Collective bargaining in majority Alaska Native school districts: a window for reform?

This paper was originally written for a graduate school course about the role of teacher unions and school reform. It has been adapted for this post. 

This post explores the intersection between the collective bargaining process, Alaska Native communities and societies, and Alaska Native aspirations for self-determination over education. In doing so, I seek to answer the following question: Can Alaska Native peoples utilize the collective bargaining process to strengthen self-determination over education, and if so, how? I will answer this question first by closely examining Alaska’s collective bargaining statute and one contract between the North Slope Borough School District (NSBSD) and the North Slope Borough Education Association (NSBEA). This district is taking unprecedented measures to re-conceptualize and deliver schooling in a manner consistent with the culture and values of the region’s majority Iñupiat (Inuit) population, and thus represents an exciting step toward greater Alaska Native self-determination over Alaska Native education. I chose to examine this district because it offers a potential model for best practices for majority Alaska Native school districts. I then examine the role of the Alaska NEA in rural, local unions, and frame this involvement within an alternative vision for collective bargaining in majority Alaska Native school districts. Finally, I conclude with a discussion of possibilities for moving forward. The following analysis is enriched by interviews conducted with the district’s school board president, the president of the Alaska NEA, and more cursory examinations of additional rural Alaska contracts. 

Alaska’s unique educational landscape: Alaska Native peoples are organized into 223 federally recognized tribes and 10 distinct cultural groups. Native peoples represent 15% of the state population, the largest proportion of Native to non-Native residents in the U.S., and Native students account for 22% of enrolled K-12 students (AKDEED, 2011). The proportion of Native students is highest in rural districts and communities not connected to Alaska’s road system: more than half of Alaska’s 54 school districts are majority Alaska Native, and these districts correspond to cultural regions that contain distinct languages, histories, and customs. Schools have historically been – and arguably remain – institutions advancing colonialism and cultural assimilation in Indigenous homelands. Alaska Native peoples have lacked complete control over our own schooling for the entire 100-year period of government-run schooling in Alaska Native communities, evident by the fact that less than 5% of certified teachers in Alaska are Indigenous, and fewer yet are administrators (Hirshberg and Hill, 2012). Teacher turnover is highest in rural Alaska, with 24 percent of teachers leaving their jobs on average each year for one reason or another (Hirshberg and Hill, 2006). This impermanence, coupled with financial and cultural power imbalances between Native communities and teachers, contribute to feelings of distrust between communities and schools (Dinero, 2004).  

Alaska’s collective bargaining statute: Alaska’s collective bargaining statute permits collective bargaining between school districts and representative bargaining organizations, and striking by labor organizations representing employees of municipal school districts. The statute’s scope of bargaining states that “a matter is more susceptible to bargaining the more it deals with the economic interests of employees and the less it concerns professional goals and methods,” and, notably, identifies extra-curricular activities and duties and professional development as mandatory subjects of bargaining. The following subjects are non-negotiable under the current statute: relief from non-instructional chores, class size, teacher load and preparation time, evaluation of administrators, numbers of teacher aides, paraprofessionals, and specialists, and the school calendar. This vague language regarding extra-curricular activities and duties and professional development is a potential window of opportunity for Native communities to shape the role teachers play. 

North Slope Borough School District: The North Slope Borough School District (NSBSD) encompasses 11 schools in eight Iñupiat communities in northern Alaska, spanning an area larger than the state of Minnesota. In 2010, 9,430 people were living in the region, and 80% of the district’s 1,605 students were Iñupiat. The high school graduation rate for NSBSD students is about 59% overall and 54% for Iñupiat, a number slightly higher than the Alaska Native statewide average of 50.9% for 2010-2011 (AKDEED, 2011). The NSBSD is unusual in that the district has taken unprecedented strides in the last five years to center the district’s pedagogy and curricula within Iñupiat cultural and societal knowledge. Achieving Iñupiat self-determination over schooling was a catalyst for establishing a Home Rule government in the region in 1972. This aspiration was best articulated by North Slope Borough mayor and renowned Iñupiaq leader Eben Hopson in a well-known 1976 speech: “Political control over our schools must include “professional control” as well, if our academic institutions are to become an Iñupiat school system able to transmit our Iñupiat traditional values and ideals” (Hopson, 1976). In an effort to operationalize this longstanding aspiration, the school board adopted the Iñupiaq Learning Framework (ILF) in 2009, which are district standards informed by a series of region-wide community consultations about what outcomes parents desire from schooling. The ILF establishes a baseline of Iñupiaq academic and societal standards into which state content and performance standards and national standards are integrated. The ILF represents – at least in principle – a sharp turn from the past, in which Iñupiaq language and cultural content was incorporated piecemeal into the curriculum rather than the other way around. 

