The first teacher to be an Alaska governor was right at home: Gov. Mike Dunleavy, in the the library in Turnagain Elementary School in West Anchorage, rose to speak while the children and adults in summer school classes settled down for a monumental announcement from the state’s top elected official. Students sat crisscrossed on the floor in front, and flanked by nearly one third of the Alaska Legislature, Dunleavy announced the success of the Alaska Reads Act, a key initiative of his administration, which he would sign in a few days.
“Today’s news is about you,” said Dunleavy to the students who ranged in age from 6 to 10, “Because the foundation of everything that matters to being a good student, to being a good student, starts with you being able to open a book up, and know what the words in it mean.”
Though the scene at Tuesday’s ceremony was upbeat, the path to it in the Legislature was anything but.
Alaska by many metrics ranks either last or near last in the United States for reading competency by the third grade. Dunleavy’s administration, and in particular his Commissioner of Education Michael Johnson, made reading reform a major state policy initiative.
The elements of the plan which became the core of the Alaska Reads Act were accountability combined with support. Each component was a major plank for either conservative or liberal groups. Each component was also a major sticking point for organizations on both sides of the political spectrum.
An aggressive goal that is unconventional made even more uncommon allies. Dunleavy gained the support of Alaska State Sen. Tom Begich, the leader of the Democratic Caucus in the Senate, who is retiring from politics. (Begich’s conservative nephew, Nick Begich III, is the Republican candidate for the United States Congress).
The governor also enlisted the help of Sens. Shelley Hughes and Roger Holland. Hughes, the Republican Senate Majority Leader, is known for her uncompromising conservative views that resulted in her being removed from previous Senate majority organization.
Holland is a freshman who unseated former Alaska Senate President Cathy Giessel for not being conservative enough in the Republican primary of 2020.
All were in attendance to celebrate a major milestone in education, as were a substantial contingent of the Alaska House of Representatives. Though the bill passed the Senate unanimously, the Alaska Reads Act became ensared in naked gubernatorial election politics as members of the Bill Walker Caucus in the House repeatedly killed the education reform measure.
In particular, former Speaker Bryce Edgmon of Dillingham and Bethel Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky (appointed by former governor and current candidate Bill Walker) waged a savage, multi-month campaign both in the Capitol and in the press against the reading bill. Charging the sponsors of the initiative of being both anti-rural and anti-student, Edgmon and Zulkosky nearly ensured the original bill had no chance of passing.
It took a last ditch maneuver, which also gained unanimous Senate approval, to send a reading bill straight to the House on the last day of the legislative session, and by doing so, avoid the roadblocks Edgmon and Zulkosky erected in the House committee process. In a debate that was only overshadowed by the fight over the annual Permanent Fund Dividend, members of the Walker Caucus successfully enlisted near unanimous House Democratic support.
Rep. Mike Cronk of Tok, the rural conservative freshman and former teacher, teamed up with pro-life Democrat and House Majority Leader Chris Tuck to get the largest educational overhaul in a generation over the finish line.
Cronk and Tuck were successful — by a single vote. Joining virtually the entire House Republican Caucus in supporting the Alaska Reads Act were Rep. Neal Foster of Nome and Josiah Patkotak of the North Slope, both members of the Bush Caucus who broke from Edgmon and Zulkosky.
Along with Tuck came East Anchorage Rep. Geran Tarr, representing the poorest district in urban Alaska. House Speaker Louise Stutes cast the deciding vote, cementing the longstanding rivalry between her and Edgmon, her predecessor.
But none of the tension from Juneau could be felt or seen on Tuesday. Smiles on newly tanned faces from the state’s recent stretch of sun graced the audience as lawmaker after lawmaker spent time sharing with the students what it means to have done something on their behalf.
After a moving testimony about reading intervention did for his young daughter, Sen. President Peter Micciche, the retiring Soldotna Republican, yielded the microphone to Sens. Hughes and Shower, but not before acknowledging the importance of the work done. “There are a lot of experts in education in this room. But I’m telling you, when the going got tough, none of us thought of you. We thought of them,” said Micciche, motioning to the kids seated in front.
Rep. Cathy Tilton, the House Republican Leader, outlined how finally Alaska was on track to make monumental improvements in the quality of outcomes in Alaska’s students. Tilton was joined by Reps. DeLena Johnson of Palmer, Kevin McCabe of Big Lake, James Kaufman and Laddie Shaw of Anchorage, and Ken McCarty of Eagle River. Rep. Ron Gilham of Soldotna, a lifelong working man proud of his blue collar roots, shared the importance in reading to preserve the opportunities he got as a young man.
The celebration concluded with an unusual twist. While the final version of the Alaska Reads Act will be officially signed in the coming days, according to Dunleavy’s office, the pens that were brandished were signed on books. Specifically, the students and children in attendance got their favorite booked autographed by the governor which can be kept as a piece of Alaskan history. Among the recipients of a signed book was the family of Rep. Tuck, whose mother and child were in attendance.
As the children made their way out of the library and the press clapped up their recording devices, the legislators of both parties, at the far ends of the political spectrum, shook hands on a rare accomplishment of bipartisanship that defied petty politics, while Dunleavy stayed at a table, now signing books for the children of the teachers and librarians who came for the announcement.