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My Turn: Education reform bill good for Alaska's children

Posted: February 14, 2012 - 1:01am

An important piece of legislation for Alaska’s children is House Bill 145 establishing the parental choice scholarship program to pay the cost of attending grades kindergarten through 12 at non-government schools. The bill, HB145, was approved the other day by the House Education Committee and is now before House Finance.

The bill would empower parents to choose the school their child attends, with state money following the child. In addition to approval by the Legislature and governor, the measure requires passage of a constitutional amendment to permit tax money to go to a private or religious school.

In a September 2011 statewide poll, 64 percent of Alaskans said they support the concept of school choice (to review the survey, go to akchoice.org).

Many Alaskans are not convinced government is doing an adequate job of educating our K-12 students. At the Anchorage Mayor’s Summit on Education, national leaders told us we are on the bottom rungs in national testing. There is a nationally expressed belief that change is needed. The president, Congress, and most of the state legislatures are addressing the problem.

There is a strong belief good education comes from competition. Government monopoly doesn’t produce the best of anything. Competition allows creativity and development of new ideas and systems.

Secondly, parents bring a child into life. They accept the responsibilities and obligations to raise that child into adulthood and become part of the American dream. An impediment to fulfilling that obligation is the limitation of sending their children to public schools. There are other schools, but they can be prohibitively expensive. In Anchorage, for example, a non-public school ranges from $4,000 to $12,000 per student per year. All Alaskans pay taxes to support K-12 education, but only those children who go to a government school actually receive a free education.

Parents know their children best. They love them and have the responsibility of raising them to be the best they can be. Some want their child to get schooling that emphasizes discipline. Others may want an emphasis in school on sports, languages, religious philosophy, or their culture. Some parents of children with special challenges want those aggressively addressed in their schools. The majority of parents don’t have that choice because of the substantial cost to send their child anywhere other than public school.

Per the survey, if cost were not a consideration, 39 percent of parents would send their children to public school, 30 percent to private school, 15 percent to a charter school, and 11 percent would homeschool. Currently, about 85 percent of Alaskan children go to public school and 15 percent are in the others.

The goal of this legislation is that each K-12 child receive the best education available for that child.

Our government spends lots of money on K-12 education. Opening education to competing sources where parents make the school choice will result in the best educated child. In the long run, it will result in a less costly education system. In the short run, the cost could increase as we would be picking up the tuition parents currently pay for non-public schools.

The proposed legislation provides that tuition and fees at a non-public school be paid by the government, not to exceed the state and local funds the school district spends to educate a similar child. The current cost for non-public schools is between 1/2 to 2/3 the cost of public schools.

The National Education Association vehemently opposes this legislation as do some members of local school boards and school superintendents. Their primary argument is that it may take money away from public education. The existing educational establishment has always said they can improve K-12 education if just given more money.

The battle for K-12 parental choice education is moving across the country. Last year, 13 states improved laws regarding parental choice. A dozen additional states are actively pursuing new laws to provide parental choice and improve education.

In the Alaska legislature HB145 or SB106 cover the proposed statutory change. The constitutional change is in HJR16 or SJR9. The public will have the final say as the statute is ineffective without the constitutional amendment which would be on the ballot in the general election in November.

Legislators need to hear from you now.

• Fink is a former Anchorage mayor who is heading an ad hoc group of volunteers called “Alaskans for Choice in Education.”

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