NSBSD school board president Debby Edwardson shares Hopson’s vision for culturally responsive schooling on the North Slope, and is a champion of the ILF. “Educational systems live in the cultures they serve, and if they don’t live in the cultures they serve, we shouldn’t be surprised if they’re unsuccessful,” Edwardson stated in an interview I conducted with her. “But apparently that’s not a common understanding among a lot of people. We’re trying to deliver the same [mainstream education] system that we deliver everywhere. It’s an odd thing but it’s true” (Edwardson, March 30, 2012). Edwardson is non-Iñupiaq, but has lived in Barrow (the region’s largest community) for decades, and is married to a prominent Iñupiaq leader. Edwardson identifies the social and cultural divide between Iñupiat communities and schools as deeply rooted in the assimilationist, boarding school-era, which came to a close in Alaska in the late 1970s. During this time, students had to leave their communities in order to access secondary schooling hundreds of miles from home, often at the expense of their languages, interpersonal relationships, and physical, psychological, and spiritual health and wellbeing.

This discontinuity between “mainstream” American schooling and the Iñupiat communities they serve is evident in the North Slope Borough School District’s 2009-2012 contract with the North Slope Borough Education Association. The distinct learning needs of Iñupiat students, such as transmission of Iñupiaq language and local knowledge, and the necessity of school-community partnership, are not reflected in this agreement, nor is the role of schooling as a colonial force in the region problematized. In short, the contract lacks indication that the North Slope is a culturally and linguistically distinct society, whose citizens’ values and conceptions of success may not be consistent with white-stream American schooling. When asked if she perceives opportunities in the collective bargaining process to improve the relationship between communities and schools, Edwardson highlights the contract’s pay-for-performance plan as a measure designed to help close the trust gap between communities and schools. The district’s pay-for-performance plan financially rewards teachers who, in designing Individualized Education Plans for their students, must consult with parents or family members of students, in addition to rewarding completed university coursework, teacher development plans, and professional collaboration. It is unclear whether such meetings have brought communities and schools closer together, or helped to foster the trusting relationships that researchers identify as elemental to student success (Bryk and Schneider, 2003; Bryk and Schneider, 2002; Reynolds and Clements, 2005; Chao and Hill, 2009).

Edwardson is hesitant to place faith in the collective bargaining process as a mechanism that can fundamentally change teachers’ values and practices: “I’m not sure to what degree you can make your negotiated agreement become the vehicle for systemic change or academic performance or whatever you want to call it…I don’t know that you can legislate that into an agreement. It’s just like that old joke about leadership: ‘if you think you’re a leader look behind, if nobodies following you then you’re just taking a walk.’” In Edwardson’s experience, the NSBEA and Alaska NEA have played a less than positive role in the district by reducing students to “bargaining chips” in a process that, in her view, focuses almost exclusively on teacher wages. She is emphatic that, just as good teachers understand community involvement and trust between parents and teachers as necessary – regardless of what is formalized contractually – there are teachers whose fundamental beliefs and practices cannot be influenced by contractual language. Edwardson believes that high quality professional development can play a key role in changing teacher perspectives and practices, but sees teacher dissention and pushback to district reforms as inevitable so long as non- Iñupiat comprise the bulk of the district’s teaching force. This view is shared by Jana Pausauraq Harcharek, Director of Iñupiaq Education in the district. Harcharek played a central role in the conceptualization, development, and implementation of the ILF. “By no means are we where I believe we need to be, and I don’t think we will be there until we have raised a cohort of teachers who are born and raised here,” Harcharek told me in 2011. “And even then, depending on how well we do at the district to inculcate our history, our language into the minds of our young people, we’ll still have a lot of work to do to bring them up to speed with those pieces” (Harcharek, June 1, 2011).

