Racism’s Frontier: The Untold Story of Discrimination and Division in Alaska

Chapter 2


Nothing, and I mean nothing, is more important for the families in our state and for the future of Alaska than education. The hopes and dreams we have for our children, and many of us for our grandchildren and our communities, begin with a quality education.[1]

Since the first wave of non-Native settlement in Alaska, the state’s educational system has undergone a series of transformations, from the early religious catechism schools established by Russian explorers to the creation of a “western” public school system in the early years of U.S. occupation. In each education system, the population that was most neglected was that of the Alaska Native. Before statehood, public school participation was limited to white children and children of mixed blood who led a “civilized life.”[2]

It was not until 1962, three years after statehood, that a memorandum of agreement was signed between Alaska and the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs recognizing public education for all residents as a state responsibility. The state and federal governments worked together, with local involvement, to develop a plan to transfer schools to state control.[3] In the 1980s, the federal government relinquished all operational responsibilities, resulting in an educational system dependent on the state’s economy and political will, which often have been unfriendly to rural Native interests. According to one scholar:

No other education policy issue raises such concern and threatens to divide Alaskans as much as delivering education programs to Alaska Native students. This political lightening rod is intertwined with issues of Native cultural survival, Native self-worth, scars left from insensitive practices by non-Natives trying to “educate” Native Alaskans, the many arguments about the quality of education Native students receive, their low academic performance, the extremely high cost of service delivery, and the state’s return on the twenty year investment in locally delivered rural high school programs.[4]

Testimony of educators, parents, and government officials alike confirms that the education system in Alaska today remains plagued with inequities, with Native students falling far behind other students in both opportunities and outcomes. According to one state senator, the problems of discriminatory practices in education are long and complex, and there are no easy explanations for how or why the condition has deteriorated. She noted that the dismal educational situation is due in great part to “misconceptions, old ways of thinking, lack of political will, and a poorly informed and sometimes apathetic public.”[5]

Others recognize that the state’s educational system has deeply embedded problems that need to be resolved before any real change can be accomplished. According to one forum participant:

[T]here’s a big problem here in Alaska of what I term “educational racism” in schools . . . and it really needs to be addressed in order for our children ever to hope to someday get the education that they’re going to need to get the type of jobs or to be able to get into a position where they someday can be a policymaker or a lawmaker. It starts with education. It’s just not happening.[6]


The effects of the disparities in resources and educational opportunities can be most clearly seen in differing levels of student performance across the state, and across racial and ethnic groups. As the following will illustrate, not only do minority students in Alaska score lower on standardized tests, they receive lower grades and have lower overall levels of academic achievement.

Because of the dire need for education reform, the state of Alaska recently instituted a Quality Schools Initiative to promote high academic standards for all students and quality assessments aligned to those standards; high quality school standards; quality educators; and networking and partnerships between family, community, business, and the university.[7] Under this initiative, the state of Alaska instituted the Alaska High School Graduation Qualifying Examination (HSGQE), which is in the trial stage and will take effect in 2004, and the Alaska Benchmark Examination, which is given in grades 3, 6, and 8. The high school qualifying exam includes sections on reading, writing, and math. Students must demonstrate proficiency in each subject to receive a high school diploma.

The gradation and benchmark testing is intended to hold teachers and administrators accountable for ensuring that all students learn basic skills so that they are not disadvantaged when they enter the work force. According to the state commissioner of education, it is “our responsibility, our obligation, and our moral duty to make sure that we don’t allow children to leave the public school system who cannot read, write, and compute.”[8] Thus, the state is trying to align its curriculum to make sure teachers are teaching to the standards, while at the same time being cognizant of the diversity within the district.[9]

Prior to implementation, there was significant debate over the utility of graduation qualifying exams, with opponents arguing that statewide standards are unfair to students who are in less rigorous programs (such as those in poor urban schools and rural communities), as well as students who have learning disabilities or different learning styles. State lawmakers contend that the state has appropriately addressed this problem by allowing students in special education classes alternatives to passing the exam to be eligible for graduation. In addition, because students were not prepared in time, the implementation date for the testing was postponed from 2002, as originally intended, to 2004.[10] In fact, before passage of the law requiring the HSGQE, even the state commissioner of education sought to postpone its implementation until a standards-based system was in place, beginning with the early years of education, so that students who are “passed along” are not penalized.[11]

