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Alaska's education department does not track homeschool allotment spending, but may have to start • Alaska Beacon

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Alaska's education department does not track homeschool allotment spending, but may have to start • Alaska Beacon


As time runs out for Alaska lawmakers to address a recent court ruling that rattled the state’s correspondence education programs, a proposal has emerged for state officials to track their spending for the first time in a decade.

The Alaska Department of Education and Early Development does not track whether or not correspondence school allotment money is spent constitutionally. That duty falls to districts, said Commissioner Deena Bishop.

“That is not a function of the Department of Education,” she said, adding that there are no regulations or statutory requirements that it do so.

Bishop said there are no reporting requirements, either, so districts do not have to give an account of the spending back to the state. That means the education department does not have a tally of how much state money has gone to materials from private organizations in the last decade.

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That could change if lawmakers adopt a proposal aimed at stabilizing the programs in the wake of a Superior Court ruling that threw out two provisions of the law that governs the program. House Bill 400, a proposal from the House Education Committee, would temporarily set guidelines for the programs that allow two key components of the correspondence program, individualized learning plans and allotments of state money for educational materials, to continue.

House Education Committee Co-Chair Rep. Justin Ruffridge, R-Soldotna, said his intent is that it would also establish parameters to conduct audits. “DEED used to perform audits — regularly, actually — of correspondence programs,” he said, and added that the requirement was taken out of statute in 2014.

Superior Court Judge Adolf Zeman ruled that state allotment money could not be used to pay for private school tuition, a growing practice following changes to state law that green-lit spending at private and religious institutions. The ruling raised the question of how much state allotment money went to private school tuition.

Ruffridge’s office could only come up with an anecdotal answer in the absence of state oversight. “We’ve done a lot of phone calls with different programs. They don’t think it’s a large sum. But it’s more than zero. So, more than zero is — needs to be looked at,” he said.

It is now up to the Supreme Court to decide what kind of spending is constitutional for these programs in Alaska. The language in HB 400 is such that the law would be relevant even if a constitutional amendment to allow allotment spending on religious materials, which has been proposed by members of the House, were approved. The legislation would sunset at the beginning of next July.

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The Senate has also proposed a solution, Senate Bill 266, which would also preserve allotments and learning plans. It differs from the House proposal in that it proposes additional student testing requirements and allotment spending restrictions.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy and Bishop have indicated they favor the House version. Bishop praised its “simple language” and said she has been in communication with the state’s correspondence program principals to keep them apprised of the potential changes and the department’s position.

The Supreme Court has scheduled a June 25 court date to hear the state’s appeal to the ruling, five days before Zeman’s ruling would take effect. Dunleavy has indicated he may call a special session of the Legislature after the ruling to make clear what is available through correspondence programs.

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Federal bill would add veterinary care to IHS duties to address rabies, other risks in rural Alaska • Alaska Beacon

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Federal bill would add veterinary care to IHS duties to address rabies, other risks in rural Alaska • Alaska Beacon


The Indian Health Service provides medical and dental care to the Indigenous peoples of Alaska and elsewhere in the nation. What it does not provide, however, is veterinary care for animals living with the IHS’ human clients.

A bill introduced by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, is an attempt to change that.

The bill, called the Veterinary Services to Improve Public Health in Rural Communities Act, was introduced by the Alaska senator last week. It would add veterinary services to the federal agency’s duties. That is important in rural Alaska, she said, where regular veterinarian care is notoriously scarce and where diseases in wild animal populations pose threats to domestic animals like dogs and, potentially, people.

The bill would direct the IHS to work with tribal organizations to provide veterinarian services, including spaying and neutering of pets.

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A top concern is rabies, which is common in Alaska fox populations but also found in other animals and thus poses risks to people.

“Unfortunately, in Alaska we are experiencing more frequent rabies outbreaks in wild animal populations. Rural communities are disproportionately at higher risk of rabies transmission to humans due to uncontrolled dog populations in remote areas of Alaska — which is particularly concerning given the challenges of providing health care in many rural and remote villages,” Murkowski said in a statement. There are vaccination and voluntary veterinary services trying to address the problems, but those “are simply not able to meet the growing need for services. My bill would help bolster the veterinary workforce in Alaska, creating healthier and safer communities across the state,” she said.

Alaska Native children, research shows, are at elevated risks for dog bites, which could, in turn, expose them to rabies or other diseases that can spread between animals and people, also known as zoonotic diseases. A 2013 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that Alaska Native children’s rate of hospitalization for dog bites was about twice that of the general U.S. child population. Indigenous children in the Southwestern and Northern Plains states also had high rates of hospitalization for dog bites, the study found.