Alaska NEA: Barbara Angaiak is serving her fourth year as president and chief policy officer of the Alaska-NEA. Angaiak, a non-Native, is a veteran teacher in rural Alaska, having taught in the Lower Kuskokwim School District for decades. AK-NEA’s primary role is to support the state’s 67 local unions and their members by, for example, providing model contractual language and other forms of professional support upon request. Angaiak’s main responsibility is to act as the union’s spokesperson and to decide where the organization stands on specific issues. In a conversation I had with Angaiak, she expressed her view that the main purpose of collective bargaining is functionality, and that contracts serve to clarify basic expectations between labor and management. “Having a good contract, regardless of where you are, helps everyone with understanding what the expectations are for the employer and the employee,” she told me. “So that’s a fundamental need that we have in establishing a contract, is just knowing what the rules of the game are for everybody” (Angaiak, April 17, 2012).

Angaiak is vague when asked if the collective bargaining process is conducive to school reform: “I think there is a real place in collective bargaining agreements for education reform as long as there is real effort on both sides of the table to establish what we mean by certain terminology.” This need for clarification, Angaiak explains, is especially important given the failed reform policies of No Child Left Behind. However, she is clear in her acknowledgement of the growing desire in Indigenous communities for culturally responsive schooling, and that such approaches generally have salutary outcomes for students: “The more we can do to incorporate the knowledge base of our [Alaska Native] students into what we’re doing in the classroom, the better off everyone is, because the kids get a better connection to the lessons that they’re asked to learn about, and there’s greater understanding on the part of the culture of the school and the culture of the community coming together and understanding each other.” When asked if she could provide examples of provisions from rural contracts that speak to the unique features of rural Alaska Native education and life, Angaiak noted common provisions that deal with teacher housing, multi-graded classrooms, possible cross-cultural professional development needs, and travel between rural communities and Anchorage. She remarked that more specific measures, such as intentional scheduling of teacher participation in community activities, and incorporation of cultural activities into the school schedule were more likely to be aspects of the school culture than incorporated as provisions in local agreements.

Asked about the role the NEA plays with regard to high teacher turnover in rural Alaska, Angaiak cited somewhat surprising findings from NEA’s teacher exit polls.[1] Rather than salary, working conditions or feelings of isolation, the number one reason teachers leave their positions is because “They feel that they don’t get enough feedback and constructive criticism, positive reinforcement, from administration. That is really critical.” Interestingly, a 2002 study (McDiarmid, Larson, & Hill) of Alaska school leavers found that of a sample of 83 rural teachers leaving their positions,  48 percent cited dissatisfaction with the job of teaching, and 35 percent cited dissatisfaction with community support for the schools as a very important or somewhat important reason for leaving the profession.

Alaska Native self-determination over schooling: Whether for personal reasons or lack of community support, each year approximately 1,000 teaching positions must be filled in Alaska by recruiting teachers from Lower 48 states. A significant proportion of these teachers serve short tenures in majority Alaska Native school districts, and their lack of social and cultural familiarity with Native communities and cultures can present roadblocks for reformers seeking to tip the balance of school power in favor of Indigenous communities. Edwardson describes her experience teaching courses for credit at Barrow’s tribal college:

I get the response – I always get this in every class from a few students – and the response is, ‘we can’t just teach Alaska Native or Iñupiaq literature because we’ve got kids in our class who aren’t Alaska Native and aren’t Iñupiaq. See, my perspective is, which I think you probably share, is that we’re in Iñupiaq homeland, and that that’s the culture we’re in. All of us have to understand that and have to respect that. And the educational system should reflect that – it hasn’t, and with that kind of attitude it won’t…That’s a big block, if you’ve got teachers that think like that, and we do; talk about putting that in the negotiated agreement then. That’s a big, big stumbling block.

Ostensibly, changing teachers’ attitudes and assumptions about their role as educators in Indigenous communities, as well as setting behavioral expectations for their responsibilities within communities, tends to be a function of professional development rather than contractual agreements. The NSBSD is not unique in this respect: examination of three other majority Alaska Native school district contracts (Lower Kuskokwim School District 2003-2006, Lake and Peninsula School District 2010-2013, and Kake City School District 2010-2012) also reveals no mention of Alaska Native peoples, or the unique opportunities and responsibilities that teaching in Indigenous communities can present.

