From left, Superintendent Alex Russin and Cordova School Board member Henk Kruithof on Aug. 11, 2021. File photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith for The Cordova Times

As the state legislature is gearing up for the second half of the session starting Jan. 16, two proposed statewide education curriculum bills on the horizon — which have elicited opposition within the Cordova School District — have the potential to alter what Alaskan students must be taught prior to high school graduation. 

Both Senate bills (SB) on the table — SB 99, which would establish a required financial literacy course for Alaska public schools, and SB 29, which would create a civics curriculum, assessment, and graduation requirement — passed the Alaska Senate unanimously and have been referred to the House education committee. SB 29 has also been referred to the House finance committee.  

Cosponsors of the bills say these courses are pivotal for the development of Alaska youth. However, the Cordova School District (CSD) will be testifying in opposition of the legislation. 

Alex Russin — the CSD superintendent who will be testifying in opposition to both SB 99 and SB 29 this session on behalf of the school district — has similar hesitations to both.  

For Russin, both bills raise several logistical and philosophical questions. Top of mind: What is the rationale and evidence behind the bills? Are there studies showing a definitive need for Alaskan students to take these courses?  

“I could get on board with some rationale that has been researched beyond the anecdotal,” Russin said.  


One example of confusion around rationale, Russin said, was the establishment of a passing grade of 70% for the civics assessment — the achievement of which is part of the civics education requirement for the new legislation. Russin pointed out that most schools follow a traditional grading rubric where 59% or 60% are passing. He said he isn’t advocating for lowering the passing score, but was curious about the selection of this specific percentage. 

Russin also wonders what precedent this sets for local school districts. Where does it end with the state-mandated curriculum? At what point are school districts overstepping topics that should be taught, introduced or demonstrated by families? Should families, instead of schools, be having these discussions about what makes a good citizen and how one should balance a budget? 

The bills have many of the same co-sponsors, including state Sens. Cathy Giessel (R-District N), Löki Tobin (D-District I), Click Bishop (R-District C), Elvi Gray-Jackson (D-District G), Matt Claman (D-District H), James Kaufman (R-District F), Shelley Hughes (R-District M), Bill Wielechowski (D-District K), and Scott Kawasaki (D-District P). Sen. Gary Stevens, a Republican who represents Cordova, is a cosponsor of both bills as well. 

If passed by the House, the bills would go on to Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s desk and could take effect summer 2024.  

SB 29: Civics education

After being signed into law, curriculum guidelines would be established by a council of stakeholders. Sen. Claman said that he anticipates these courses could be incorporated into existing math or social studies courses in school districts across the state. The civics education requirement would include teachings on Native governance. Both Sens. Bishop and Hughes spoke to the importance of adding curriculum around Native governance into the civics requirement. Bishop explained this was important to him because of the growth of the Native population in Alaska, and because in Alaska “we walk in both worlds.” 

However, it’s not the proposed curriculum that CSD disagrees with. Russin said he believes in a shared responsibility between parents and schools of teaching certain topics, and that parents can play an important role in modeling characteristics of good citizenship.  

“There’s got to be a concerted effort, and even responsibility and accountability, from families to talk about what it means to be a good citizen,” he said. “I don’t think that having students take a course, and pass a test, yields automatically a good citizen.” 

The impact on the school district of the civics education bill will be fairly negligible, Russin said, in part because last year the CSD made it a requirement that students take a civics type-course. CSD has taught civics standards in its U.S. government, U.S. history, and civics courses as part of its social studies curriculum for many years. A civics-titled course is one of the 3.5 social studies credits Cordova High School (CHS) students need to take — civics standards are incorporated in several of the social studies classes already in play at CHS. In fact, Russin said, the civics requirement adopted by CSD is fairly similar to the one proposed in SB 29 except for the assessment requirement.  

Russin is particularly opposed to this assessment requirement of SB 29, and says he believes some of the criticisms levied against the High School Qualifying Exam (HSGQE) in the past should be applied to the civics education bill — particularly the potential for the assessment to prevent Alaska high school students from graduating regardless of whether or not they have met all other requirements for graduation.  

From 2004 to 2014 when the HSGQE was in effect, there were more than 3,000 students who met high school graduation requirements but did not pass one or more portions of the reading, writing, and math qualifying exam. Those students were denied a diploma and instead given a certificate of achievement. Later, when the state repealed the legislation requiring the HSGQE, districts had to do a lot of work to issue those high school diplomas retroactively. 

