The Public Charter School Impasse

Lon Garrison, AASB Executive Director

Unfortunately, the campaign for increased funding for public education has reached an impasse with the governor’s insistence on reforming the charter school approval process. This reform would allow charter schools to bypass the approval of local school districts and instead go directly to the State Board of Education. It is the first and most significant step in a plan to reduce the power of local authorities and provide opportunities for private and religious schools to access public funds. AASB strongly opposes this reform through its resolutions.


AASB recognizes charter schools as a locally developed alternative to the standard education program. AASB urges the Department of Education & Early Development to work in partnership with local school districts in the formation of new charter schools. AASB supports charter schools as long as the local school board:

a) Retains the sole authority to initiate the approval or rejection of the charter;
b) Retains options to terminate the charter of any school that fails to meet criteria set forth in the charter or as otherwise specified by the local school board;
c) Maintains authority to require and enforce accountability, including determining the criteria, standards, or outcomes that will be used in establishing the charter;
d) Ensures that a charter does not foster racial, social, religious or economic segregation or segregation of children with disabilities.

AASB has a long history of supporting local public education opportunities, such as charter schools, correspondence schools, alternative schools, and other special public school programs, that meet the diverse needs of students and their parents or guardians.

Public charter schools initiated by local parents and staff and approved by local school districts and the State Board of Education (AS 14.03.253) have stood the test of time (since 1995). Charter schools continue to thrive in Alaska because of the close relationship with the local school district and the support it can provide. Charter schools in local districts are exempt from “the district’s textbook, program, curriculum, and scheduling requirements” (AS14.03.255). They are self-governed within the district by an elected academic policy committee (APC), which includes the staff, parents, students, and community involved in the school’s operation. 

Charter schools approved by local school boards are responsible for hiring and managing their school staff. However, they are required to comply with all other district policies and regulations. This way, they can focus on the educational program they were created for and rely on the support and oversight of the school district to ensure that their business operations, education laws and regulations, human relations policies, and collective bargaining agreements are carried out appropriately. It is worth noting that almost all of Alaska’s public charter schools continue to thrive through the collaboration and support of local school districts.

The governor and his administration have argued that establishing more charter schools would significantly enhance student outcomes throughout the state. While AASB acknowledges that charter schools can offer a more personalized approach to student learning, they tend to be relatively small, usually accommodating 300 students or less. These schools typically feature considerably lower student-to-teacher ratios and often require parents to volunteer. Moreover, most charter schools do not provide student transportation, so parents are responsible for it. Research has demonstrated that combining smaller class sizes with parental or guardian involvement can enhance student outcomes, whether it is a charter school or not.

Governor Dunleavy, Commissioner Bishop, and the Alaska Policy Forum contend the only way to address this massive backlog of demand for charter schools is through direct application and approval by the State Board of Education. Only by eliminating the local control (and the assistance) of a local school district can we bring the emancipation of the underserved charter school community into the light.

In a recent podcast with a national charter school researcher, Paul Petersen, of the Harvard University Program on Education Policy and Governance, Commissioner Bishop noted that the success of Alaska’s charter schools is mainly due to the strong relationship between school districts and charters. In her words, the teachers and principals are our colleagues, and the students are all our students within the district. When Mr. Peterson was asked during his presentation to the House Education Committee earlier in the year about whether to make the state board an authorizer, he replied, “Why fix it if it is not broken?”.

The governor and the education commissioner have espoused that a “waiting list” of “thousands” of students exists. According to them, this list of unserved students results from a slow, complex, and overly burdensome application procedure through local school boards.  This is a false narrative. The application and process are a product of DEED and the State Board of Education. The application is thorough and somewhat complex because it needs to be. Creating a school, its management, governance, accountability, and compliance with state and federal laws and regulations is no simple task. School districts governed by locally elected school boards have the experience and required policies that can provide support for successful charter schools.

The purported “waitlist” of thousands of students does not exist. Recent inquiries by AASB with all school districts that have charter schools revealed the following results:

  • Alaska’s 30 charter schools as of October 2023 served 6,758 students
  • Approximately 975 students are listed as being on charter school waitlists. In some districts, such as Anchorage, students can request to be on multiple waitlists simultaneously; thus, this statistic may not reflect the actual number of students.
  • The 975 students on a waitlist represent ~14.4% of all charter students or 0.76% of all K-12 students in the state.
  • While most schools generally have a cap of 200 to 300 students, fulfillment of the cap is sometimes not attainable due to facility capacity or a lack of staffing.

AASB believes that the application process for new charter schools can be improved and the timeframe for approval significantly shortened. The Department of Education and Early Development can do more to support and encourage applicants.  AASB has suggested that a dedicated staff member within DEED is needed to support charter schools better. AASB has offered to work with DEED to host seminars introducing parents and staff who want to start a new charter school. AASB already provides model policies and bylaws for charter schools and hosts a charter school governance academy every other year. AASB is ready to support locally approved public charter schools because they are an important option for student success.

In closing, AASB opposes allowing the Alaska State Board of Education to become a sole charter school authorizer. This is a move away from local control and, more importantly, excludes local collaboration that sets the stage for a successful public charter school and successful student outcomes.