A state lawmaker tried to allay concerns, stating that the intent of the exams is to benefit students, not disrupt their educational achievement. She added:

[W]e have agreed that we will not put the responsibility on the children. We want to make sure that our curriculum is aligned to the test, that teachers are not teaching to the test, and that students are getting the resources that they need.[12]

Thus far, however, the Quality Schools Initiative has proven that there are students who do not have the basic skills to succeed in school and beyond. Alaska Native students, in particular, score lower on achievement tests than any other minority group, and considerably lower than white students.[13] As the table below indicates, on the graduation qualifying exam, Native Alaskan 10th graders scored lower than any racial/ethnic group in reading and writing, and next to lowest in math. As would be expected, students with limited-English proficiency also scored poorly on the exams, with success rates of only 25.0 percent in reading, 15.3 percent in writing, and 15.9 percent in mathematics.[14]

Table 2: High School Graduation Qualifying Examination, Spring 2001, Grade 10 Subject Proficiency (in Percentages) by Race















Alaska Native







American Indian







Asian/Pacific Islander







Black (non-Hispanic)





















Limited English








Note: Rates include only those students who participated in the exam.

Source: Shirley J. Holloway, commissioner, Alaska Department of Education and Early Development, memorandum to state policymakers and education leaders, July 11, 2001 (re: high school and benchmark exam results for spring 2001), attachment. 

Achievement differences can be seen across the state, in both urban and rural school systems. According to one commentator, the use of high-stakes testing adds to the tension between urban and rural communities, as village children’s scores “lag woefully behind” urban students’ scores.[15] But, even with access to more resources than many rural schools, the Anchorage School District is not absent disparities. The school district enrolls 50,000 students in 90 schools, with a minority student population of approximately 38 percent and growing 1 percent per year.[16] As with statewide scores, in Anchorage Native Alaskan[17] students score well below their white counterparts on standardized tests. For example, in the 1999–2000 school year, reading scores on the nationally administered California Achievement Test (CAT) averaged at 71 for white students and 41 for Native Alaskan students. Overall scores on the total battery of CAT scores showed an average score of 69 for white students and 44 for Native Alaskan/Native American students.[18]

These numbers are alarming to educators and community advocates. The commissioner of education expressed concern that the numbers reflect a divide in education and require immediate resolution. She stated:

The analysis shows a deep divide in student achievement among ethnic groups. White students score higher than other ethnic groups, much higher on average than Native students. Why is this so? What steps do we need to take to shrink this divide? It’s time for debate. It’s time to find out. It’s time for action. . . . It is vital that our data-driven debate be free of political and personal agendas, and focused on students.[19]

It is important to note that the largest gap in test scores generally occurs around the fifth grade, and in seventh grade, students are placed in courses according to their ability. If they have scored low on assessment tests, they will most likely be placed in low-level courses, setting the climate for their future education and a poor chance for later advancement. Because of their lower test scores, Native Alaskan students are more likely to be placed in low-level classes.

The same achievement trend is apparent with course grades, with Native Alaskan students having more difficulty successfully completing their coursework than other students. Native Alaskan students are less likely to receive “A” grades and more likely to receive “D” or “F” grades. In fact, during the 1997–98 school year, 34.6 percent of all Native Alaskan secondary school students in the Anchorage School District received a grade of “D” or “F.”[20] Compared with white students, Native Alaskan students are:

According to one tribal council, “the cumulative effect is that Native American students fall further and further behind in the required courses, thereby diminishing their life’s opportunities and choices.”[22] Educators further note that “students who earn such grades are not meeting the standards set by their teachers and are not demonstrating the level of performance needed for success beyond high school.”[23]

The low rate of successful completion of coursework often results in the failure of Native Alaskan students to graduate on a timely basis, and often they do not earn the required number of credits for graduation before they become older than the maximum age for school enrollment.[24] In the Anchorage School District, Native Alaskan students have the highest dropout rate of any group.[25] In the 1999–2000 school year, they made up 12.1 percent of the student population in Anchorage’s schools, but represented 25.9 percent of all dropouts.


