2022 AASB Fly-In Sunday Luncheon Keynote: Senator Tom Begich

Following is a transcript of Senator Begich’s address to school board members at AASB’s 2022 Legislative Fly-In, Sunday March 20, 2022. In it, he provided a detailed analysis of the session’s political landscape, and the history and importance of reading bills SB 111 and companion bill HB 164, now being considered by legislative committees. His remarks have been lightly edited for brevity. 

Senator Begich explains the history of the reading bill he and Governor Dunleavy originally co-sponsored.

This is a unique and unusual year for Alaska. 

The legislature came into this session expecting to have very little money. After four special sessions we hadn’t resolved the issue of a fiscal plan to sustain Alaska’s future economy. We have depended for many decades on oil wealth used to fund state government. We’ve been lucky because we put a large portion of that money into the Permanent fund, which today is worth about $83 billion. For the past five years, the Permanent fund has produced more income for the State of Alaska’s operations than oil has. In the future, oil and gas is becoming less important, and circumstances in the world today are speeding that up. We can’t rely on oil and gas for the future. We’ll have to rely on our Permanent Fund and some kind of a fiscal plan. 

And yet we have this odd opportunity based on tragedy. The invasion of Ukraine has led to horrific misery in that country. The shelling of children’s hospitals and schools. An invasion that is designed to simply destroy and level cities. The oddity is, we benefit from it in Alaska. It’s like blood money in a way. 

When you face a tragedy you have to see where the opportunity is. 

The invasion in Ukraine has driven the price of oil up to over $100 a barrel. That means we have an increasing amount of resources for the state. At the same time, Congress passed an infrastructure bill with $3.7 billion in direct payments to Alaska, on top of almost half a billion of federal stimulus funding left over from last year. There are also untold more billions in that multi-trillion piece of legislation that is available through discretionary grants, some for education purposes. I have proposed to the Finance Committees that a position be established in the Department of Education and Early Development to assist districts that do not have the capacity to hire a grant writer to help them write local grants for those national monies. As a matter of fairness, it’s essential that smaller districts be able to apply for the same money that the larger districts can apply for, and the governor has indicated some support for this idea. 

What else does opportunity give us?

We know that Alaska schools have been struggling for years. An increase to the Base Student Allocation is being talked about this session, and it’s easy for legislators to say we’ll get it passed. I use a math equation to explain how the legislative process actually works.

To get legislation passed requires 21 votes at a minimum in the House, and 11 votes at a minimum in the Senate. So 21 plus 11 gets you a bill passed. Then you have to multiply it by a veto, which is zero; or a signature, which is a one. 

So if indeed the governor says, “I don’t care that 21 and 11 passed that bill, I’m going to veto it.” Then the math is 21 + 11 x 0 = 0. 

You have to play in the world of reality. It’s easy for people in the House and Senate to promise you a BSA increase, build up your hopes, yet know that without a reading bill, the governor will veto it. That’s actually what the governor has said: there will be no signing of a BSA or additional education money if there is no reading bill. So I’ve been working on a reading bill. 

I began working on a reading bill when we filed the Moore lawsuit. The Moore lawsuit came out of the Kasayulie lawsuit. The Kasayulie lawsuit dealt with construction, but it also set parameters for what the expectation of the education clause for Alaska should lead to. There is an obligation under the 60 words of the education clause of the Alaska Constitution for the Department of Education and the Legislature to fund education in a manner that allows a child to succeed. It’s a constitutional right. 

We won that lawsuit in 2009 and received a settlement in 2010. Fast forward to today. What the Moore lawsuit said was, we must build capacity within the Department of Education, we must look at solutions that work in rural Alaska as well as urban Alaska to ensure a child gets an adequate education. So we’ve spent much of the last six years as a legislature stopping the cuts to education, and beginning to add to education. There have been small increases over the past few years, but they have not been sufficient. 

Though we are political opposites, I worked with Governor Dunleavy and Education Commissioner Johnson to develop an evidence-based reading bill that we both could support. We got trashed by Democrats, Republicans, and the education community for working together on the bill. It was frustrating to me. I didn’t understand why people didn’t want to see fundamental change.

So over the next three years I worked with school districts, teachers, and parents in rural and urban Alaska to craft a bill would get support in the education community. At the same time, two years ago my caucus used all of its political resources to get $32 million added to education. The House and Senate passed that extra money, but the governor vetoed it saying that he will veto additional education money if there’s no reading bill. 

Last year we tried it again. Once again we put $32 million into the education budget, and once again the governor vetoed it, saying he won’t throw money at education without accountability. 

What we know from the evidence of our own communities is, if we do high quality early education that respects local traditions and culture, that builds off of existing programs that are working, and we tie it to simple instruction in reading that allows the district to focus on the needs of a student regardless of what language they’re reading in, and helps enhance their ability to read, we have success.

