Win Gruening: When will schools return to normal?



If the word “normal” seems overused these days, you aren’t imagining it.  Everyone wants to get back to normal. Especially in our local schools. But that’s easier said than done.

My perception of normal no doubt differs significantly from students in our schools. Student viewpoints will be disproportionately affected by disruptions due to Covid over the past two years while mine are shaped by a completely different experience and time.

Born and raised in Juneau, I was educated at Harborview Elementary School, Mt. Jumbo Jr. High School, and Juneau-Douglas High School.  With few exceptions, my teachers were excellent and I received a firm grounding in math, English, and science. Most of my classmates were prepared well enough to tackle their next step in life whether starting their first job or heading off to college, trade school, or the military.

Later, my own kids attended Juneau schools, had a similar experience, and are enjoying successful lives and careers.

But, somehow over the past 20 years, the “normal” school experience has changed.

Despite increased funding and periodic reform efforts, student achievement in Alaska hasn’t kept pace with the rest of the U.S. Even with some of the highest expenditures per pupil nationally, Alaska’s K-12 education system is plagued by poor test scores, absenteeism, and low graduation rates.  

Parents understand how critical it is that basic education be taught in our schools. Math, Language Arts, and Science are important enough foundational subjects that our educational institutions are required to measure student proficiency in them from kindergarten through high school. 

Alaska’s scores in all three of these areas are an embarrassing disappointment when compared to other states.  

And that was before Covid hit.

Arguably, trendy subject material is better taught at home or on an elective basis leaving more time for core subjects.   

Two areas in which Alaskan students have fallen woefully short are in reading and math. The Alaska Policy Forum (APF) reported that in 2013, only 27.5% of all fourth graders in Alaska scored nationally at or above a proficient reading level. Six years later, in 2019, only 25% scored at or above proficient, well below the national average.

Alaska’s per-pupil expenditures ranked sixth-highest among all states, yet our fourth-graders scored dead last nationally in reading proficiency and were the fifth-lowest in math proficiency, according to the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). In separate state-sponsored tests, less than 40% of Alaska’s fourth-graders were proficient in science.

There is little improvement in succeeding grade levels all the way through high school where many students are being promoted and graduate without the basic skills necessary to succeed in entry level job positions or public colleges.

The Alaska Legislature’s recent passage of the Alaska Reads Act that included important education reforms, for which APF has been advocating since 2013, is a promising start. It seeks to increase students’ reading proficiency to an acceptable level by age nine. Curiously, despite unanimous approval in the Senate and bi-partisan support in the House, neither of Juneau’s two representatives voted for the bill.

Much more needs to be done. Even though Juneau students as a group scored above the statewide average in PEAK tests, less than 50% were proficient in math or language arts.  

The Juneau School Board has demonstrated a great deal of confidence in Juneau’s current superintendent, Bridget Weiss, who has led the district since 2018. She was recently granted a contract extension into 2025 along with a 10% salary increase to $185,000 annually.

Four goals set by the Juneau school board are improving reading achievement, a safety and security review, reviving multitiered system of supports for individual students at elementary schools, and updating the district’s strategic plan.

That’s fine, but why not explicitly include target goals in student achievement in the core subject areas of Math, Language Arts and Science? How else can our students be expected to succeed?

We should resist the overwhelming temptation to continue to blame low performance on lack of funding and now, lingering Covid impacts.

Administrators and our school boards warrant community and parent support in their effort to educate our children, but must be held accountable for results. 

Alaska school districts can no longer afford to maintain the status quo.

Our community’s potential workforce and our children’s futures depend on it.

After retiring as the senior vice president in charge of business banking for Key Bank in Alaska, Win Gruening became a regular opinion page columnist for the Juneau Empire. He was born and raised in Juneau and graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1970. He is involved in various local and statewide organizations.

Reasons for ballot rejection: Signatures, postmarks


  1. First, get rid of all union contracts for teachers, administrators and support staff. The world we live in supports good pay for well-trained individuals. Second, teach only reading, writing, arithmetic and civics. Have art, shop and outdoor exercise.

    • Moreover, I don’t see how one can make a persuasive case that government employees have the right to collectively bargain with the citizens. Public employees earn their salary from taxpayers, rather than a private business. Unionization was originally posited as a means to afford workers in the private sector a reasonable bargaining position with companies. Public employees are effectively ganging up on each tax paying citizen, considering we are already in a weakened position due to our representative government. So, even if you grant the argument for unions, it is unclear how it extends to government or public employees.

  2. > Much more needs to be done.

    I agree. Empower parents and their children by de-centralizing decision making to them. Look for all ways to end government schools. Do not support any further funding of them. Instead homeschooling. Or homeschool co-ops. Or charter schools. Or trade schools. Innovate.

