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Day 59: The kids are alright
It's some of the adults I'm worried about.
Good afternoon, Alaska! It’s Day 59 of the legislative session.
In this edition: There’s been a lot of talk in the Alaska Legislature over the last week about Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s “parental rights” bill that largely mirrors the notorious “Don’t Say Gay” bill passed in Florida and other Republican states, but very little of it has come from students who would have to live with it. On Wednesday, the Legislature’s education committees heard from the student advisors to the state Board of Education and they wasted little time calling out the legislation for what it is: A threat to all gender non-conforming students. It’s a pretty big contrast to the selectively invited testimony the House Education Committee has heard so far. Also, some excellent reporting on the flimsy process on hastily approved legislator raises.
Current mood: 🥲
The kids are alright
There’s been a lot of talk in the Alaska Legislature over the last week about Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s “parental rights” bill that largely mirrors the notorious “Don’t Say Gay” bill passed in Florida and other Republican states, but very little of it has come from students who would have to live with it.
We’ve heard legislators on both sides of the issues—some giving passionate defenses of kids’ right to self-determination while others have mused about kids being their property—and the House Education Committee on Monday heard invited testimony from a person linked to the campaign against Anchorage’s ban on “conversion” therapy, the bogus practice of trying to change a minor’s sexual orientation.
The House and Senate Education committees finally heard from two students during its joint hearing on Wednesday with the Board of Education when they gave student advisor Maggie Cothron and incoming student advisor Felix Myers and opportunity to speak end of the hearing with board’s adult members.
Both got straight to the point, calling out the legislation for what it is: A threat to all gender non-conforming students.
“I think it’s important to address from a student perspective what that looks like and some issues that we see with that bill. In many of the conversations that I’ve had with fellow students, many of whom identify with the LGBTQ community, they see many problems and issues,” he said.
The legislation would bar teachers from discussing sex or gender identity in any form without written permission from a parent. The same would go for changing a student’s pronouns, name or nickname. It would also reclassify the state-mandated sexual abuse awareness and teen dating violence courses as sex ed, banning it completely for all young children. It would also dictate who can use which bathrooms and would require teachers to relay any and all information a student might confide in them with a parent, effectively requiring teachers to out students.
Myers said the legislation raises serious concerns about the well being and safety of transgender students, pointing out they already face a far higher risk of dying by suicide than their peers.
“If, in this case, they feel that in a safe environment such as a school they are not able to be themselves or they aren’t going to be respected in that role, then that leads to far more danger for them in that situation,” he said. “I can safely say transgender students face some of the most dangerous situations, and many of them feel not comfortable in their homes. ... (Students) who are not able to get parent permission are the ones who are most likely danger of being in an unsafe situation. Having it so that the schools are not able to protect those students’ safety is a significant threat.”
Cothron agreed with Myers, noting that the purpose of the education system is to provide a quality education to all students, which includes providing a safe and welcoming environment for them to learn. She said not every student has that at home.
“It’s concerning and scary,” she said. “I have friends who don’t come out to their parents because they don’t feel safe, they don’t feel that their parents will accept them and let them be who they want to be. To have that forcibly come out will have a lot of negative consequences that you may not realize.”
Myers also made an important note: That the term “gender identity” isn’t particularly specific and could be expansively interpreted to bar teachers from talking about just about anything dealing with men and women. He even pointed out that the committee even heard about the reading gap between boys and girls in schools.
“Gender identity is a very vague term, and we can go on with semantics all we want, but is that a conversation of: How can we talk about historical figures without talking about their gender?” he asked rhetorically. “With Martha Washington, are we now going to have to send out permission slips for talking about the fact that she was the wife of George Washington? Gender identity is a very vague term. How much are we going to be bearing down on the ability of our educators teach about history, statistics, things like that when we’re comparing genders of men and women, just like what was presented today.”
Beyond Rep. CJ McCormick asking that the students be given an opportunity speak in the first place, legislators didn’t engage or directly respond to the student advisors’ testimony.
House Education Committee co-chair Rep. Jamie Allard, R-Eagle River, didn’t comment on the substance of their speeches, but has previously praised the governor’s legislation and invited only supporters to speak during the bill’s first and only hearing so far on Monday. That testimony included retired educator Kristine Gugel who’s associated with Wellspring Ministries, a religious organization that performed “conversion therapy” in Anchorage before the city banned it.
Gugel told the committee that parents know better than what students “perceive is their sexual identity” and that parents “have a God-given responsibility for the moral, spiritual, sexual, medical condition of their children.”
Of course, not all legislators believe parents should have complete control over the lives of children. Last week on the House floor, Rep. Andrew Gray said he grew up in a household that was unaccepting of him being gay and said he’d fight for the right of all children to be who they are.
“To those kids, I want to say you can be friends with whomever you want, you can play sports or not, you can dress the way you want to dress, you can use the names you want to use, you can play with the toys you want to play with. This is America, you are free,” he said. “I have sworn an oath to protect your freedom. You are no one’s shame, you are not your parent’s property. You are your own person. You are perfect the way you are.”
Follow the thread: The Education committees hear from the Board of Education
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Flimsy process on legislator raises
It turns out when you put a potential pay raise on the line, things happen and they happen quick.
Following last week’s unanimous vote by the Legislature to reject pay raises for Gov. Mike Dunleavy and his cabinet—a decision that was largely driven by the lack of any similar pay raise for legislators—the adminisration has cleaned house on the Alaska State Officers Compensation Commission and got a far more legislator-friendly deal approved in short order.
Covered in depth by the Anchorage Daily News, the process has played out like this: By Tuesday every commissioner had either resigned, been given a job in the Dunleavy administration or been removed from the panel altogether. By Wednesday afternoon, a new slate of commissioners was appointed and in a 15-minute meeting approved an amendment to their proposal increasing Dunleavy’s pay with an 67% increase to legislators’ salaries, which will go from $50,400 to $84,000.
The ADN reporters didn’t shy away from pointing out the whole process looked a little… coordinated.
Here’s what Commissioner Duff Mitchell, the member who made the motion for $84,000, told the Anchorage Daily News:
“I think I picked it up, there was some discussion, or read something where, I don’t know who it was, I don’t know where I picked it up, but they were talking about some kind of benchmark to the commissioners,” said Mitchell in an interview. He later added that he may have spoken about the idea when he was interviewed by a member of the governor’s office for the commission position. “I don’t know how that came up or whatever. So I may have shared it.”
No one could really explain, either, why it was expedited.
Here’s the ADN’s reporting on that question:
Asked why he chose to hold a vote Wednesday rather than waiting to make recommendations at a later date, Handeland, the commission chair, took a long pause.
“I don’t know if there was urgency in that,” he said.
Reading between the lines: This all has do with the pending legislation to reject the governor’s pay raise. Under the law, the commission’s recommendations go into effect unless a bill disapproving them becomes law. The Legislature advanced such legislation with a veto-proof majority, giving themselves just enough time to override a potential veto. By forwarding the pay raises for legislators as an amendment to the previous recommendations for the governor and his cabinet, it’s likely a way for the governor and his cabinet to secure their raises without a dust up over a potential veto.
In the big picture, legislators and those in state government have argued that the years of flat salaries for officials have made it increasingly difficult to recruit executives and attract legislative candidates from all walks of life. In rejecting last year’s pay cuts, legislators worried that it would leave it so only the independently wealthy could serve in the Alaska Legislature.
Still, the optics of the whole situation—particularly the rushed process and flimsy explanations—aren’t particularly great when, you know, there are still people who are going without food because the state’s foodstamp backlog.
Happy March Madness to all who observe