We know this because for over a decade a number of Alaska school districts have been doing early education in immersion environments tied to strong reading components, and it’s showing. The students who participated in early education programs are outperforming by 8th grade those who did not. These aren’t high stakes tests, it’s simply the ability to read. Without the ability to read, the rest is lost. You cannot acquire a second or third language if you can’t read. If you want to save culture, if you want to build your communities up, you must have children who can read. 

We know that it’s not just the reading or early education components that leads to success. The other thing we’ve increasingly seen is significant amounts of teacher turnover. Part of what happened with the reading bill is that the governor wanted to include a teacher retention component, but we couldn’t get the bill moved in the 2019 or 2020 sessions. So we asked DEED to conduct an in-depth study of teacher recruitment and retention. We looked at what it takes to maintain a teacher in a community and why kids bond with teachers.

You want teachers to bond with a community? We found a number of reasons that stood out:

  1. There’s no defined benefit choice, so there’s no future for a teacher if they aren’t already at Tier I or Tier II in the Teacher Retirement system (TRS). So when they reach the point when they can take their money out, they do, and they go somewhere else. 
  2. They’re not bonding with their communities. That’s on those of us who live in our communities. 
  3. They aren’t getting enough interaction with the local culture to start with, so they were not ready to teach and would give up after a year. 
  4. Adequate teacher housing

We used to “grow our own” teachers in Alaska. We have lost the ability through our university to produce teachers. We’re down by half of what we were producing just four years ago. We thought that was unique to Alaska, but it’s happening all around the country. What can we do here, right now, to make a difference? Our Education Committee is working together to produce a bill that creates an apprenticeship program. The problem we’ve always had is if you’re trying to grow your own teachers using your non-certified staff, there’s no time. They can’t take a full load of classes at the same time they’re trying to teach. This bill will allow more flexibility and a simpler path to certification. 

Back to the Big Picture: Tragedy has led to Opportunity. 

Not only do we have the Federal resources that have come out of the tragedy of COVID-19, we also have the additional oil prices that have come out of the tragedy of Ukraine. That puts us in a unique position this year, to actually fight for these things. But there’s one thing I have to get first, or I can’t get additional money for education: a reading bill. 

If I don’t get a reading bill, I don’t have a dialog with the governor. People think he’ll sign the bill anyway if there’s a BSA increase, but I’m telling you, he’s not going to sign the bill. The governor wants accountability, and he believes the reading bill addresses it. 

Here are the components of the two reading bills, HB 164 and SB 111, that are currently being considered by the legislature. It is worth noting the significant changes that have been made to these bills in recent weeks: 

  1. The bill sets up an early education grants program that doesn’t compete with local early ed programs. If your community already has a Head Start program they’re required to coordinate with each other. Local government determines whether you do or don’t go for the grants program. There are no mandates to apply for grants. If you already have an early education program and submit an application to DEED, if it meets the criteria of high quality early ed and is approved, the next year you roll your Pre-K kids into the formula. That amounts to an actual BSA increase. Developing high quality early education means that when your kids come to school, regardless of what language you choose to teach them in, they are able to socialize, play with others, and learn. 
  2. The bill’s reading component says that there are certain basic fundamentals of reading that apply to any language a student might learn in. Being taught in one language allows a student to acquire the skills needed to learn other languages and, as most immersion schools do, eventually be rolled into learning to read English. Instead of high stakes testing, a screener will observe a student’s progress to see if they are struggling. If so, the screener will work with the student, family. and teacher to determine the best path for the student to learn to read. Progress checks will be conducted at intervals during the year, with additional instruction provided in areas of need that are identified. 
  3. Recognizing that districts don’t necessarily have the level or quality of teachers when it comes to reading, resources have been added to DEED to provide reading specialists. Schools that are struggling can apply for funding to support their efforts. DEED will place a paid employee into your district to work with your district, community, and teachers to enhance their reading skill sets. 

In then Senate version of the bill, SB 111, we’ve added that one of those reading specialists must be proficient in an indigenous language, because it’s a different way of thinking and teaching. It was brought to our attention that this wasn’t being done, so we added that to the bill. If a district wants to develop a screener in another language, the bill requires DEED to provide that screener to you at their cost, not the district’s.

If by third grade a child is struggling, every district currently has a retention policy. This bill says that the parent makes the final call on retention. It defines “parent” with an understanding that the parental unit may not be the unit that’s responsible for that child. It gives a broad definition of parent, similar to ones used in justice law in Alaska to get rid of disproportionate minority confinement in our juvenile justice system, that responds to local culture and character. 

Further, there’s an annual review process in the bill where stakeholders come together and see if it’s doing what it’s supposed to be doing, because we don’t look enough at that process. We’ve included Alaska Native organizations and other organizations that have a vested interest in ensuring that the regulations that are written with this bill are actually robust and mean something. 