  3. School teachers in Anchorage think the community said no to the school bonds because red states don’t like spending money on education, but that’s because the teachers never once bother to think about how the district is wasting money that should be going towards them and their students, not to incredibly dysfunctional administration and new facilities.

    20 million towards a new Inlet View Elementary school building or a $20,000 per year raise for deserving teachers that don’t whine if people aren’t interested in just throwing gobs of everyone’s money at administration and school facilities, and don’t pretend other people’s money is like free money. For 10 teachers at that school, that raise is only $200,000 per year and it would take 200 years to reach 20 mil. By 200 years, at this rate, they will have asked for three more new school buildings, costing even more, by then. I think the kids don’t know math because the teachers don’t.

    These pushes for new school facilities cost tons of time and money before they even get approved, and they are nothing but a distraction and excuse to belly ache and throw up hands every time they get rejected.

    • Just to throw one more thing in there. The idea of a $20,000/y raise to only the best performers would never happen ironically because of the teachers’ union.

  4. Your not a sleeping lady, you are 100% correct. According to WalletHub, Alaska is 50th out 51 states. The system cannot be fixed. It needs to be scraped, and a completely new system implemented. You can’t fix the Titanic. No Unions.

  5. Win, the answer to your question is never.
    I predict that Public Schools will only continue in their folly and become progressively worse.

    Remove your children and grandchildren , better educational opportunities are available.

  6. When we toss each and every school board out on their backsides.
    And, when the take away the teachers’ unions power.
    Until then, you kids are not going to school, they are going to government funded day care with the added bonus of mind-numbing indoctrination designed to destroy any appreciation they have for family, culture, and morals.

  7. All problems in the public education system are solved in one word: vouchers.

    Read the book “Free to Choose” by Milton Friedman, PhD, Economics.

    • Wayne Douglas, I disagree with you that vouchers are the answer to our failing Educational System. While defunding of the institution likely is the only answer to the problem it will not be brought about by a voucher program administered by the same knuckleheads who brought you the sorry state of education today. The answer my good friend lies within each individual parent. Flee. Vote with your feet and place your children and grandchildren in one of the many other educational programs available today. This will take a sacrifice, but are not our children, who are our future worth it?

      I am inclined to think that Friedman, Williams and Sowell given the circumstances would agree with my sentiment.

      • Robert, very good points.
        But… vouchers is a good step in the correct direction. A very good step.
        As soon as schools start getting their funding based on performance, not on location, performance will improve. The schools with the best performance will get more students, which means more vouchers. Net result, they have an incentive to hire more of the good staff, and let the bad staff go.
        What will screw the entire system is the ASD (or any school district) will will game the system. And, the teachers union will help. They will impose maximum student numbers, or cap the amount a parent can pay over and above the voucher amount to get their children into the best school.
        Competition is a good thing. Competition between schools is no different than competition between shops. Barring a conspiracy… errr…. I mean an industry wide agreement to keep prices high, costs and quality of service/products will improve.
        The schools have none of that because they all report to the District and the Board.
        And, that is the main reason why vouchers will not solve all the problems with the schools.

  8. Alaska’s test scores have never been equal to the rest of the country so if you’re surprised about that, don’t be. I’ll bet you had homework when you went to school. Most of the students I have witnessed refused to do homework and the school has little to know support from their parents on this subject. Unacceptable behavior in the classroom that disrupts the entire study session isn’t acknowledged by much home support either. I’ve seen teachers take control of their classroom or at least try to only to be ran out of the village. Teachers are forced to lower their expectation and the bar in order to satisfy parents concerns only so their students can remain eligible for basketball. That really is the only thing that matter. Being good in basket ball was placed at the utmost high level from my perspective. It comes down to pride and bragging rights and pecking order. Somebody’s mom or dad was good when they were in high school so the kid is under pressure to be the same or better. Actual education and test scores come at a distance second or maybe even third or fourth on the list. It’s all about priorities. Education is it high on the priority and until that changes with parents, the schools aren’t going to get any change in the test scores. Also there’s a shortage of teachers and districts are forced at the last minute to sign contracts with subpar teachers. Their feeling is a warm body is better than nobody at all and perhaps they are right. But I’ve seen lots of good teachers for sure and they’re worth every penny they’re getting paid. Some belong to the teachers union and some didn’t. Some thought the teachers union cost too much to join. The superintendent and School board decide what benefits and what pay the teachers get not the teachers union. If you think the teachers are overpaid, and maybe you should get a teaching certificate and try it yourself. If you think it’s easy then by all means walk a mile in those shoes and I would just about bet that you would be changing your mind rather than on some blog being political about teacher unions. I don’t support them and I saw a case where they were supporting a really bad guy and I disagree with that. I don’t know what purpose they do serve. I never saw anyone benefit from a teacher’s Union other than to have their pockets picked in Union dues.