During the community forums, the SAC heard many theories and explanations for why the disparities in educational achievement exist. Based on the evidence presented, it is the SAC’s assessment that the root of the problem cannot be attributed to any one factor; rather, inadequate diversity among teachers, poor curriculum, insufficient funding, and lack of political commitment to improve the situation have fostered an environment in which many minority students are destined not to succeed. This is compounded by external socioeconomic factors that present unique educational challenges for the most disadvantaged segments of society.

Lack of Teacher Diversity and Cultural Integration

Forum participants agreed that a major impediment to educational success for Native students is the lack of cultural integration in the school system. Panelists attributed the inadequacy, in part, to a dearth of Native Alaskan teachers and administrators. In fact, in all of the state’s elementary and secondary public schools (including rural schools), only 5 percent of teachers are Native Alaskan, compared with a Native student population of 23 percent.[26] In the Anchorage School District, only 2 percent of the professional work force (teachers and administrators) are Alaska Native; 89 percent are white.[27] As a result, “children of color are not looking at people [who] look like them within the classroom.”[28] According to one panelist, “many of these new teachers who teach our Alaska Native students know nothing about the language and culture of our communities and, therefore, our children are not being taught from their prior knowledge.”[29]

Because of Alaska’s unique diversity, there is also a special need for educators who can teach in multiple languages. Yet, there is a severe shortage of bilingual teachers in Alaska. Only 159 teachers statewide are endorsed to teach English as a second language for 19,700 bilingual students speaking more than 100 languages.[30] Half of the state’s English as a second language (ESL) students are Alaska Native. In the school district of Anchorage alone, 89 different languages are spoken by students.

Education experts contend that the absence of a diverse teaching force stems from state recruitment practices—70 to 80 percent of teachers in Alaska are recruited from out of state.[31] Teachers accepting positions in rural areas, in particular, are not properly instructed on the cultural differences they will encounter and are often not prepared to face the harsh conditions and lack of resources common in rural areas.[32]

Conversely, when Native teachers are hired, they often face an environment that is not supportive and end up leaving the education system for other careers. One Alaska resident and former teacher spoke of her experience as the lone Alaska Native in her high school:

I got the job by forcing the school district to hire qualified Alaska Natives. The Anchorage School District habitually recruits teachers from outside because they do not respect us as Natives. It doesn’t matter how qualified you are. But as a Native, you get to the end of the job line when it comes to employment. . . . As a teacher I was covered with a shroud of racism and prejudice. . . . I can say this because Anchorage to me is my South Africa. It is a sad commentary to a beautiful state.[33]

The State Department of Education is currently conducting a study of the teachers who leave their profession in Alaska, why, and with whom they are being replaced. In addition, according to the superintendent of the Anchorage School District, the district is “trying very, very hard to hire Alaska Native teachers and minority teachers and administrators,” but the efforts have not been as successful as hoped.[34] She added:

We have to establish career ladders. We have to . . . reach out to our aides and to our paraprofessionals as well as some of our citizens in the community and encourage them to enter into the educational profession.[35]

There already exists a large pool of Native Alaskan instructional aides working in rural schools, but because of a lack of accessible teacher-training programs, they often face difficulty getting teacher certification and permanent jobs. The Department of Education must find ways to tap into this valuable resource.

There have been attempts to improve access to teacher-training programs, thereby increasing the number of Native Alaskans certified to teach in the state. For example, a statewide Rural Teacher Education Program uses the Internet, audio conferencing, and in-person instruction to assist prospective teachers with obtaining an education degree.[36] The University of Alaska at Fairbanks has established another program called the Rural Educator Preparation Partnership. This program’s goal is to help Native Alaskans obtain certification to teach in their own village schools through one year of hands-on training with a mentor. While the program’s concept shows progress, its reach is limited. Because enrollment in the program requires a four-year college degree, it excludes many Native Alaskans, who are less likely to have college degrees.