Discussion and going forward: That Alaska Native students and communities tend to be rendered invisible within teacher contracts is deeply troubling, although perhaps not surprising, given the absence of Native teachers from the teaching field, the generally unchallenged predominance of white-stream curricula, pedagogy, and values in majority Alaska Native school districts, and the relatively narrow scope of Alaska’s collective bargaining statue. It is unrealistic to believe that such initiatives alone can sustain the systemic changes in teachers’ orientation toward Alaska Native communities that Edwardson, Angaiak, Harcharek and others recognize as necessary. The collective bargaining process is meant to help prevent the erosion of teachers’ professional status by management, yet this status matters little if parents and communities do not support teachers and schools, as teachers exiting rural Alaska have voiced. Proscriptive, contractually binding measures aimed at improving community-school relations in majority Alaska Native school districts could be mutually beneficial for labor and management, and may help ensure that teachers and schools receive the respect and support they desire from communities. Labor, management, and community members should work together to consider ways collective bargaining could help serve this purpose. 

Rural Alaska school boards such as the NSBSD are statewide leaders when it comes to Alaska Native education, and should be creative in their use of the collective bargaining process to reinforce district reforms during negotiations. Management can do so by articulating in agreements what responsible and responsive teachers and community members look like, in addition to establishing a shared commitment around the purpose of education in the region. Labor and management can do so by applying a liberal interpretation to the state’s mandatory subjects of bargaining (extra-curricular activities, teacher evaluations, and professional development) in order to incorporate community expectations for teachers into district agreements. Such expectations might include teacher participation in community events, local subsistence activities, or demonstrated efforts to learn Indigenous languages.  

Based on past conversations and work experience with NSBSD staff, non-Iñupiaq teachers are being given regular professional development opportunities designed to prepare them (in my interpretation) to share in a process of re-empowering and decolonizing schooling, with the long-term goal of staffing schools with local educators in mind. If this interpretation is accurate, management should work to establish this purpose as a shared understanding and commitment of labor and management. Such measures should not be interpreted as efforts to disturb what can sometimes be a tenuous balance of power between labor and management in the NSBSD or elsewhere. By using collective bargaining to hold teachers accountable for what community members identify as important to their success for the first time ever, parents and communities will reciprocate with trust and support in ways that ultimately benefit teachers and administrators, and are more conducive to teachers’ long-term employment in the region and the success of students.


Alaska Department of Education and Early Development (AKDEED). (2011). State Report Card 2010-2011. Juneau, AK.

Angaiak, B. (April 17, 2012). Personal interview.

Bryk, A.S. and Schneider, B. (March 2003). “Trust in Schools: A Core Resource for School Reform.” Educational Leadership, 60(6). 

Bryk, A. S. and Schneider, B. (2002). “Trust in Schools: A Core Resource for Improvement.” New York, NY: The Russell Sage Foundation.

Dinero, S.C. (December 2004). The politics of education provision in rural Native Alaska: the case of Yukon Village. Race Ethnicity and Education, 7(4).

Edwardson, D. (March 30, 2012). Personal interview.

Harcharek, J. P. (June 1, 2011). Personal interview.

Hill, N.E. and Chao, R.K. (Eds.) (2009). Families, Schools, and the Adolescent. New York and London: Teachers College Press.

Hirshberg, D. and Hill, A. (April 2006). Turnover among Alaska’s teachers: how many leave their jobs? Institute of Social and Economic Research, R.S. No. 66.

Hill, A. and Hirshberg, Diane. (May 2012). Personal communication. Institute for Social and Economic Research. Anchorage, AK.

Hopson, E. (January 21, 1976). Mayor Aims to Wrest North Slope Area from Assimilation Era. Tundra Times. Fairbanks, AK.

McDiarmid, G.W., Larson, E., & Hill, A. (2002). Retaining quality teachers for Alaska. University of Alaska and Alaska Department of Education and Early Development. Anchorage, AK.

Reynolds, A. J. and Clements, M. (2005).  Parental involvement and children’s school success.  In E. N. Patrikakou, R. P. Weisberg, S. Redding, and H. J. Walberg. (Eds). School-family partnerships for children’s success.  New York: Teachers College Press.

[1] Each district apparently conducts its own exit polls, and these data were unobtainable at the time of writing.


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