Students, teachers, parents rally against vouchers

SJR9 could allow state funds to go to private schools

Speakers blared, picket signs waved and groups that, until recently, had butted heads stood together on the Capitol steps at noon Monday to oppose state vouchers that would pay for students to attend private schools.

Members of the Juneau School District Board of Education as well as the Juneau Education Association teachers union, which had been been at odds for more than a year, both came out against SJR9 and its companion in the house, HJR1. The resolutions would place on the ballot the option to strike from the Alaska constitution the line that states: “No money shall be paid from public funds for the direct benefit of any religious or other private educational institution.”

The resolution was narrowly advanced by the House of Representatives on Feb. 7. It will be heard by the House Judiciary Committee on Feb. 19.

JEA Vice President Dirk Miller stood among the ralliers with signs reading: “Vouchers hurt public schools,” “Kids! Not cuts” and “This wouldn’t happen at Hogwarts.” He said it was good to see school board President Sally Saddler, along with other board members, at the rally.

Miller said the JEA had been “battling for a cost-of-living raise for teachers” but now the group wants a “cost-of-living raise for education.”

He said that although the JEA and school district were on the same side during contract negotiations, “we had different views on how to cut the budget pie.” Now they agree: “We need a bigger pie,” he said.

The rally also focused on increasing the base student allocation, proposed in bills HB278 and SB139, which would raise Alaska’s classroom funding after years of the BSA remaining flat. Juneau parents, teachers and politicians, along with representatives from Anchorage’s teachers union and state legislators, filled the street in front of the Capitol.

School board member Andi Story said at the rally that if the BSA is raised by $85 per student next year as proposed, the school district will only have to cut 17 teaching positions rather than the 27 anticipated. The BSA is currently $5,680 per student.

She said the district’s priority is retaining Juneau teachers through increased classroom funding.

“We want to protect the classroom and funds for the classroom,” Story said.

Rep. Cathy Muñoz, R-Juneau, said after the rally she believes Gov. Sean Parnell’s proposal “is definitely a good start, but it might not be enough to get to the level of need that we’re seeing across the state.”

Due to increased district needs and health care costs and declining federal dollars, along with the static BSA, “districts all over the state are having difficulties balancing their budgets,” Muñoz said.

She said it would probably take the full $200 allocation increase, which Parnell proposed spreading across three years, all in the first year to balance out the Juneau School District’s budget.

She said she is also “very concerned” with the voucher measure.

“I ultimately feel they would erode public dollars away from the public school system,” Muñoz said. “I personally believe that public funds should be directed at public schools.”

Sen. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage, who spoke to the cheering crowd at the rally, said funding Alaska’s education system “is not a partisan issue.”

“It’s not a Democratic or Republican issue, it’s an Alaskan issue,” she said.

Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, attended the rally to help him understand all sides of the issues at hand, he said. Micciche said, as a Republican and a father, one of the most important things to him is the education of Alaska’s young people. However, “not every child learns the same,” he said after the rally.

“Poking each other isn’t going to be effective,” Micciche said of the attitudes of some legislators on education issues. “Education should not be a toy that we use as a pawn for next year’s elections. It should be a priority for all legislators all the time.”

Rep. Lynn Gattis, R-Wasilla, chairwoman of the House Education Committee, is in favor of the measure that would allow vouchers for students to attend private schools.

“I’m in favor of looking at all the options for education, and I think that’s one of the options we need to look at,” she said after the rally. “We have been an evolving education program since statehood.”

However, she said, “probably the majority of Alaskans are public school-educated.”

“I don’t think there’s anybody that wants public education to go away,” Gattis said.

Rep. Harriet Drummond, D-Anchorage, ended the rally with a battle cry.

“What do we want? BSA!” she called to the crowd. “When do we want it?”

“Now!” they cheered back.

• Contact reporter Katie Moritz at 523-2294 or at katherine.moritz@juneauempire.com. Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.

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