School Funding Cases in Alaska

in Alaska Litigation

Historical Background

Kasayulie v. State

In 1997, plaintiffs filed an “adequacy” and “equity” suit, Kasayulie v. State, 3AN-97-3782 CIV, against the state of Alaska, claiming that the state’s method of funding capital projects for education violates the education clause and the equal protection clause of the Alaska Constitution and the implementing regulations of Title VI of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The rural parents and school districts who brought the case had alleged that the state’s financing formula for school construction discriminated against rural students, many of whom were Alaska Natives, in violation of the Alaska Constitution and Title VI of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964. They also alleged that inadequate funding of rural schools was a breach of the state’s obligations under the public school land trust. The core problem seemed to be that many rural districts lacked the legal authority or the ability to pass local bond issues for capital construction and thereby to gain access to state funding for debt reimbursement that was available to many urban districts.

In 1999, the Superior Court granted plaintiffs’ motion for partial summary judgment, holding that Alaska has a dual, arbitrary, unconstitutional, and racially discriminatory system for funding school facilities. It also held that education in Alaska is a fundamental right.

In March 2001, the Superior Court rejected a motion from the state to reopen the Kasayulie decision, concluding that the new information the state submitted reinforces the court’s prior findings. After the 2001 decision, the state allocated significant funds for construction and renovation of rural schools. However, it did not change the unconstitutional, dual system of facilities financing.

Because the 2001 decision was not a final, appealable order, the case remained on the court docket but was inactive for many years. In February 2010, several rural lawmakers and Republican Governor Sean Parnell renewed efforts to improve facilities for schools represented in the Kasayulie v. State case by utilizing Fiscal Year 2010 budget surplus funds.On October 4, 2011, the 14-year old lawsuit was settled, after the legislature approved funding to pay for the replacement or repair of schools in five remote Western Alaska villages.

Moore v. State

In 2004, a different set of plaintiffs filed a lawsuit against the state ( Moore v. State ), alleging the state’s education finance system is inadequate and inequitable in funding operating costs.

The trial court in Moore v. State ruled on June 21, 2007 that “Alaska’s funding of public education…comports with the Education Clause” of the state constitution, but that “the State has violated the Education Clause” because it “has failed to identify those schools that are not according to children a meaningful opportunity” and has failed to provide “a concerted effort to remedy that situation.” The court also ruled that, “because the State has failed to meet this component of its constitutional responsibility,” it is an unconstitutional violation of due process to require students to pass the state exit exam to graduate from high school. “It is fundamentally unfair,” Superior Court Judge Sharon L. Gleason wrote, “to hold students accountable for failing this exam when some students in the state have not been accorded a meaningful opportunity to learn the material on the exam.”

Judge Gleason said the state was failing to provide sufficient oversight of school districts with low test scores. Despite a tradition of local control of schools, she wrote, the Legislature is responsible under the State Constitution’s Education Clause for providing students “the opportunity to acquire the basic tools they need to succeed in both traditional and global societies.”Judge Gleason stayed judgment in the case for one year, giving the state an opportunity to remedy the constitutional violations.

Based on an extensive evidentiary hearing, on February 4, 2009, Judge Gleason held in a further decision that the State of Alaska was not meeting its constitutional responsibility to “maintain a system of public schools open to all children of the State.” Specifically, the judge found that the State Education Department was not providing sufficient oversight and assistance to schools in chronically underperforming school districts. These deficiencies included, among other things:

• A failure to insure that each school district’s curriculum is aligned to the State’s standards

• A lack of attention to content areas not covered by the State’s standardized testing

• Limited interventions that are not addressed to the specific strengths and weaknesses of each chronically underperforming district

• Inadequate consideration of pre-k and other intensive early learning initiatives

• Failure to address high teacher turnover and teacher inexperience

The Court ordered the state to file with the court revised district intervention plans that address each of the problem areas identified in the findings.

The State then submitted extensive evidence claiming that it had now complied with the Court order. In a further “Order on Review of 2009 Submissions” issued on March 31, 2010, Judge Gleason disagreed with the defendants and required them to submit detailed plans regarding how deficiencies will be corrected in each of the remedial areas she had previously identified. At the same time, the Court rejected plaintiffs’ proposal to appoint a special master “at this time,” warning, however, that if “these continuing constitutional violations cannot be promptly remedied after this Order, then the Plaintiffs may renew their request for a special master.”

In March, 2012, the parties settled the eight-year Moore v. State of Alaska case. The settlement provides a one-time appropriation of $18 million to be distributed to forty of Alaska’s lowest-performing school districts. Districts must apply to be granted funding. Twelve million dollars will go towards teacher retention and remedial efforts to help students pass the high school exit exam. At least $6 million will go towards two-year kindergarten and literacy programs for pre-k aged children. The funding is intended to last for a minimum of three years. This money will be distributed by the Department of Education and the “Moore Committee”—a six-member committee appointed by the Department of Education and the Citizens for the Educational Advancement of Alaska’s Children (CEAAC). A seventh, non-voting member chairs the committee. The recipients of funding must adhere to established “best practices” and accountability measures and set improvement benchmarks.

Recent Events

A Superior Court judge in Alaska ruled in December 2014 that a state mandate requiring local municipalities to make education funding payments directly to their respective school districts violated the state constitution.

Costing Out

Remote, sparsely populated school districts in Alaska incur significant costs due to their isolation and extreme climate. In 2002, the Alaska state legislature released a cost-of-education study that it commissioned to calculate educational costs in the diverse geographic regions of the state for: personnel; energy; supplies, materials, and small capital items; and travel. This study updated a geographical cost-of-education index developed in 1998.

Last Updated: January 2015

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