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My Turn: State money will compromise private schools' autonomy

Posted: February 27, 2014 - 1:09am

The state of Alaska (and before that, the territory of Alaska) has had a long and varied history related to the schooling of kids. Any number of agencies, private and public, had a hand in educating young people during the territorial period, with varying results.

A driving desire the people had at statehood was to ensure a fair and equitable system of education for all of Alaska’s kids, hence the constitutional provision for schooling in Alaska.

If, today, the people of Alaska want to change the constitution to fund private schools with public money, it is their prerogative. Such changes are a right the people of democracies have.

Since statehood, Alaska has continued to develop two approaches for educating its youths. One approach is the constitutional public school system funded by public money, provided for and overseen by the Alaska Legislature through the Alaska State Board of Education and the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development (EED). The second approach relates to private schools funded by private parties, and for this conversation, it includes home schools.

There stands an accountability dividing wall between these two approaches. As noted, Alaskans hold the public school system effectively accountable through EED.

Private schools have complete autonomy from accountability to the people of Alaska. The parents who send their children to those schools and the schools’ respective owners hold their schools accountable. The owner may be an individual, a corporation, a religious institution or other group. A private school can open its doors by declaring it, and the state merely acknowledges it to be so.

Likewise, a legitimate home school in Alaska is one in which the parents declare that they are home-schooling their children. The state has no more input into the process.

Thus, each approach finds accountability in the respective entities that fund them.

Aligned with these approaches, students graduating high school receive diplomas endorsed by one of two different agencies. Students graduating from a public school have met state and local school board requirements; they receive a diploma endorsed by the local board and EED’s commissioner. Students graduating from a private school have met that school’s requirements; they receive a diploma endorsed by that private school’s governing entity.

The key thought is that the people of Alaska do not establish or set standards for private schools. The state does not hold private schools accountable for their educational standards or outcomes. It does not regulate or assess them.

This state of affairs changes in a big way if public money funds private schools. When students use public money to attend private schools, how can the Legislature know whether those funds are used to move students toward the skills, knowledge and understanding desired by the people of Alaska?

If students with public funds are turned away from a private school for reasons of race, religion, special needs or something else, will the people of Alaska be OK with this? When that public money goes into a private school’s bank account, how will the Legislature know the money was spent on the intended purpose? How will the Legislature know that students are learning what they need to learn?

If the people decide to fund private schools with public money, private schools receiving such funds must undergo commensurate public scrutiny by the people of Alaska just as public schools do.

That accountability has at least these components. The school will:

1. Have open access to any student.

2. Open its books for financial accounting.

3. Participate in Alaska’s student progress assessment.

4. Participate in Alaska’s school progress assessment.

Two costs develop, consequently. The legislature must get in the business of certifying private schools and all that such accountability entails. It will need to regulate the private schools at critical levels. Does the Legislature want to take this on?

Private schools will have to give up critical rights they have enjoyed: the ability to teach their students what they wish and how they wish, and keeping the state (and its regulations) out of their business. Do private schools want this loss of freedom?

In short, the degree to which a private school receives public money becomes the degree to which it yields to the state its otherwise rightful educational autonomy.

• Jon Paden served as a teacher in Alaska public schools for 11 years, taught in a private school for half a year, and worked as a mid-level manager with the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development for three years.

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