What I learned watching the House hearings on HB 164, the companion bill to SB 111, is that there’s no trust with some communities as to what the Department of Education will actually deliver on. That matters. We know that regulation written by the Department of Education, all good intention aside, must have input from people who are living in the communities themselves. They’re the ones who can help make legislation that responds to reality, so that is part of this bill. 

Where is the bill today?

SB 111 sits in Senate Finance, where one Senator has decided he doesn’t want to move the bill because he wants leverage over the House. HB 164 sits in House Education Committee because people have misinterpreted what the bill does, so one representative has chosen not to move forward with the bill. Everyone wants to work with everyone, so we’re trying to come up with a compromise. It’s not even my bill anymore, it’s the Senate Majority’s bill, but every time I try to get to a place of agreement, there’s a new demand that’s put on the bill. 

Here’s what’s likely going to happen.

Because of that debate, we’ll get to the end of session and won’t have a reading bill. What does that mean based on what I’ve said earlier? Does it mean we’ll get an additional BSA increase? The legislature may pass one, but I guarantee you it will be vetoed by the governor. And quite frankly, if I don’t see a reading bill, I might not support a BSA increase either. I’m tired of having stuff I work on get vetoed because people will not act. This bill must be. acted on. It matters. 

Let’s say you don’t like an element of this bill.

Fix it. The following year, and the year after that, because that’s what we’re doing anyway when we pass legislation. 

There is structural change that will need to happen in our education system if we’re ever going to continue. That’s why this year the Senate Education Committee is also looking at Tribal Compacting. We want to try it out and see if it actually makes a difference in communities. Can it work? That’s why we’re looking at teacher retention and recruitment, to expand the pool. We want to grow our own. If it works, we want to know. That’s why we’re exploring not just one thing, but many different approaches to what could work for education.
With that all in mind, the path of opportunity gives me faith that we’ll make the right decisions. 

I do have some uplifting news.

I talked to the governor about the need to finally clear the major maintenance list. We have $191 million of projects on the list. We have one-time money coming in from the Feds that can be used for Capital Budget construction projects. We have a budget surplus of about $2 billion more than we expected. If we clear the major maintenance list, we move forward. If we add grant writer assistance for districts, we move forward. If we actually take the broadband money we’ve been provided and we apply it, think about the transformational change that could lead to.

The governor has also been working on alternative energy. I say that because it ties to your districts. In Lower Kuskokwim school district the energy cost to educate those 5000 kids is as much as Mat-Su school district, which has three times as many kids. Where does the money come from? From your operating budgets. That means it’s not going to instruction or maintenance. If we can find a way to lower those long term energy costs we could make a difference. The governor and I have both been working on legislation that would allow school buildings to be retrofitted so they’re more energy efficient, lowering the costs and increasing the operational ability. The savings are used to pay the private company.

There are opportunities here. 

Capital construction money can free up operating expenses by allowing districts to redirect construction funds. Putting support behind a more robust ability to grow our own teachers, including support to the University of Alaska education program. 

And finally, if we pass a reading bill and move resources into the BSA, it will allow me to say to the governor, “You said if we passed a reading bill, you could support additional education funding. I’m gonna hold you accountable.” This year we are in a position to do it. I may be the Minority Leader, but it was my caucus that made the difference in determining whether or not there was or wasn’t a budget last year, because the Senate Majority is split. This puts us in a position to do this kind of negotiation. It is meaningful. It can make a difference, but I can’t do it without you. 

This before us is the challenge of a generation. The question is whether we will actually use this moment, this opportunity built on tragedy, to transform education. And transformation is not overnight. It is incremental, but it has to start somewhere. Because doing nothing leaves us exactly where we are right now, and that doesn’t satisfy any of you. It’s not sufficient for our parents, It’s not sufficient for our kids, nor is it sufficient for our state. The future must happen now. You’ve taken the risk of time to be on your school boards and to do the heavy lifting in your communities. Now is the time for us to take this challenge to the legislature and say, I know you may disagree but now is the time for us to pass this legislation so that we can have a realistic chance for education funding that will over time transform the state and once again put us at the place we were 35 years ago, which was at the top of the list of education achievement, not at the bottom.

With you, we can do that. Thank you for being here fighting for education. It matters to me, and it matters to all Alaskans. 

Video of Senator Begich’s remarks

PLEASE NOTE: AASB member password required to access videos. Contact Jenni Lefing

Following his remarks, Senator Begich shared some thoughts about Congressman Don Young and requested a moment of silence to acknowledge his passing. 

“He has been a fighter for Alaska. I worked against him in every single campaign he ever ran, but I loved him and cared for him,” Begich said. “He was a friend of mine and we knew each other by first name. He’s connected to my family. As you know, we share as families the common tragedy of death in office, and I will miss him. He was an advocate for all of us.”