It is not surprising that Bishop Edward Burns in his Feb. 2 opinion piece supports Senate Joint Resolution 9 to amend our Alaska State Constitution to allow for public funds to support religious and private schools. Such action opens the way for tens of millions of public dollars to flow to parochial schools run by the Catholic Church. As Bishop Burns articulates in his essay, this is an action the Catholic Church has pursued for nearly 150 years. It has repeatedly been found unconstitutional under the United States Constitution, and is explicitly prohibited by the Alaska State Constitution. Why? Because using public funds in this way would destroy public education, one of the great achievements of American democracy. Under our Alaska Constitution, the State of Alaska has the mandate to provide public education open to all children, of all religions, ethnicities, and all economic and social background. Children with disabilities, children learning English as a second language, children from functional and dysfunctional families: all are welcome in our public schools. The schools are overseen by our fellow citizens elected to local school boards, and the operation and budget of the schools is transparent and public. The authors of our Constitution recognized that in order to have such an egalitarian public education system, public funds should not be diverted to religious or private schools.
Bishop Burns would have us believe that the wording in the Alaska Constitution is rooted in prejudicial anti-Catholicism. Actually, there is no bias in the wording of our Constitution. The words that would be struck from Article 7, Section 1, are “No money shall be paid from public funds for the direct benefit of any religious or other private educational institution.” That means no money for ANY sectarian schools, whether they be Catholic, Episcopal, Judaic, Islamic, Scientology, Wiccan, or Atheist (yes, there is an Atheist Church). It also means no public money to for-profit schools and academies.
It is ironic that the Legislature would consider this action at a time when our public schools are laying off dozens of teachers and stripping activity budgets because of the state’s unwillingness to maintain funding for our public schools that keeps up with increasing costs. For years, there has been no increase in the Education Foundation formula, and the increase proposed by the governor in his budget this year only covers a small part of the ground lost to inflation over those years. As a result, class sizes are rising and educational resources are declining. This has been done under the banner of fiscal responsibility. Yet if the public coffers are opened to support religious and private schools that some parents choose for their children, estimated costs to the state education funds are upwards of $100 million dollars. In all likelihood, that money will be a direct drain on our public schools, resulting in more lay-offs, ballooning class sizes, and a self-fulfilling prophesy of poor performance.
Senate Joint Resolution 9 to amend our constitution to allow funding of religious and private schools is a bad idea that will seriously degrade or destroy the public education system in Alaska.
• Alex Wertheimer is a Juneau resident and father of two children educated by Juneau public schools.