JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) – The Alaska Senate unanimously passed a full reading and pre-kindergarten invoice Tuesday, but he faces an uncertain future in the House of Representatives.
The bill, estimated to cost about $128 million over the next decade, would help implement universal, voluntary pre-kindergarten across Alaska over several years. Existing programs could be improved and school districts could compete for grants to create new ones.
There would be a new “read by 9” curriculum, adapted from initiatives in Florida and Mississippi, which tries to ensure that all students can read before leaving third grade. If students cannot read enough by then, their parents will be asked not to promote them or that they undergo 20 hours of intensive reading instruction.
The 40-page bill, known as the Alaska Reads Act, also contains provisions to hire six reading specialists to train teachers in Alaska’s 53 school districts. It would also establish a virtual education consortium to establish online learning programs for students and teachers.
All programs and provisions of the bill would end after 10 years, unless extended by the Legislative Assembly.
Sen. Tom Begich, D-Anchorage, helped carry the Alaska Reads Act for more than two years after unveiling an earlier version with Gov. Mike Dunleavy in 2020. He urged its passage on Tuesday.
“We are in a position to potentially change the game in education today,” he told the Senate.
Begich attempted to clarify what he called “misinformation” about the Alaska Reads Act. He said pre-K programs would be voluntary for districts and there would be no “high-stakes” tests for children. He said it was about establishing a proven “philosophy” for improving reading scores.
“He’s doing things that we need to do if we’re going to start changing the curve of how we raise our kids,” Begich said.
Another key figure in drafting and moving the bill forward was Senator Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer. She called it a “game changer” and believes it is “landmark legislation” to improve reading scores. But, she expressed her disappointment that the rules for promotion to fourth year were not stricter.
Alaska has long marked the bottom of the states for reading assessment scores. In 2019, less than 40% of students in Alaska got the grade in English.
Last week, the House passed an operating budget with a $57 million increase to the student funding formula and a plan to fund K-12 education a year up front. But that planned increase could be vetoed if it lands on Dunleavy’s desk.
“Governor Dunleavy has consistently said, in his veto messages on additional education funding over the past few years, that until a Reading With Accountability Bill is passed, he will not support any new funding increases,” Jeff Turner, spokesman for the governor’s office, said Tuesday.
The House has its own reading bill, which has not moved from the House Education Committee. Current plans would see it spend more on reading intervention initiatives, but there is no updated cost estimate for this bill.
There has been some skepticism in the House about the Senate bill, particularly about whether it will benefit rural Alaska and whether enough funds have been set aside to achieve its Goals.
Democratic Representative Grier Hopkins of Fairbanks, a member of the House Education Committee, raised those concerns on Tuesday.
“Our schools need these supports,” he said of the House’s plans to increase funding for schools. “We can’t just throw a whole new political agenda at them without the endorsements and the funding, or we’re just going to rob Peter to pay Paul.”
Rep. Andi Story, D-Juneau, is co-chair of the House Education Committee. She echoed some of Hopkins’ concerns and said a reading bill could “complement” the House-approved school funding increase.
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