica Parker, who was the principal at one of the largest charter school programs in the state until 2023. The Family Partnership Charter School in Anchorage served nearly 2,000 home schooled students in the city. The Anchorage School District revoked its charter last year due to dysfunction on the school’s Academic Policy Committee. 

Parker said allowing another option for charter school approval would increase accountability.

“Everyone was pretty shocked when this happened,” Parker said. “I think it brings to attention the need for some type of alternative, so that if this were to happen, again, there could be some kind of remediation.”

Dunleavy has until March 14 to veto the bipartisan education bill the Legislature passed at the end of February, or it will become law without his signature. The bill includes the first substantial increase in years to the per-student funding provided to school districts.

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

Previous article‘Tons can happen’: Iditarod teams mush into race’s second half
Next articleWhat to know about the political debate around daylight saving time