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article imageAlaska's education system under fire, rural students lagging

By Nikki Weingartner     Feb 11, 2009 in World
Either shape up or we will do it for you is what an Alaska Superior Court Judge ruled at the end of last month during a decision surrounding the lawsuit Moore vs. State of Alaska. Rural children entering elementary are years behind urban children.
In a court case filed back in 2004 (Moore vs Alaska pdf) between some rather frustrated parents and the State of Alaska over the educational disparity between what the state defines and what it actually provides, Superior Court Judge Sharon Gleason ruled at the end of January that the State would have 60 days to improve the conditions for rural students or else the court may very well make the decisions for them. According to the Anchorage Daily News, the state has a duty to step up when the school board is failing at its job.
In the lengthy decision, Gleason stated that Alaska as a state continued to deny its students an education under the state's Constitutional right. Expert testimony in the case showed that children in some rural areas stepping into the educational scene were up to three years behind those from urban areas like Anchorage
[In the]Yupiit School District, 75 percent of new kindergartners lack beginning reading or writing skills, according to testimony by Diane George, the district assistant superintendent
With literacy being linked to academic success and the extreme difficulties associated with being able to catch up later on, it has left the state of Alaska looking rather unconcerned about equality for all children in the state.
The problem with the children isn't a new one, as many teachers have said they can identify those who are at high risk for dropping out of school when they show up for kindergarten not knowing how to identify even basic colours. And although that isn't the single identifying marker, it does serve as part of the cumulative process in identifying future dropouts.
The state of Alaska ranked at the top of the list in the percentage of high school drop outs, with the last recorded data showing a nearly 8 percent drop out rate, double the national average. Alaska also came in last place for the probability that freshmen will go on to obtain an undergraduate degree within ten years.
Gleason explained in her decision that excuses within the communities themselves are unacceptable and do not "diminish" the state's duty to all children. Those excuses being extreme weather conditions in remote areas, significant costs associated with isolation for some of those rural students and even supplies and materials. In reality, Alaska has many small towns that are inaccessible by road and many speak languages other than English, including the local Native American tongue. Residents in the state also see one of the highest rates of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome due to the state's problem of alcoholism.
Currently, the state has around 50 districts serving the public education of children.
Alaska has two months to get a hold of its failing system through hiring more teachers, revamping its curriculum, providing pre-school for at risk rural children or whatever it takes to get the vast majority of students on par with the promises it makes in its guidelines. If they fail to comply, she can take specific action and that will be out of the Commissioner of Education's hands. Of course, it all comes down to funding and what the state legislature will approve.
Could this end up being another case of unfunded mandates? The next two months could prove interesting.
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