Alaska's Rural Districts Settle Lawsuit; Win Additional Funding

Last Updated: February 23, 2012

This article appeared in the February 2012 Rural Policy Matters.

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After eight years of litigation, and ten months of discussions between a group of plaintiff school districts, the Alaska Attorney General, and Alaska’s Commissioner of Education and Early Development, the Moore v. Alaska funding adequacy lawsuit has ended. The Citizens for the Educational Advancement of Alaska's Children (CEAAC) non-profit organization represented the legal interests of the plaintiff group in the talks, which included three rural districts and NEA-Alaska. Under terms of the settlement, $18 million will be provided to the 40 lowest-performing schools in the state. Once the Alaska Legislature approves the money, CEAAC will formally drop the suit. (Editor’s Note: CEAAC was led for many years by Spike Jorgenson, long-time rural school leader, activist and stakeholder in Alaska, and close colleague of Rural Trust.)

Charles Wohlforth, current CEAAC Executive Director summed up the settlement this way, “So, have we solved all the problems with rural education in some of our schools in Alaska? Well, I think the answer would be no. Eighteen-million is clearly not going to be enough to solve this broad span of problems,” he said. “But I think what we’ll do — and the commissioner alluded to it — we’re going to demonstrate some programs, we’re going to work on them collaboratively, and we’re going to see that they work. We’re going to prove that this is the right way to go — and there’s new hope for kids in rural schools across Alaska.”

Mixed verdicts

The Moore adequacy challenge was filed in 2004. In it, rural plaintiffs and districts claimed that major achievement gaps in test scores in their schools demonstrated unconstitutional underfunding. In the 2008 hearings in the case, the state claimed that problems in the schools often stemmed from troubles within the communities.

In her 2008 and subsequent follow-up rulings, Judge Sharon Gleason found the state finance system did not violate due process or state constitution’s education clause. She did not order additional funding but instead mandated greater oversight over low-performing districts largely in rural areas of state. (Read previous RSFN coverage here and here.) However, she noted that students were taking — and failing — high school exit exams for which they were not prepared. Gleason found that the state should provide pre-kindergarten, and also wrote that difficult community conditions do not “diminish the State’s constitutional duty.” Rural districts welcomed the intervention, noting that the state had the resources to address schools' needs.

Settlement and ongoing discussions of remedies

The $18 million in state funding will be allocated in two categories: $12 million will go to targeted projects, teacher retention and remedial efforts to help high school students meet graduation requirements, and the remaining $6 million will be reserved to set up two-year kindergarten literacy programs. A selection and monitoring committee composed of CEAAC and Department of Education nominees will work with the rural districts who will apply for the funding.

Meanwhile, the Alaska Legislature continues to struggle with the intervention mandate of Moore. A law passed in the wake of the decision provides the Department of Education authority for a number of actions with districts with very low-performing schools, including teacher training and extra help for students in reading and writing. However, mirroring arguments across the country about mandated school reforms, the first district in Alaska to be appointed a trustee, Yupiit District, has told legislators they are not being included in decision-making. In response, a bill has been filed to remove intervention authority, which Education Commissioner Mike Hanley is opposing.

Read more:

Local coverage of the settlement:

See the CEAAC website to read the settlement agreement and other lawsuit-related documents:

Howard Trickey, long-time attorney for the plaintiff districts, and other lawsuit stakeholders appear in a press conference that describes the history of the case here:

Coverage on the debate about intervention activities:

Read more from the February 2012 Rural Policy Matters.