Dog bites and exposure through them to rabies and other diseases is a problem in Indigenous communities throughout the circumpolar north, and “dog bites have become an important  public health burden” in those places, said a 2022 report by Canadian researchers that synthesized 257 individual studies.

Rabies is endemic, meaning entrenched, in the Arctic fox and red fox populations of northern Alaska, Western Alaska and the Aleutians, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. But rabies has been found in other wild animals, such as caribou and polar bears, according to the department.

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Last summer, North America’s first confirmed case of a rabies-infected moose occurred in the Bering Strait-area village of Teller. The moose, found wandering in and around the community, was euthanized and found to be carrying the Arctic fox variant of the rabies virus, which is different from the red fox variant, the Department of Fish and Game said.

Among the provisions in Murkowski’s bill is a directive for the veterinary officers from the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps to provide services to the IHS, a directive for a study about the feasibility of delivering oral rabies vaccines in Alaska’s Arctic region and inclusion of the IHS as a coordinating agency in the National One Health Framework, which is addressing zoonotic diseases and federal agencies’ readiness to respond to them.

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Alaska's pristine rivers are turning a rusty orange even when seen from space, likely because of melting permafrost: study

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Alaska's pristine rivers are turning a rusty orange even when seen from space, likely because of melting permafrost: study


At least 75 of Alaska’s brooks and streams have been turning a dirty orange likely due to thawing permafrost, with some rivers so impacted that the discoloration can be seen via satellite, a new study says.

This phenomenon, which researchers say comes amid unusually rapid warming in the region, was first observed in the northwestern state in 2018, scientists told Business Insider’s Jenny McGrath in January.

The researchers have been stumped by it for years. But their findings, published Monday in the peer-reviewed Communications Earth & Environment journal, say that the waterways’ rusty color likely comes from minerals uncovered by the thaw.

Previously locked beneath Alaska’s permafrost, these minerals are now exposed to water and oxygen, causing them to release acid and metals like zinc, copper, iron, and aluminum, the study said.

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The dissolved iron is thought to be the main culprit behind the “rusting” of the rivers, which typically occurs in July and August when the thaw is the most pronounced.

But the implications of the melt go far beyond color. These waters are becoming so acidic that some are registering pH levels of 2.6, or between the equivalent of the acidity of lemon juice and orange juice.

Pure water has a pH value of 7. Rivers and lakes typically have a pH value of 6.5 to 8, and acid rain has a pH value of 4.2 to 4.4.


An image of the clear Akillik River in 2016 and the orange river in 2018

A stream tributary of the Akillik River in Kobuk Valley National Park, Alaska turned orange between 2016 (left) and 2018 (right).

Jon O’Donnell/National Park Service

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“These findings have considerable implications for drinking water supplies and subsistence fisheries in rural Alaska,” researchers wrote.

They added that the region has already suffered the “complete loss” of two fish species due to the acidity: juvenile Dolly Varden trout and the Slimy Sculpin. Chum salmon and whitefish are also at risk of population decline, they said.

The changes could be devastating for indigenous tribes in the region, which rely heavily on fishing, researchers noted.

The 75 orange streams observed were scattered across northern Alaska over a span of about 600 miles, the study said. All of them were in remote areas, miles away from human activity that could impact land, such as roads or mining.

Researchers highlighted satellite images of the Agashashok River, a tributary of the Kuguroruk River, and the Anaktok Creek tributary of the Salmon River in northwest Alaska. They said all three have turned considerably redder in the summer months of the last 10 years.

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An orange tributary joins the Kugaroruk River in Alaska.

An orange tributary joins the Kuguroruk River in Alaska.

Joshua Koch, US Geological Survey



Scientists warn that Alaska is warming at a rate two to three times the global average.

The Biden administration projected in November that the state would need an estimated $4.8 billion in infrastructure repair and adaptation over the next 50 years due to rising temperatures and damage from flooding, erosion, and permafrost thaw.

According to the administration’s multiagency report, Alaska’s fishing and tourism industries, which collectively provide more than 90,000 jobs and $2.57 billion in wages, are also at risk, with fish stocks expected to collapse and winter tourism likely falling.

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For Alaska politicians, embracing renewable energy is about the economy — not the environment

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For Alaska politicians, embracing renewable energy is about the economy — not the environment


In the third convening of an annual renewable energy conference, Gov. Mike Dunleavy touted economic concerns — not environmental ones — in promoting the state’s green energy potential.

