Education Commissioner fired following refusal to spend on religious school

Mike Hanley lost the most senior position in education in Alaska for the same reason that makes lasting school improvement difficult: political interference.

Vague explanations for Hanley’s dismissal and the non-renewal of Ed Graff’s contract as principal of Anchorage schools leave parents wondering why qualified and valued administrators have lost their jobs. In my next column, I will address Graff’s problem.

Hanley, Alaska’s commissioner of education and early development, clashed with Sen. Mike Dunleavy, R-Wasilla, after Hanley refused to pay the state correspondence schools money to the Holy Rosary Academy, a Catholic school in Anchorage.

Dunleavy is chairman of the Senate Education Committee. He had been on Hanley’s case for not giving more control to the State Board of Education, a group primarily appointed by former Governor Sean Parnell. Hanley felt he worked for Gov. Bill Walker as well as the board. Dunleavy told him the board was his only boss, Hanley said.

In the last legislature, Dunleavy attempted to change the Alaskan Constitution to allow public money to go to private and religious schools. He did not get enough votes for this, but inserted a provision in the law allowing state funding of correspondence to be paid to religious institutions for non-religious material.

The state pays districts, including the Mat-Su Borough School District, to provide correspondence programs. Mat-Su uses a portion of this money to provide an allowance of approximately $ 2,500 per year to parents for outdoor classes and materials.

Mat-Su superintendent Deena Paramo said last year Hanley rejected the district’s request to allow correspondence students to use correspondence money at Holy Rosary. The department’s letter said it was acting on the advice of the attorney general, in accordance with the Alaska Constitution.

State Council Chairman James Fields and First Vice President Sue Hull said Dunleavy’s disagreement with the decision was just one of his issues with Hanley, which they felt weighed on Hanley to go.

“It might have been the last straw that broke the camel’s back, but it certainly wasn’t the only thing where there was a sideways showdown,” said Hull, apartment owner and manager. in Fairbanks.

Dunleavy declined to comment for this column.

Hull, a Republican, said Dunleavy, like the board, wanted Hanley to push back federal restrictions harder to allow schools more freedom. She felt Hanley was not aggressive enough to enter a “new era” in which schools could resist government mandates.

One of those problems was related to the standardized test of Alaska’s measures of progress. Hull said some board members and superintendents wanted to drop the test immediately and allow schools to use their own tests.

Hanley wasn’t sure he could do it legally and wanted to try and fix the AMP, developed under a five-year, $ 25 million contract with the University of Kansas. He ended up canceling the contract, but ordered the test to be administered once more this year.

Hanley said he has a responsibility to obey federal and state laws, but is set to explore more flexibility in a new federal education law. He said his formal assessments with the board had been positive and that he was not aware of any new direction the board wanted to take to oppose legal mandates.

The Chairman of the Board of Directors Fields, a member of the Libertarian Party and businessman from Glennallen, is a friend of Governor Walker. He said the board of directors never voted to call for Hanley’s impeachment. However, when he met Walker and Hanley, he told the governor that the majority of the board did not trust the commissioner.

Walker told me he fired Hanley after receiving phone calls from Fields and other board and meeting members last week.

“I listened to this and honored their wishes,” he said. “It was a change at their request and I chose to work with the board on it.”

Fields has denied asking Walker to fire Hanley. But Hanley thought that was what happened too, and that he hadn’t resisted because it had clearly been reflected on.

Hanley arrived at the Commissioner’s office in 2011 from the principal’s office at Kincaid Elementary School in Anchorage, something like being promoted from lieutenant to general in one step. Although he was not involved in politics, Parnell knew him through his political family, which includes his brother, Mark Hanley, a Republican member of the State House in the 1990s.

Mike Hanley began his career as a teacher at Gladys Wood Elementary School, alongside Ed Graff. They were also both principals at Kasuun Elementary School, first Graff then Hanley.

Carol Comeau, who worked with them as a superintendent in Anchorage for 12 years, said they were both exceptional teachers, leaders and administrators. She was sad that they had lost their jobs.

“In both cases, I think they were honest and ethical leaders who took their positions because they believed they could make a difference for the children of Anchorage and all of Alaska, and I think they did, ”Comeau said.

She said Hanley ended a conflicted relationship between school districts and the state, transforming the department from a compliance organization into one that supports districts.

I know Hanley well because I worked as a part-time principal of a group that advocates for struggling schools, especially in rural Alaska, called Citizens for the Educational Advancement of Alaska’s Children. I left this position in November to join Alaska Dispatch News.

In 2011, Hanley and I sat down at a table with our attorneys – his was Attorney General John Burns – and settled a pair of ECAAC-state lawsuits dating back to the 1990s. The settlements were part of the Hanley’s work ushering in a new, more positive relationship between rural and urban districts.

As a former initiate, I would leave it to the readers to weigh my prejudices. I always support public education and the need to strengthen schools for disadvantaged rural students.

Mike Hanley was one of the most talented and committed people I have met in government. I would trust him to take care of my child’s school because he obviously cares.

In fact, when I asked him about his future plans, he told me he would be happy to be a director again.

Mike Dunleavy and the State Council – I don’t trust them as much.

Charles Wohlforth’s column appears three times a week. A product of the Anchorage School District, he currently has two children attending a public school in Anchorage. Email him: [email protected]

The opinions expressed here are those of the author and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a wide range of views. To submit an article for review, send an email to commentary (at) alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions under 200 words to [email protected] or click here to submit through any web browser.


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