Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy

The state Legislature is past its halfway mark to adjournment on its 120th day in mid-May, and some contentious issues are now shaping up.

One is on a bill that would extend a state health emergency declaration that expired in February. Gov. Mike Dunleavy introduced the bill but now opposes it.

Another is over a new education bill that establishes new pre-kindergarten, or pre-K programs along with special initiatives for early learning. The governor supports those, at least the early reading part, but Republican state senators are pushing back.

On Thursday the state House debated the bill extending the state health emergency declaration that expired in February. Passage of House Bill 76 by the House bill will set up a clash with the state Senate and Dunleavy, both who support a watered-down bill reestablishing some, but not all, state health powers that were lost when the emergency declaration expired.

One power lost with the expiration of the emergency was mandatory testing at airports. A spike in infections in Petersburg, in Southeast Alaska, is being linked to travelers arriving with infections that are no longer being detected.

The mandatory tests were also a way to spot dangerous variants of COVID-19 that are now entering Alaska undetected.

“The emergency declaration is just a legal tool,” that allows the state to mobilize emergency resources, said Jared Kosin, executive director of the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association, which supports the extension. “There’s no downside. Why wouldn’t you do it even if it provides just one benefit,” in fighting the pandemic,” he asked.

Opponents, mainly conservatives, have locked onto the emergency extension as a symbol of government intrusion on personal liberty, however. That has fueled a powerful pushback from Republican legislators.

Dunleavy originally introduced the bill in January but has since backed away from it. Senate President Peter Micciche, R-Kenai, opposes the extension of the emergency declaration because it hands too much power to the executive branch, he said. Early in 2020 when the pandemic first hit state officials didn’t know how serious it would be and decided to give the governor maximum authority as a contingency, particularly since the Legislature had to prematurely end the 2020 session because of COVID-19.

The situation has now changed, Micciche said. Infection rates have dropped, vaccines are now available, and the state has moved from emergency to recovery mode. Recognizing that, a more targeted response is now justified, giving the governor just what he needs through statute changes rather than blanket authority through an extended declaration.

Meanwhile, in another development last week the Senate Education Committee introduced a major education bill last Wednesday that financed expanded pre-K learning for young children as well as an early learning initiative focused on reading, a priority for the governor. Alaska has some of the nation’s lowest reading scores among children.

However, there is already sharp criticism developing because of provisions in the education bill that “sunset,” or terminate, the pre-K programs after a few years. School districts, particularly in rural Alaska, can hardly be expected to make long-term investments in teacher training and recrwuiting if they know the funding won’t be there for the long term,” said Sen. Tom Begich, D-Anch., the Senate minority leader.

Another criticism is on a “hard” or required retention provision in the bill for third grade children whose reading skills aren’t up to standards, meaning that the children will be held back and nor permitting to enter fourth grade.

Currently, school districts have retention provisions, but these have some flexibility so that children can be coached to catch up on reading without suffering the discouraging stigma of being held back.

“The research shows that retention does not work,” as an incentive, said Norm Wooten, with the Alaska Association of School Boards. “What does work is intervention,” to help slow learners, he said.

Education advocates presented national studies including some from Alaska showing that investment in learning at early ages allows children to maintain competency in reading and even math skills through higher grades and reduced dropout rates in high school.

However, achieving this requires sustained investment including giving elementary teachers training in teaching reading. Experts from Florida and Alabama, which have developed highly-successful literary programs for young children, told the Senate Education Committee in hearings that stop-and-go funding of pre-K erodes any gains in children’s’ reading skills after a short period.

A concern of Republican senators on the education committee is the long-term cost of sustained pre-K in a time when the state faces huge fiscal uncertainties.

Also, there appears to be skepticism among Republican senators that pre-K is worth the cost. Sen. Tom Holland, R-Anch., who chairs the committee, told colleagues that he is not convinced that pre-K delivers improved reading skills despite research from universities and independent researchers and the experience of several Alaska school district including Lower Kuskokwim, Nome, Mat-Su and Anchorage.

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