While it is important to recruit diverse teachers, it is also important that the teachers who are certified have the skills needed. The State Board of Education has the authority to approve teacher preparation in the state and can determine the standards necessary for teaching certification. The state commissioner of education has worked on a new design for a teacher preparation program in Anchorage that is standards-based. The program consists of a partnership between the municipality of Anchorage and four rural districts, and involves the mentoring of future teachers by university personnel and educators. In addition, the program taps into the University of Alaska’s College of Arts and Science to foster the development of a strong base of knowledge in math, science, and language.[37] According to the state commissioner of education:

We have in this country too many people that are assigned to schools that are our least experienced, our least prepared, with our neediest children. So we’ve got to make sure that we take our best prepared, strong content people, who know how to teach kids, understand how to bridge the culture of schools and the rich culture of the environment and be successful.[38]

Closely related to diversity among teachers is cultural sensitivity in curriculum. Cultural isolation can negatively affect the way children respond in the educational environment. The president of the Association of Village Council Presidents stated that children of Native Alaskan villages in effect go to school in a foreign country every day—“a foreign country because they don’t speak their language and they don’t learn about their culture and traditions.” He stated that even in the school districts within the Yupik region, Yupik traditional values are not incorporated in the curriculum.[39]

Native students enrolled in large urban schools also often face cultural isolation. The superintendent of the Anchorage School District believes that one of the major civil rights challenges her district must overcome is making Native Alaskan students and their parents feel welcome in schools.[40] She noted that because of the size of the Anchorage School District, many minority parents perceive the schools as “cold and unfriendly places, rather than places where cultural values are nurtured along with learning the academic curriculum and standards.”[41]

A bill was passed last year that requires school districts to teach Alaska history, but the program is yet to be developed.[42] In addition to informing all students about the heritage of Alaska and the significance of tradition in Alaska Native cultures, teaching Alaska’s history would also promote a future generation of policymakers sensitive to the needs of all the state’s populations. For instance, education would help settle the debate about subsistence and alleviate some of the urban/rural divide because Alaskans would gain a better understanding of the cultural, political, and economic issues unique to the geographic regions of the state.

Inadequate Funding

Despite being a wealthy state, due to the abundance of natural resources and a profitable oil industry, Alaska’s public education system is, by many standards, underfunded. The education budget has been cut consistently for five years based on an increasing inflation rate of 20 percent and a dollar increase of only 8 percent.[43] Lack of funding has made it impossible for schools to meet the needs of the state’s increasingly diverse student population.[44] According to one state lawmaker, the resources are not being allocated to the schools that are most in need or that are not performing as well as they should.[45]

In addition, there are formula differences in the way urban and rural schools are funded, to the disadvantage of rural schools. While more money is spent per capita in rural schools, these schools are considerably smaller and the cost of education is far greater, resulting in unequal spending power. Nonetheless, in an ill-conceived attempt to equalize per capita spending, a formula was adopted in 1998 that provides only 60 percent of per capita funding for every new student enrolled in rural schools, yet grants full funding for every new student enrolled in urban schools.[46] The governor of Alaska acknowledged that, despite rural schools being more expensive to operate, the gap between urban and rural education funding is not narrowing.[47] The state legislature has been unable to agree on a revised formula to equalize education expenditures.

Beginning in 1999, the state stopped providing up-front funding for schools with enrollment of fewer than 10 students. Since then, local school boards have been forced to close 18 small schools.[48] There are a total of 506 schools in Alaska; 86 of those schools have an enrollment of 25 students or less and another 51 have enrollments of between 26 and 50 students. For these small schools, any funding cut could have a devastating effect. In addition, rural schools need adequate funding to attract and retain teachers and to compensate for the higher cost of living. Many rural communities do not have the economic infrastructure or tax base to supplement state funding for education. Nor do rural communities often have adequate school facilities, although rural communities will receive a majority of the $76 million in grants allocated last year to build and renovate school facilities.[49]

Although rural schools generally fare worse than urban schools in terms of educational costs and funding, urban schools have unique funding problems. For example, in urban schools there is not enough money to cut down class sizes so that teachers can make sure they are meeting the needs of every student. The superintendent of the Anchorage School District, therefore, recommends that urban and rural educators come together to battle these issues. She stated:

I believe very strongly that Anchorage needs to work with the state so that all children are able to go to school in facilities where they can learn. And they shouldn’t have to be worrying about the leaky roofs or the plumbing that doesn’t work, if there is even any plumbing, and so forth. I mean we have to pull together as a state on these issues. And that has not always been true for a number of people from Anchorage.[50]

In response to the funding issue, the governor created an Education Funding Task Force, which was charged with developing a five-year fiscal plan based on increasing student performance and school accountability. Among its suggestions, the task force recommended a program providing funding to address the academic performance of students, specifically those students at risk of not passing achievement tests or qualifying exams. Funding was recommended:

The task force recommended an increase of $42.4 million in year one of its five-year plan. It is unclear whether the state legislature will make increasing education funding a priority, but it has authorized a study of statewide school district cost factors to determine whether the existing funding formula requires revision.

External Factors Affecting Educational Achievement

In addition to inadequacies within schools, many external factors can negatively affect school performance. For instance:

The State Department of Education and the Anchorage School District are making efforts to uncover the sources of the achievement disparities among students. The first step is to collect sufficiently detailed data and then to analyze the data to determine what programs are working, which courses successful students are taking, and what teachers are doing that is effective.[57]

In the meantime, where funding is available, programs designed to close some of the achievement gap have been instituted. For example, the Anchorage School District has implemented after-school math and reading tutorial programs in 12 elementary schools and five middle schools. The programs also include grant-funded after-school bus transportation to benefit students whose parents do not have access to vehicles or who have inflexible work schedules.[58] The school district has also initiated a summer school pilot program, in which several middle schools are working in partnership with the Cook Inlet Tribal Council. Council staff work side by side with teachers, modeling culturally relevant teaching strategies. This strategy appears to have worked thus far, so the school board is looking to forge additional partnerships.

Despite some gains made in the state’s education system over the past few years, education officials acknowledge that the progress has been slow, and they sense the frustration of the communities they serve.[59] The state of Alaska has invested resources into examining the problems in its education system, but the true test will be how the ideas and recommendations proposed in recent years are implemented over time. In the words of the commissioner of education:

It takes time to change this loosely coupled bureaucracy called public education. It takes time to build the local capacity of our professionals. It takes time to build the community support and understanding of how this is different from what we used to do.[60]

Educators and community advocates are justified in citing education as the most critical issue facing Alaskans today. Absent a strong and inclusive educational environment that promotes learning potential and fosters the growth of young people, the growth of society as a whole is stymied.

[1] Shirley J. Holloway, commissioner, Alaska Department of Education and Early Development, statement before the Alaska Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, community forum, Aug. 24, 2001, transcript, p. 425 (hereafter cited as Aug. 24 transcript).

[2] Lawrence Lee Oldaker, “From Blackstone to America’s Last Frontier: Education in Alaska Amid Rural-Urban Tensions,” n.d., submitted by Shirley J. Holloway, commissioner, Alaska Department of Education and Early Development, to the Alaska Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Aug. 24, 2001, pp. 1–2 (hereafter cited as Oldaker, “From Blackstone to America’s Last Frontier”).

[3] Oldaker, “From Blackstone to America’s Last Frontier,” p. 2.

[4] Ibid., p. 3.

[5] Bettye Davis, senator, Alaska State Senate, written submission to the Alaska Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Aug. 23, 2001 (hereafter cited as Davis written submission).

[6] Gigi Pilcher, Ketchikan Indian Corporation, statement before the Alaska Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, community forum, Aug. 23, 2001, transcript, p. 256 (hereafter cited as Aug. 23 transcript).

[7] Holloway statement, Aug. 24 transcript, pp. 430–31.

[8] Ibid., p. 462.

[9] Carol Comeau, superintendent, Anchorage School District, statement, Aug. 24 transcript, p. 448.

[10] Bettye Davis, senator, Alaska State Senate, statement, Aug. 23 transcript, p. 129.

[11] Holloway statement, Aug. 24 transcript, p. 458.

[12] Davis statement, Aug. 23 transcript, p. 130.

[13] Shirley J. Holloway, commissioner, Alaska Department of Education and Early Development, memorandum to state policymakers and education leaders, July 11, 2001 (re: high school and benchmark exam results for spring 2001).

