By Claire Stremple
Alaska Beacon 

Governor believes teacher bonuses, charter schools are the answers


March 20, 2024

South Anchorage high school teacher Logan Pitney said his colleagues are making exit strategies to flee their bad financial prospects in Alaska. He called Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s teacher retention bonus plan a “Band-Aid on an arterial bleed.”

Juneau Superintendent Franks Hauser called the governor’s charter school policy change proposal a “statewide solution without a statewide problem.”

They were among dozens of teachers and school administrators who rejected Dunleavy’s education policy proposals at recent legislative hearings in Juneau.

There’s no debate that Alaska has a teacher retention problem. The number of statewide teacher vacancies at the beginning of the school year has more than tripled since 2020.

But the governor’s policy would change how the state tackles the issue. While legislators want to boost state funding to local schools, allowing districts to approve higher teacher salaries, the governor would rather the state pay teachers annual bonuses for three years as an experiment to see if the cash would encourage them to stay.

Alaska Education Commissioner Deena Bishop said that, though studies are inconclusive about the efficacy of bonuses, it is what teachers want.

“We’re looking at if that would be able for us to compete, not only in Alaska with other sectors that teachers can certainly work in, but also in other states,” she said.

Dunleavy recognized the teacher retention issue and assigned a task force to study and address the problem in 2020. Its research found that competitive salaries and a return to the state’s defined-benefit pension system were most likely to keep teachers in their jobs. In a survey of people with active teaching licenses in Alaska, bonuses did not make the top 10 most important reasons to continue teaching, although “annual retention incentives” did.

Dozens of Alaska teachers summarily rejected the bonus plan in testimony before the Senate Education Committee.

Julianna Armstrong retired from the Anchorage School District after a 40-year teaching career. She said she owns a home, has health insurance and can afford modest travel because of her pension.

She seemed to take the bonus proposal as an insult: “Giving out occasional bribes is treating educators like naive children — ‘Look down at all that money in your hand. Don’t look in the distance at your empty future,’” she said. “A lump-sum payment is a lump of coal. You can’t grow old depending on it.”

Chris Heidemann, president of the Juneau Education Association school union, said bonuses are the wrong way to retain teachers. He said students and educators need an increase in the state’s per-student school funding. Without it, he said, districts will have to close schools and lay off teachers.

While bonuses garnered little support in testimony the past two weeks from the people who would get them, there were a couple of teachers who wanted them.

Samuel Abney, a music teacher from Anchorage School District, said teachers should take any kind of money they can get. He cited the dire financial circumstances of his colleagues. “I think any measure that we can possibly get from this governor to get any kind of money that we possibly could — from a Republican governor, in this state is — we should take it and not look a gift horse in the mouth.”

Dunleavy’s other big push is to change state law so that his appointees on the Alaska Board of Education could approve or deny charter schools, with an aim to increase their presence in the state. The proposal would allow the state board to override local opposition to new charter schools.

Charters in Alaska are currently approved by the local school district in which they plan to operate.

Charters generally operate in larger school districts, not smaller communities such as Wrangell.

In a House Education Committee hearing, Russ Simnick of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools said Alaska is one of only five states to use this method. “We find that one of the biggest drawbacks with just allowing local education agencies is they have a lot of times a very traditional mind, and they don’t have the appetite for innovation that charter schools do.”

But in Senate Education Committee meetings, Alaska districts resisted the idea that they need state officials to increase the number of charters.

Anchorage School District Superintendent Jharrett Bryantt said the best way to support the charter schools his district operates would be to increase the state’s student funding formula.

He pointed to one charter in its district that plans to lay off two teachers, two paraprofessionals and a custodian to make ends meet next year.

Fairbanks school board President Brandy Harty has children in charter schools. She said that to her knowledge, her district has not denied a charter applicant and she couldn’t imagine the state doing a better job than the district. “There doesn’t seem to be a good reason to fix a system that isn’t broken.”

The Alaska Beacon is an independent, donor-funded news organization.


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