Public funds, private schools: The best course for Alaska is to keep the two separate

The following editorial first appeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:

Gov. Sean Parnell, during his State of the State speech, urged legislators to put on the ballot a constitutional amendment undoing the Alaska Constitution’s prohibition on the direct use of public funds for private education.

The governor does it under the premise of offering more opportunity to more of Alaska’s children.

And how could anyone disagree with such a good aim?

But disagree people should.

The Alaska Constitution, like other state constitutions across the nation, prohibits the expenditure of public funds on private education.

Article VII, Section 1 reads as follows:

“The legislature shall by general law establish and maintain a system of public schools open to all children of the State, and may provide for other public educational institutions. Schools and institutions so established shall be free from sectarian control. No money shall be paid from public funds for the direct benefit of any religious or other private educational institution.”

This view on separation even predates Alaska statehood. The Second Organic Act of 1912, which established Alaska as a territory, said no territorial money could go to “any school not under the exclusive control of the government.”

Hearings are scheduled Monday through Wednesday in the Senate on a resolution to potentially upend all of that. Senate Joint Resolution 9, whose cosponsors include Republican Sens. Pete Kelly of Fairbanks and John Coghill of North Pole, would ask voters to remove the last line of Article VII, Section 1.

SJR 9 would also add some language to Article IX, Section 6, dealing with finance and taxation. It would add that “nothing in this section shall prevent payment from public funds for the direct educational benefit of students as provided by law.”

Gov. Parnell offers as support for his view the 2002 U.S. Supreme Court upholding the constitutionality of Ohio’s Pilot Project Scholarship Program. The program provided financial assistance to families in the troubled Cleveland school district so parents could send their children to better schools, either private ones within the Cleveland district’s boundaries or to public schools adjacent to the district.

The justices set up a five-part test, which the governor cited in his speech:

• The education spending must have a valid secular purpose.

• The aid must go to parents and not the schools.

• A broad class of beneficiaries must be covered.

• The education program must be neutral with respect to religion.

• There must be adequate non-religious options.

But who will monitor this? Who will determine whether a parent is spending state money on “a valid secular purpose”? Who will determine whether the education program is “neutral with respect to religion”? Would the state find itself in the business of having to determine these things?

Do we want state government involved in such matters?

No.

Gov. Parnell said in his speech that the issue is not about private schools or religious schools. He said “it is about whether parents should have the freedom to say what school best meets their child’s education needs with their child’s share of public money — their money.”

So that’s it: The issue can be looked in terms of whose money it is. Does the millions in public money being spent on the state’s public education system belong to the public collectively? Or does each individual have a claim to a share of it and therefore the right to decide where to spend it?

If the latter is the case, as the governor argues, why stop with education? Why not let individuals decide how to spend their “share” of state transportation funds or parks funds?

It’s a sticky subject all the way around. And it’s one where separation of public and private is the best course.

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