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Palin Takes Measured Tack On Alaska’s School Issues

By Michele McNeil & Sean Cavanagh — September 09, 2008 6 min read
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Although Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin has espoused conservative positions on teaching creationism and abstinence-only sex education, the Republican vice presidential nominee has not pushed those beliefs into state policy.

“She would often articulate her personal beliefs, but I never thought she was going to shove those down our throats,” said former Alaska Commissioner of Education Roger Sampson, who is now the president of the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.

Mr. Sampson, whose tenure as state schools chief overlapped with Gov. Palin’s first eight months in office, was one of two agency leaders whom Gov. Palin kept from the previous administration when she took office in December 2006.

“She will be the first to tell you she wasn’t an expert on education. But she was very much a learner,” Mr. Sampson said last week.

In her 20 months as governor, she is better known for revamping the state’s school funding formula as part of a three-year plan that this year gave districts a $100-per-student average boost. The funding formula also reserved more money for the state’s special-needs students.

“I would hope that she take a stand that would allow people to maintain their belief systems,” Crystal Kennedy, an Alaska delegate to the Republican National Convention and a school board member in Anchorage, said of Ms. Palin.

Special-Needs Role?

In a lively and combative speech that roused her audience at the convention in St. Paul, Minn., last week, Gov. Palin didn’t mention divisive social issues, such as evolution or sex education. Instead, in accepting her spot as Sen. John McCain’s running mate on the 2008 GOP ticket, she directed gibes at their Democratic opponents, stressed her executive experience as a governor and as the mayor of her hometown of Wasilla, Alaska, and gave highlights of her life story.

She noted that she is the daughter of public school teachers and has been active in the PTA. And the youngest of her five children is a 4-month-old son who has Down syndrome.

“To the families of special-needs children all across this country, I have a message: For years, you sought to make America a more welcoming place for your sons and daughters,” she told the almost 2,400 delegates, the other attendees, and a television audience from the Xcel Center’s podium. “I pledge to you that if we are elected, you will have a friend and advocate in the White House.”

Even though Gov. Palin didn’t address education policy in her speech, her public statements on creationism are worrisome because they conflict with the overwhelming consensus of professional scientists, said Francis Eberle, the executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, which has 55,000 members.

Vice presidents have the ability to shape policy and public opinion on science education issues, he said, even if they don’t seek to guide those policies directly.

“It gives her a bully pulpit to talk about education,” Mr. Eberle said of Ms. Palin’s potential role if she and Mr. McCain are elected.

In a televised debate during Alaska’s 2006 gubernatorial campaign, Ms. Palin said she thought creationism, the biblically based view that God created humans in their current form, should be taught alongside evolution in public school classrooms, according to the Anchorage Daily News.

On another topic of growing interest in science classrooms, Gov. Palin was quoted in an August interview with Newsmax.com, the online version of a conservative magazine, saying she did not believe that climate change should be attributed to human activities.

That view appears to contradict the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an expert body charged with studying the topic, which in a 2007 report concluded that there is a “very high confidence” that human activities are contributing to that phenomenon. Many K-12 teachers have sought to incorporate lessons on climate change in recent years, though some have complained about a lack of adequate classroom resources on that topic.

Yet Mr. Sampson, the former Alaska schools chief, said Gov. Palin hasn’t pushed either of those science issues during her time in office.

“I never got the feeling that she was going to force me or the state board [of education] to move in a direction that didn’t have a strong factual basis,” he said.

Gov. Palin also has drawn attention for favoring abstinence-based sex education, in light of the announcement by the governor and her husband, Todd Palin, on Sept. 2 that their 17-year-old unmarried daughter is pregnant and plans to marry her boyfriend.

Jerry Bowen, a Republican delegate and a real estate agent from Franklin, Tenn., said he thinks the vice presidential nominee is an excellent spokeswoman for abstinence-only sex education, a policy that Mr. Bowen supports.

“I think Governor Palin is the poster child for that message,” he said. “We cannot condemn her daughter for being human and making a mistake.”

Despite her belief in abstinence-based sex education, Gov. Palin hasn’t pushed that agenda heavily while in office.

Spoke Against Vouchers

Gov. Palin has served during a time of economic prosperity for her energy-rich state, while much of the rest of the country is struggling through an economic slowdown and spikes in energy prices, and resulting budget cuts to social services, including education.

Though Alaska is enjoying an $8.9 billion surplus, which is 1½ times its general-fund budget, it’s grappling with an estimated $10 billion shortfall in its teachers’ and public employees’ pension plans. In 2007, Gov. Palin successfully pushed for additional state money to help local school districts with their pension burden.

Shirley J. Holloway, a state board of education member and a former Alaska commissioner of education, credited Gov. Palin with supporting the comprehensive school funding overhaul. Ms. Holloway noted that the governor had initially supported a larger funding increase, about $200 per pupil, but that lawmakers eventually approved a smaller hike of $100, bringing the total to $5,480 per student.

“She came in with a very comprehensive financial proposal,” Ms. Holloway said. “She looks at things from a long-term approach.”

Carl Rose, the executive director of the Association of Alaska School Boards, served on a joint legislative task force that recommended the school funding overhaul. He called Ms. Palin “a huge advocate for public education.”

On at least one education issue, Gov. Palin appears to part company with other conservative Republicans: vouchers.

She’s a strong believer in home schooling, virtual schools, and other innovative education options that may work for families in her vast, rural state. But she doesn’t support giving parents public money to pay tuition at private K-12 schools, she said at a September 2006 forum sponsored by the Alaska affiliate of the National Education Association, according to a transcript of the event on the NEA-Alaska Web site.

She said she thought vouchers were unconstitutional—and went as far as to say that she also didn’t support amending the state constitution to allow them.

“I am a proponent of giving parents as much choice, as many options, as they feel is necessary,” she said. But as for vouchers, she said: “No, it is unconstitutional, and it is as simple as that.”

Staff Writer Alyson Klein and Assistant Managing Editor Mark Walsh contributed to this story from St. Paul, Minn.
A version of this article appeared in the September 10, 2008 edition of Education Week as Palin Takes Measured Tack On Alaska’s School Issues

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