Alaska House committee removes funding for attorney assigned to help parents with school disputes

A proposal from Gov. Mike Dunleavy was a ‘flashpoint amendment,’ one committee member said

By: - March 29, 2023 4:00 am

From left to right, the three co-chairs of the Alaska House Finance Committee talk on Tuesday, March 28, 2023, during a break in budget debates: Rep. Neal Foster, D-Nome; Rep. DeLena Johnson, R-Palmer; and Rep. Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

The Alaska House Finance Committee on Tuesday voted 6-5 against a request by Gov. Mike Dunleavy for a state attorney intended to work as an advocate for parents who have disputes with their local school districts.

State legislators who voted to eliminate the position said it would encourage lawsuits against local school districts.

“I don’t necessarily want to encourage folks to be suing each other,” said finance committee co-chair Neal Foster, D-Nome.

After the initial publication of this article, the governor’s office said the position is not intended to help parents sue their local school districts.

“It is worth noting that the position is not aimed at bringing lawsuits—quite the opposite. Concerns have come to DEED, the Department of Law, and the Governor about whether the proper policies and procedures are in place. The purpose of the new position would be to assist in navigating through the various requirements so parents know what their rights are and working with school districts and DEED to comply with the law,” said Jeff Turner, the governor’s deputy communications director.

The decision to eliminate the position came as the finance committee finished work on amendments to a $6.7 billion state operating budget proposal that may advance to the House floor as soon as next week.

Few topics were as controversial as the one addressing the attorney.

“Of the 83 amendments in front of us, this, I think, is the flashpoint amendment as I see it,” said Rep. Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham and a co-chair of the finance committee.

In February, Dunleavy asked lawmakers for $209,000 to pay for a “parental rights in education” advocate. In other states, recent use of the term “parental rights” has focused on efforts to restrict on sex education, teaching about the history of racism, and transgender rights in public schools. 

Other states have enacted (or sought to enact) parental rights legislation at the urging of a national network of conservative groups.

“There’s a national sort of movement sweeping the country,” Edgmon said. “I feel like it’s a slow-moving tsunami coming into Alaska.”

Soon after Dunleavy requested support for the attorney, he introduced legislation, described as a parental rights bill, that would restrict the rights of transgender students and require parents to opt in to sex education classes (currently, parents are able to opt out if they object).

Members of the committee have been considering dozens of changes to Dunleavy’s proposed budget this week, and few were more controversial than the one on Tuesday from Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage, that proposed turning down the requested attorney.

Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage, speaks in favor of an amendment on Tuesday, March 28, 2023, during debate on the draft state operating budget. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

Though Republicans make up a majority of the coalition that controls the Alaska House, they hold a minority of seats in the finance committee. 

Foster and Edgmon are two of the four non-Republicans in the majority; both are co-chairs of the finance committee and were swing votes on Tuesday as they joined the four minority members of the committee in opposing the governor’s request. All five Republicans on the committee voted in favor of it.

“I see an erosion of parental rights in our state and within our education system,” said Rep. Frank Tomaszewski, R-Fairbanks and a supporter of funding the attorney.

Tomaszewski represents a portion of the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District, which is under investigation by the Alaska Department of Law.

In February, Attorney General Treg Taylor wrote a letter to the Fairbanks school district, warning that officials there may be violating state law that requires schools to notify parents before sex-ed classes.

Rep. Mike Cronk, R-Tok, supported the governor’s request, saying that a student is the responsibility of their parents.

“That is your kid. No matter what anybody says, that is your kid. It is not the school’s kid. It’s not the state’s kid. It is your child,” he said.

But other members of the committee said that approving the attorney could mean state overreach into local government. 

“What we might be saying is let’s open a lawsuit instead of let’s solve a problem,” said Rep. Alyse Galvin, I-Anchorage and a member of the finance committee who voted against the request.

“I think this is an overstep by the state,” said Rep. Sara Hannan, D-Juneau and a member of the finance committee. “If you’re dissatisfied, if communities are dissatisfied, then throw the bums out, elect a new school board, fire your superintendent, hire one that is responsive. And then make sure that your school district is complying with state law that is very clear about parents having a legal and active right to be engaged in educating their students.”

The committee’s decision isn’t necessarily the final word on the issue, the governor’s office said in response to an inquiry.

“The House Finance Committee’s decision to remove funding for a dedicated attorney in the Alaska Department of Law to assist Alaskans with their parental rights in public schools, is not a final decision. It can be reinserted later in the budget process,” said Turner, the deputy communications director.

The finance committee finished work on amendments late Tuesday, and it could advance a budget bill to the House floor as early as Friday. Lawmakers there could propose restoring the governor’s request.

Even if the request fails in the House, it is still subject to debate in the Senate, which has not yet taken up the budget. Sen. Donny Olson, D-Golovin and chair of the Senate subcommittee for the Department of Law budget, said lawmakers there haven’t considered the issue.

“Even if the position is not included in the final budget,” Turner said, “attorneys within the civil division of the Department of Law will continue to assist parents who believe they may have had their parental rights violated.”


Editor’s note: After the initial publication of this article, the governor’s office issued a statement saying that the position “is not aimed at bringing lawsuits.” The article and headline have been updated with that information.

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James Brooks
James Brooks

James Brooks is a longtime Alaska reporter, having previously worked at the Anchorage Daily News, Juneau Empire, Kodiak Mirror and Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. A graduate of Virginia Tech, he is married to Caitlyn Ellis, owns a house in Juneau and has a small sled dog named Barley. He can be contacted at [email protected].