It’s not just about libraries any more. Sponsors of the “Educational Bill of Rights” want to ensure that Alaska’s lawmakers know what defines a quality education, as they seek to meet their constitutional obligation to “establish and maintain a system of education open to all students.” (Flickr photo/LeeAnn Weishaar)

UPDATE, December 6, 2019: Petition organizers Alaskans for Excellent Public Education, suspended this ballot initiative campaign. In a news release, they wrote:

We now know that using the ballot initiative process for an issue as large and complex as the Alaska Students’ Education Bill of Rights is not feasible at this time. The public education community in Alaska is extremely broad, and Alaskans for Excellent Public Education (AEPE) underestimated the amount of enthusiasm from parent organizations, school boards, and other education groups who wanted to be part of this process. Unfortunately, many organizations whose contributions would have created a more comprehensive and successful initiative were not included. As a result, AEPE will be stepping back from the initiative process effective immediately.

Original report

With another battle over school funding in Alaska shaping up for next year, some residents are taking a closer look at the state’s obligation to educate its children. A ballot initiative petition called “Alaska Students’ Educational Bill of Rights” was approved by Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer on September 30, and is now circulating in Sitka and the state’s other urban centers.

On sidewalk, with signature-gatherer… “I have a petition here defining what a quality education is. Would you like to sign it?”

Rebecca Himschoot is standing on the curb outside of Sitka High School on a cold, wet evening, gathering signatures for an initiative that she and other educators would like to see on the primary election ballot next August. She teaches English as a Second Language (ESL) students in the elementary schools, and is a former member of the state Board of Education.

Simply put, Alaska’s constitution requires the state to “establish and maintain a system of public education open to all children of the State,” but it’s silent on what that system really means.

Himschoot says this initiative will spell it out in statute.

“This document is going to statutorily require the State of Alaska to provide wonderful things like voluntary, high-quality pre-K for every kid regardless of whether you’re on the road system or a rural place,” said Himschoot. “It’s going to make sure our schools should offer things schools should offer: Like librarians, nurses, world language — including Tlingit language — and it’s going to make sure we have a system of higher education in the state.”

That last point about the University isn’t arbitrary. The same clause in the Alaska Constitution that requires a school system also requires the state to have a university. Earlier this year, Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy attempted to slash 41-percent of the University of Alaska’s budget, which caused many to wonder if that would harm its faculty and accreditation to the point that it wouldn’t really be a university anymore.

Those same questions surround deep cuts to public education, which the governor has shown a clear appetite for.

While Rebecca Himschoot is on the curb outside, Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins is inside Sitka High School, holding a town hall meeting with residents. 

He says that no one’s ever really tested Alaska’s constitutional mandate for education in this way.

“There hasn’t been a case in Alaska history litigated over a categorical inadequacy,” Kreiss-Tomkins said. “Like, all statewide K-12 education is inadequate because government is under-funding K-12 education.” 

The legislature and the governor have already gone to court to fight out their differences over so-called “forward funding” of education — the ability of the legislature to appropriate funding for schools one year, that will be spent in the next. Kreiss-Tomkins anticipates that if the governor uses his veto power to cut too deeply into education funding, more lawsuits are inevitable.

 “I wouldn’t be surprised if a case is brought against the governor and/or the legislature for failing to provide for an adequate education,” said Kreiss-Tomkins, “if the cuts are so severe that they compromise the adequacy of public education. Like, if there’s a 25-percent cut to K-12 education, I think those are strong grounds for litigation saying this is now inadequate public education.”

Kreiss-Tomkins said the governor would likely try to find a fulcrum — a balance point — where he could still make a significant cut to education, without alienating the 16 members of the legislature who can protect him from an override.

On sidewalk at Sitka High, gathering signatures…

Rebecca Himschoot hopes that scenario never comes to pass. In fact, she says the ballot initiative sponsors wouldn’t mind if the legislature embraced the idea of an Education Bill of Rights, and ran with it.

“There’s a very good chance that the legislature would see the will of the people,” said Himschoot, “and choose to take their own steps that parallel this ballot initiative, and not require us to vote on it.”

Backers of the Alaska Students’ Educational Bill of Rights have registered under the name “Alaskans for Excellent Public Education.” They hope to obtain 28,501 signatures by mid-December, and to see a proposition on next August’s primary election ballot.