Governor proposes parental-rights legislation and teacher retention bonuses

Takes no position on funding increase for public education

While education advocates continue to push for increased state funding to Alaska public schools, Gov. Mike Dunleavy last week opted to introduce proposals that would limit sexual education in schools and impose new requirements on gender-nonconforming students.

The governor at his March 7 news conference did not propose any increase in the state’s per-student funding formula for school districts, essentially unchanged in six years, though he did ask legislative approval of retention bonuses for teachers.

Most legislators have said an increase in state funding for schools is a priority this year — though how much and with what if any strings attached is undecided — while a minority of lawmakers have expressed interest in legislating social issues for schools.

The governor’s measure, which he called “parental rights” legislation, would prohibit teaching sexual education before fourth grade, require written parental permission for children to participate in sexual education after fourth grade, require parents to sign off when a child asks to change their name or pronouns, and require children to use locker rooms and restrooms according to their biological sex.

“Parents need to be able to say whether they want their children part of this or whether they don’t,” said Dunleavy, adding that issues relating to sex and gender are tied to “family values.”

“There should never be a case where a parent sends their kid to school, and the child comes back having discussions about things they learned in school that may be a sensitive issue or an affront to a parent’s values,” the Republican governor said while surrounded by an invited contingent of conservative education advocates and children.

Anchorage Democratic Sen. Löki Tobin said the governor was turning gender non-conforming students — a small and vulnerable group — into “a political football.”

Tobin, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, said, “It really does increase harm to young people. … However you want to slice it, that’s what this bill does.”

The governor’s bill is not expected to win legislative approval, as the bipartisan Senate majority has expressed no interest in taking up such divisive social issues this year.

The proposal got a warmer reception in the more conservative-leaning Alaska House, where the Education Committee is co-chaired by Eagle River Republican Jamie Allard. She called Dunleavy’s proposals “outstanding.”

“Parents have the right to decide what’s best for their children. Not strangers, not educators,” said Allard.

Alaska already has a parental notification statute that allows parents to opt out of sexual education classes for their children. That measure was championed by Dunleavy during his time in the state Senate, before he was elected governor. Allard said that’s not enough. But her co-chair of the House Education Committee, Soldotna Republican Rep. Justin Ruffridge, said he thinks school districts already do a good job of letting parents know about sexual education classes.

Asked at the March 7 news conference whether he saw his measure as a condition for increasing state funding to public education, Dunleavy called it “a hypothetical” situation. “We’re just introducing this approach now, so we want to give a little time so we have the discussions and we’ll see what occurs.”

Some lawmakers suggested that the teacher retention bonus could lessen the urgency for an overall funding increase, even as education advocates wondered whether one-time bonuses could meaningfully address schools’ difficulties in attracting other essential workers.

“Yes, we have a teacher recruitment and retention problem, but we have a bus driver recruitment and retention problem, we have a superintendent recruitment and retention problem. Principals, administrators, clerical, classroom aides, paraprofessionals, nutrition specialists,” said Tom Klaameyer, president of the National Education Association of Alaska, the main union for public school teachers.

“While the gesture means well, it doesn’t fully address the problem like fully funding a base student allocation increase and adjusting it for inflation,” he said. “That’s a structural fix, rather than a temporary fix of bonuses for three years.”

The retention bonuses proposed by the governor — at $5,000 per year in urban school districts, $15,000 per year in smaller and more remote districts, and $10,000 for districts in the middle, such as Wrangell — would be paid in July of each year, 2024 through 2026.

Dunleavy said the goal would be to study the impacts of the bonuses at the conclusion of the three year period.

Allard said the teacher retention proposal, which would cost the state $58 million over three years, would “guarantee that the funds stay in the classroom.” Conservative lawmakers have repeatedly questioned whether too much education funding is spent on administrative costs, even as educators have produced finance reports indicating the vast majority of expenses count as classroom spending.

Regardless of the governor’s retention bonus proposal, Senate majority members last week reiterated their commitment to advancing an education spending boost this year. There already are two proposals before the Legislature: A Senate bill to increase state funding by 17%, about $250 million a year, and a House bill that would boost funding 20%, $321 million a year. Dunleavy has not endorsed either proposal.

The legislative proposals would bring at least an additional $600,000 a year to Wrangell schools.

The governor’s proposals dealing with gender and sex education raised emotions in the Capitol last week.

Rep. Andrew Gray broke into tears on the House floor as he described how the bill could impact gay kids whose sexual orientation is rejected by their parents — as he had experienced growing up.

The bill “hurts children, specifically gender non-conforming children like I once was,” said Gray, an Anchorage Democrat, who is gay. “To those kids, I want to say … you are no one’s shame, you are not your parents’ property — you are your own person.”

Anchorage Republican Tom McKay, who has introduced a bill prohibiting transgender girls from participating on girls’ school sports teams, expressed support for the governor’s intent.

“I’m a big advocate of parents’ rights,” he said. “As a father of five my children belong to me, they do not belong to the school. And when it comes to sex education and changing sexes and naughty books in the library, and so on and so forth, I believe parents have every right to know what’s going on in the schools they pay for.”

Conservative groups in Alaska celebrated the prospect of limiting kids’ exposure to lessons about the LGBTQ community.

Jim Minnery, president of the conservative Christian group Alaska Family Council, which supports the bill, said the legislation is meant to target what they see as public schools’ attempt to advocate for LGBTQ rights.

“It’s just been known for a long, long time that the LGBT activists are so intent on confusing little kids’ minds,” said Minnery. “It’s fired up so many people that say, just stop the insanity.”

 

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