But even still, sponsoring senators including Hughes, Bishop and Claman said mandatory civics education is what this country needs. 

“For the continuation of our strong republic, it’s important that Americans understand our nation’s foundation, how we are supposed to function, and the citizens’ responsibility of engagement,” Hughes told The Cordova Times in an interview. 

“We are all aware how divided it can be at times in our nation,” said Hughes, “and although this division has happened before over the course of our country’s history, as this next generation advances into adulthood, if they don’t take an active role, what will become of our republic?” 

Similarly, Sen. Bishop cited the downward trend of voter participation each year as something that bothers him. He believes a better understanding of civics can help address this. 

However, increasing students’ desire to participate in civics is not the only reason some senators support SB 29. 

“As immigrants come into the U.S. and become citizens many of them are more knowledgeable than our students and the Americans who are born here on our own soil,” said Hughes. “I think we should be at least as well-equipped as those who choose to adopt the United States as their country.” 

Russin, on the other hand, balks at this potential comparison between immigrants taking the naturalized citizenship test and Alaskan high school students who may not be able to pass the exam, saying it makes him “cringe” and leaves him with a “pit in his stomach.” 

The CSD superintendent clarified that he is not opposed to the concept of civics or financial literacy education, and does see a role for schools in helping support this education — he pointed out that the school district introduces civic ideals to students as early as elementary school. (One such example, he said, is elementary students creating art for the post office, as a way they can give back to their community.)  

SB 99: Financial literacy 

Both civics and financial literacy courses have gained traction and advocacy across the country, with some states like Florida already implementing such requirements. Claman said that there has been a push for financial literacy education going on across Alaska for some years.  

“The legislation is a reflection of a growing concern that we have young folks getting out of school that don’t have adequate financial literacy skills to function in our modern society,” he said. 

Bishop said it was easy for him to say yes to SB 99 for similar reasons to Claman. The economics class his senior year at Lathrop High School in Fairbanks gave him a great foundation for the rest of his life, and an old adage from his father — “there’s nobody who can manage your money like you can manage your money” — framed his financial literacy. He hopes to give today’s students that same confidence, saying “you don’t want to be a slave to the lender.” 

While Russin has concerns about making these courses mandatory for Alaskan students, senators who sponsor the bill believe that it’s the only way to ensure students receive this education. 

“We’re setting a pretty high bar here, but if we make the course optional, we aren’t really equipping our students for success out in the real world,” Hughes said about financial literacy being required for graduation. “I think a graduating senior needs a fundamental understanding of how to handle their finances, and our education system is supposed to be equipping our young people.”  

Russin is an advocate for the local control and local governance school districts wield. He said that local districts — including school boards elected by local families — are the ones who should be making curriculum decisions based on the needs of the district’s community.  

Russin also pointed out that a zero fiscal note to the legislature doesn’t necessarily mean school districts won’t need to spend time and resources to meet criteria. CSD is a small district, with limited math and social studies teachers.  

Sen. Gray-Jackson, who represents Anchorage in District G, said she understands the “trials and tribulations” school districts have been going through due to tight budgets, but “at the same time, we can’t not introduce adding subject matters to the K-12 curriculum that are important.”  

“I think we just need to figure out what is needed to make it happen, even in the midst of budget shortfalls,” she said. “We just can’t stop moving ahead because there is a budget shortfall.”  

Bishop said that when it comes to implementing these courses, he’s fully confident in rural school districts to be successful. He highlighted the success of CSD, saying that Cordova has great schools.  

The senator said he is confident school districts across the state will be able to integrate these proposed requirements into their curriculums, and lauds those that already teach components of civics and financial literacy.  

CSD encourages parent involvement broadly, and encourages parents to engage with their students on topics like civics and financial literacy — rather than just depend on mandated courses. Russin said if parents are passionate about their students learning civics education and financial literacy, they can go through class schedules with their students and encourage students to take the relevant math or social studies courses.  

“If we teach civics in school and we go through all of the ‘here’s what it looks like, and here’s what it sounds like to be a good citizen,’ if there are opposing views in the home about what that means, then I’m not sure having kids take a civics class and pass a civics test is going to get the outcome of turning our country around, so to speak,” Russin said, using the example of teaching students civics both at home and in the classroom.   

But even so, sponsoring senators are optimistic that the bills will cross the finish line and students across the state could soon be studying mandatory financial literacy and civics education courses. If the legislation passes, Alaska students will have the new curriculum by fall 2025.