Dunleavy, a Republican, on Wednesday called legislation adopted by Alaska lawmakers earlier this month “historic,” referring to a bill to enable the state to develop carbon sequestration regulations, another to create a unified transmission organization along the Railbelt that could facilitate the integration of renewable energy projects, and a third to facilitate loans for new renewable energy projects.

Altogether, the legislation, which will also exempt new renewable energy projects from property taxes, could transform Alaska from a state reliant on fossil fuel production to one that increasingly moves toward renewable energy and carbon neutrality.

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But climate change — driven by carbon emissions — was not referenced by the governor or the lawmakers who spoke about the legislation at the conference in Anchorage. Rather, they spoke about carbon sequestration and renewable energy possibilities as means for lowering Alaskans’ energy bills and attracting additional investment in the state — including from carbon emitters like oil and gas companies.

“We need to make sure that our industries, our oil base, can stay competitive,” said Sen. Bert Stedman, a Sitka Republican who accompanied Dunleavy onstage at the conference to speak about legislation passed earlier this month.

[Warning of shortfall next year, Enstar takes step toward pipeline that could receive natural gas imports]

When Alaska-based oil producers “try to sell their oil, the buyers are now looking at the carbon footprint,” Stedman added. “We want to make sure that our partners in Prudhoe Bay and all the other oil fields are competitive in that marketplace, or we’re going to be punished by having a harder time selling it and probably lower prices.”

For three years, Dunleavy has convened the annual conference to address renewable energy. He has used the platform to tout his efforts to promote carbon offsetting — keeping trees standing on state land to raise revenue from companies seeking to reduce their carbon footprint — and carbon sequestration — injecting carbon deep underground — to entice investment in Alaska even as some oil and gas companies increasingly shy away from new development in the Arctic.

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The state has yet to begin selling carbon offsetting credits, and carbon sequestration legislation has not been transmitted to the governor for his signature. But Dunleavy said Wednesday that Alaska’s carbon storage capacity “is absolutely significant.”

Twenty-four states have adopted greenhouse gas reduction targets. Alaska is not one of them, and at the conference, Dunleavy reiterated that he had no intention of developing such a target.

In a speech to conference attendees, Dunleavy said Tuesday that he’s “agnostic as to the electron.”

“Within the energy sphere, there’s a lot of people that focus on reducing or eliminating carbon. My focus is on providing the cheapest electricity possible to Alaskans so that we can afford to live here, we can afford to bring industry here. In that process, I do think we’re going to minimize carbon with our carbon capture and our carbon offsets and technology as we go into the future,” Dunleavy said.

“We can’t afford to pick and choose what energy sources we’re going to use,” said Dunleavy. “We need all of it, and we need it as soon as possible.”

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Dunleavy’s views are in line with those of Republicans nationally, according to a recent study from the Pew Research Center that found few Republicans see climate change as a top priority for the country, but many support some proposals to address climate change — including developing carbon capture technologies.

The governor was joined at the conference by a bipartisan group of 15 lawmakers, all of whom had recently supported the energy bills that Dunleavy celebrated. Despite disagreements with lawmakers earlier in the session, Dunleavy struck a celebratory tone when speaking about the Legislature.

“The work that they did this year and the work that they’ll do in the years to come will absolutely transform this state,” he said. “I think what happened this year bodes well for next year, the year after, with regard to our ability to work together to get some important bills passed in our House and our Senate.”

Rep. Will Stapp, a Fairbanks Republican, said he is skeptical of some of the Dunleavy-backed carbon policies, including sequestration and offsetting, but that the legislation laid a framework for moving “in a positive direction.”

“What does that look like? To me, that looks like the ability to move the cheapest electron up and down the Railbelt system, no matter where it comes from, no matter how it’s generated, to the consumer at the cheapest rate possible.”

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House Minority Leader Calvin Schrage, an Anchorage independent, said in an interview that climate change is “one of the major issues facing our generation” but talking about renewable energy in terms of economic benefits was to “meet people where they’re at.”

“It’s kind of hard to worry about the climate when you’re not able to afford groceries or to heat your home or anything else related to energy,” said Schrage. Alaskans are “feeling the cost of energy more than they’re feeling the impacts of climate change.”

“We need to do things in a cleaner, more renewable way, but we also have to meet our energy needs today and that’s going to require oil and gas. It doesn’t have to be one or the other,” he said.

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