Published September 2019

Director Ralph Townsend in his officeAlaska’s Constitution requires the state make public education available to all children, and, like most states, Alaska spends a lot on K-12 education. Using data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Annual Survey of School System Finances, Alaska’s cost per pupil is $17,838. While this is 46% higher than the national average of $12,202, if we take into account factors outside the control of the education system, including the high cost of living across Alaska, our “adjusted” cost per pupil is very close to the national average.

For all states, K-12 spending is one of the largest state and local government expenses. Even without adjusting for Alaska’s high cost to deliver education, in 2015, Alaska state and local expenditure on K-12 education, as a percentage of total government spending, was lower than the national average: 17.3% compared to 21.5% (2015 U.S. Census Bureau’s State and Local Government Finances).

What does this mean for our students? Given the high costs of delivering education in Alaska, the state’s current fiscal crisis, and the importance of education to our state and students, it becomes even more important that educators and stakeholders have the best information upon which to make decisions about spending education dollars.

ISER researchers, including Dayna DeFeo, director of ISER’s Center for Alaska Education Policy Research (CAEPR), Professor of Education Policy Diane Hirshberg, and Research Professional Trang Tran, are studying the costs and challenges of Alaska’s education system.

As part of our commitment to provide relevant research on topics of immediate concern, we look at some of the education issues we’ve been studying, including  the cost and rate of teacher turnover, high school graduate rate trends, and issues around the  historical marginalization of Alaska Native students and creating culturally relevant practice.

High costs of living and small school sizes contribute to the expense of operating Alaska’s K-12 system.

Alaska has nearly 130,000 K-12 public school students in just over 500 public schools distributed across urban and rural communities. CAEPR Director Dayna DeFeo provided a presentation for legislators, with input from Matthew Berman, Diane Hirshberg, and Alexandra Hill, that considers some of the factors contributing to the cost of education in Alaska. The state has a legal responsibility to fund schools with ten or more students. More than 90 schools, mostly in rural areas, have 50 students or fewer. The high cost of living in small rural communities, small class sizes, and high turnover among teachers and principals make these small schools costly to operate. Throughout the state, high health care costs drive up the cost of benefits and put downward pressure on wages under fixed school budgets. Energy costs differ greatly throughout the state, with rural expenditures for fuel and electricity an especially high education expense. ISER has also released a paper summarizing the analysis.

Addressing teacher turnover, which costs more than $20 million a year, is not just about increasing salaries.

ISER researchers have been studying teacher turnover for many years. While there is some improvement, rural districts still experience about double the turnover of urban districts – about 20 percent compared to 10 percent, according to a presentation by Professor of Education Policy Diane Hirshberg for the Alaska Municipal League earlier this year. The cost to the state overall is at least $20 million a year, according to the recent cost of teacher turnover report, by Pam Cravez, Diane Hirshberg, Dayna DeFeo, and Trang Tran.

While Alaska-prepared teachers and principals are more likely to stay in their position than those prepared outside of Alaska, they are also more likely to be employed in urban districts. From 2008 to 2012, 65% of teachers hired by districts statewide were from outside Alaska.

In “Growing our own: Recruiting Alaska’s youth and paraprofessionals into teaching,” CAEPR Director DeFeo and Research Professional Trang Tran explore strategies for recruiting locally.  These strategies include encouraging high school students to go into teaching and providing in-service paraprofessional educators a pathway to be certified to teach.

DeFeo, Hirshberg, and Hill’s study on recruiting and retaining teachers in rural Alaska cautions that salary is not the most important factor in reducing turnover. Tenure policies, as well as administrative, student, and community support are also very important, according to Berman, DeFeo, Hirshberg, and Hill’s teacher salary and benefits study.

In a recent article, DeFeo and Tran discussed how rural superintendents are employing place-conscious leadership practices to attract teachers to their communities.

High School graduation rates increased between 2010 and 2016 but are still below the national average.

A recent review of Alaska high school graduation rate trends by Trang Tran and Alexandra Hill shows that between 2010 and 2016, Alaska’s graduation rate grew faster than the national average, increasing 8 percentage points, and was among the top 10 rate increases in the country.  All demographic groups improved, with Native, low-income, and rural student rates growing the most. Additionally, the gap between high and low achieving groups decreased significantly. Still, Alaska’s graduation rate remained well below the national average in 2016. And, due to Alaska’s shrinking student population, the total number of graduates decreased.

Alaska Native student achievement reflects systemic and historic inequities.

While 22 percent of students statewide are Indigenous, they comprise about 80% of student enrollment in the state’s rural schools and are very likely to have teachers who are not Indigenous since less than 5 percent of certified teachers in Alaska are Indigenous. These systemic inequities are part of a long legacy of historic marginalization, colonization, and assimilation and reflected in student achievement outcomes. The four-year high school graduation rate for all Alaska students in 2016-2017 was 78.2 percent, but for Alaska Native and American Indian students it was 68.9 percent, the lowest of all ethnic subgroups.

ISER’s Diane Hirshberg and Research Professional Suzanne Sharp wrote about the effect of historic inequities in the state education system in their report about boarding schools.  Although Alaska’s Constitution requires the state to maintain public schools open to all students, it wasn’t until the 1970s that the state provided local high schools in many Native villages. Until then, children in Native villages without high schools were sent away to boarding schools and homes, some thousands of miles from their homes.

Hirshberg recently edited and contributed to “Including the North,” a University of the Arctic book that looks at the policies on inclusion and equity in the circumpolar north. While historic and systemic inequities are difficult to address, partnerships and collaborations among researchers and communities are among the steps being taken to improve Indigenous student outcomes and create a system that better reflects the cultures, places, and environment of the state.  Hirshberg and DeFeo are collaborating with community members and researchers on projects designed to improve Indigenous student outcomes.

The topics addressed here are just a small part of the education research and projects at ISER. I urge you to look at the CAEPR website where you’ll find additional research on college and career readiness, teacher supply and demand, and Indigenous and Arctic education. Contact our researchers with your questions.  As always, ISER is here to provide relevant research to support the best policy decision making.

Ralph Townsend's signature

Ralph Townsend

ISER Director