    • If a gifted student testing in the top 20th percentile nationwide consistently it would not be reported here or otherwise noted.

  9. The most powerful monopoly in the world will not relinquish an inch of the control they have. Change will require some more momentum toward private schools and incentivized teachers. The administrations and NEA don’t realize they have triggered these changes. It will take some brave politicians and or possibly a constitutional convention to get some traction with our populous.

  10. The problem is twofold. Yes, there are behavioral problems and one child can severely disrupt an entire classroom. The other is staffing. Covid did more than just shut down the school. I, like many parents, found out what was being taught while listening in on the virtual Zoom classrooms. Pure indoctrination by teachers with he/she, she/he behind their names. There are good teachers trying, but they are becoming the minority and I would not send my child to a public school.

    • I never once heard that in any Bush classroom. Maybe in some municipality that is and was going on. I believe Bush life in general is more down to earth and old school instead of hanging rainbow flags and other crap in the classroom.

      • My daughter attended Juneau School District from K-12. By the time I found out what was being taught she was already a junior. Have some other good tales of the utter nonsense going on in classrooms once they returned, but that is for another time.

        • So…………………… appears, by your own admission, you are a slow learner. If their kids were growing up lacking something from their learning they would have a clue prior to their Junior year.
          No question where the nonsense lies Jimbo.

  11. We thought access to minimum standards equal education would provide improved public homoginizing, unifying of informed voters to maintain the friendly republic. It is not what we are getting for our money. If we reproduce the mother must provide education. She will not stay mated for a lifetime due to training cinematically provided in America’s mecca Hollywood. If this model, public classrooms, is now harming the confederate(defined as friendly) republic as a tyrant playing abusive mental health games with unsuspecting progeny regarding sexual identity etc. in secretive MH grants (over seven million $ this year in ANC without medical consent of mother or guardian (dads already out of the picture due to drug use, coopted by “work” or being snuggled by quisient nearby extraneous willing females in the low rent district). Keep the mental health grants and give the money to the Mom’s to honor them, their quisient lifestlyes to provide educations to the barrage of sinlings. Contemporary wives villify the fathers, throw them out of the home, copulate with other try out gentlemen. HOLLYWOOD’S job is complete and so is public educations for the time being. Alaska has not vilified masculinity to the extent of other jurisdictions where just being born male actively needs to be changed as a prerequisite to the privilege of enslavement. Just my clinical observance. Give the “education” money to the moms for “education”. She and her babysitters will use some of it for that purpose.

  12. Now that we have relearned what the English word “confederate” means (friendly) what does the word “apoplectic” mean?

  13. My twin girls are now in 5th grade.
    They have never stepped foot into a public school, and never will.
    But I pay for public school.
    Oh, there are some minor kick-backs….
    Over 10 grand a year to send each one to a real school.
    And it is worth it.

  14. Really want to fix education? Easy. But will never happen.

    -return to the classical education of the 50s.
    -eliminate the dept of education.
    -bring back classroom discipline
    -abolish teachers unions.
    -take sports out of education.
    -eliminate social promotion
    -have the money follow the student, not the school.
    -most of all, GET INVOLVED at your local school.

    • What do you want to do about school boards?
      No… suspending Constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment is not an option.

  15. Win, The last time I looked, Juneau school district was spending more that $17,000 per student per year…..maybe we just aren’t spending enough money?

  16. Please explain “normal”in your simplest terms
    and watch the division and divorce court flourish.

  17. Well! parents today can just introduce older dated books, series, and juvee non fiction to their kids. Until they find an author of their great great grandparents time the child likes. I believe there are
    more daughters of millennials who’d like the travels and relationship building of nancy drew stories of the 1943-1960s. Same with boys they would like the fast moving thrilling adventure stories of hardy boys. Again! Just Read to your child. Read what kids read before 1989.

  18. Tier I was the golden ticket for public employees in Alaska — maybe in the country — at the time. It was a defined benefit retirement plan which included guaranteed income for life for a retired employee. That feature attracted quality teachers. Alaska schools competed nationally in academics. The decline of education in Alaska began with Frank Murkowski
    Governor ” Frank the Bank” Murkowski ended Tier I for new hires.
    Since that era, retirement benefits have been diminished.
    The name Murkowski is synonymous with decline.
    The Alaska legislature needs to focus on guaranteeing Tier I benefits to teachers once again.
    Good teachers have extensive training, costing much $$$. Good teachers seek the best pay and benefits. With good credentials, good teachers can end the Dark Ages of education in Alaska. But they don’t come cheap.
    Our Alaska State Legislature needs to re-examine retirement benefits for teachers in Alaska.

    • AKAN
      You are mistaken, Prior to OIL $ Alaska had decent schools. This was prior to the lavish spending spree given to public employees of which you speak. BTW, we also had the same miles of roads as now and a functioning Marine Highway. Go figure.

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