[14] Ibid., attachment, p. 2.

[15] Oldaker, “From Blackstone to America’s Last Frontier,” p. 6.

[16] Comeau statement, Aug. 24 transcript, p. 444.

[17] For reporting purposes, the school district groups Native Alaskan and Native American students together. Thus, in this discussion, the category “Native Alaskan” includes all Native American students.

[18] Cook Inlet Tribal Council, “The Status of Alaska Native/American Indian Students.”

[19] Holloway statement, Aug. 24 transcript, pp. 428–29.

[20] Cook Inlet Tribal Council, “The Status of Alaska Native/American Indian Students.”

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Cook Inlet Tribal Council, “The Status of Alaska Native/American Indian Students,” quoting Anchorage School District, Profile of Performance, 1995–96, p. 35.

[24] Cook Inlet Tribal Council, “The Status of Alaska Native/American Indian Students.”

[25] Ibid.

[26] Bernice Tetpon, program coordinator, rural/Native education liaison, Alaska Department of Education and Early Development, statement before the Alaska Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, community forum, Oct. 25 transcript, p. 108 (hereafter cited as Oct. 25 transcript).

[27] Carol Comeau, superintendent, Anchorage School District, written submission to the Alaska Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Aug. 24, 2001, attachment. The remaining teachers and administrators are 3 percent Asian American, 2 percent Hispanic, 4 percent African American, and 1 percent American Indian. Ibid.

[28] Davis statement, Aug. 23 transcript, p. 114.

[29] Ibid. Statewide, a total of 11 percent of Alaska’s teachers are minorities: 5 percent are Alaska Native, nearly 1.5 percent each are Asian/Pacific Islander, black, and Hispanic, and less than 1 percent are American Indian.

[30] Holloway statement, Aug. 24 transcript, p. 435.

[31] Tetpon statement, Oct. 25 transcript, p. 108; Holloway statement, Aug. 24 transcript, p. 434.

[32] Davis written submission.

[33] June Degnan, Unalakleet Yup’ik, Alaska resident, statement, Aug. 24 transcript, pp. 564–65.

[34] Comeau statement, Aug. 24 transcript, pp. 450–51.

[35] Ibid., p. 452.

[36] Davis written submission.

[37] Holloway statement, Aug. 24 transcript, p. 474.

[38] Ibid., p. 475.

[39] Lake statement, Aug. 23 transcript, p. 109.

[40] Comeau statement, Aug. 24 transcript, pp. 445–46.

[41] Comeau written submission, p. 1.

[42] Davis statement, Aug. 23 transcript, p. 133.

[43] Ibid., p. 116.

[44] Davis written submission.

[45] Davis statement, Aug. 23 transcript, p. 117.

[46] Oldaker, “From Blackstone to America’s Last Frontier,” p. 4; S.B. 36, enacted and codified in SLA 14.17.300–14.17.520 (July 1, 1998). See also Governor’s Commission on Tolerance, Final Report, Dec. 6, 2001, p. 11.

[47] Tony Knowles, governor of Alaska, written submission to the Alaska Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Aug. 23, 2001; Knowles statement, Aug. 23 transcript, p. 65.

[48] Holloway statement, Aug. 24 transcript, p. 440.

[49] Oldaker, “From Blackstone to America’s Last Frontier,” p. 4.

[50] Comeau statement, Aug. 24 transcript, p. 453.

[51] Davis written submission. See also State of Alaska, Education Funding Task Force, A+ Report to the Governor and the State Board of Education and Early Development, Feb. 1, 2001.

[52] Comeau statement, Aug. 24 transcript, p. 446.

[53] Ibid., p. 447.

[54] Cook Inlet Tribal Council, “The Status of Alaska Native/American Indian Students,” citing Anchorage School District, Profile of Performance, 1995–96, p. 47.

[55] Cook Inlet Tribal Council, “The Status of Alaska Native/American Indian Students.”

[56] Ibid.

[57] Comeau statement, Aug. 24 transcript, p. 447.

[58] Ibid., p. 449.

[59] Ibid., p. 444.

[60] Holloway statement, Aug. 24 transcript, p. 459.