As Alaska lawmakers continue to deliberate on how best to fund the state's public schools, Gov. Mike Dunleavy has repeatedly touted a national study published last fall that ranks Alaska's charter schools as No. 1 in the nation, in contrast to other public schools in the state.
Dunleavy has used that study to back his education priorities: Asked last week during a news conference what it would take for him to pass an education funding package, Dunleavy said, "We're going to support things that work well, like charter schools."
Charter schools are tuition-free, independently run but publicly funded schools that families choose, often through a lottery process with lengthy waitlists. In Alaska, there are 31 charter schools, mostly in the state's urban areas. They operate under a contract with a local school board.
The governor has previously said he would veto any education bill passed by the Legislature that simply increases public school funding and doesn't include a plan to establish more charter schools, among other provisions. He has also said that Alaska charter schools "crushed" other local public schools in test scores.
In his State of the State speech last month, Dunleavy said, "This past November, research from Harvard confirmed that Alaska's charter school system is the best in the country. That's right. You heard correctly. Alaska's charter school system is leading the nation. This fact should be a cause for celebration."
But the study, published in November, is drawing scrutiny from Alaska lawmakers, school officials and researchers — including many who are pushing to increase the state's Base Student Allocation — who expressed concern that that national study could have an outsized impact on state education policy despite its small sample size and other limitations.
"I am concerned that we overreach on this conclusion that charter schools are the solution for improving school performance, rather than taking a hard look at why" some schools are performing so well, said Diane Hirshberg, director of the Alaska Institute of Social and Economic Research.
The study tracks how a relatively small number students performed on one test over a decade — a little over 2,400 students who took the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, between 2009 and 2019. Alaska student scores account for less than 2% of the study's data.
In interviews this week, researchers and school officials pointed out the uniqueness of Alaska's charter school students compared to Lower 48 peers, which they say makes apples-to-apples comparisons between states difficult.
They also noted demographic differences in Alaska's broader student population when compared to charter school students, and described in-state barriers to accessing charter schools: In Anchorage, for example, no public buses transport students to schools, while some don't offer free or reduced-cost school lunches.
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