A 'mixed blessing'

Private school principals hopeful but leery of voucher impact

Although nobody knows for sure what a school choice program would look like in Alaska, one buzzword has been thrown around quite a lot since the start of session: vouchers.


If passed in the House and the Senate, Senate Joint Resolution 9 would be placed on the ballot in the next general election so voters can have a say. The measure could alter the state constitution to make way for a school choice program, which opponents say would take public money away from the state’s already struggling public school districts and put it toward private, religious schools. The program could take the form of vouchers that would function as state scholarships for parents to send their children to private schools.

A voucher system could be a mixed blessing for private schools, said Nickie Romine, Juneau Seventh-Day Adventist School principal and teacher. In her 24 years as an educator, she’s followed school choice programs closely, she said.

The Adventist school, located at 4890 Glacier Highway, is small — this year it has only five students, Romine said. But while a voucher system could bring more students in, it could also open the door for the state telling private, Christian schools what to do, she said.

“As much as I would like to say, ‘Rah, rah! Oh, goody! More for us!’ I’m going to be cautious of what the implications will be, what they will ask for in return when their money comes to us,” Romine said.

She said private school educators worry that state funding could allow the government to tell them what to teach and take the school’s focus away from a Christian education.

“They might say, ‘OK, well, you accept our money and we send you our students. These are the things we expect you to do,’” she said.

Romine’s school, which teaches kindergartners through eighth-graders, has had as many as 15 students at one time. It has operated since 1960 and in its current building since 1965. Tuition costs about $3,500 per year.

With Romine as the only teacher, it operates a lot like a “pioneer school,” Romine said, except “I have a lot more books, it’s a lot warmer, and I don’t have to chop the wood.” Right now, she said, she teaches the “Adventist curriculum” to two kindergartners, one first-grader, one fifth-grader and one seventh-grader.

The Adventist school is one of two private, Christian schools in Juneau. The other is Faith Community School in Auke Bay. Head teacher Janet Conniff said a voucher system “would be great financially” for the Auke Bay institution.

“I know for some of our parents, it would be fabulous,” Conniff said.

She said the parents of her school’s approximately 50 students (pre-kindergarten through eighth grade), manage to pay the $4,800 (for elementary school) or $5,150 (for middle school) tuition, “and they make it work, but it would be a blessing to have extra money for their education.”

“Would there be a huge influx?” she said. “I don’t know.”

Also an unknown, she said, is how the state would implement a school choice program, and what the implications would be.

“It would be interesting to see how they administer it,” she said. “Does the state feel, since you’re receiving state money, (they’re) going to come in and say, ‘You do this, you can’t do this.’”

She said it’s important for parents to have the choice to send their children to private schools, and vouchers could allow more parents to have that option.

The most important difference between her school and a public school is the “spiritual aspect,” she said. The school’s curriculum follows all the common core standards but is a “Christian curriculum.” This means God is incorporated into every subject, she said.

For example, the school’s language arts classes use samples from the Bible for grammar practice, and its world history textbook begins with Creation.

“It teaches this is all God’s plan, but it still has all the history facts,” she said. “And we pray in school whenever we want.”

Another perk is Faith Community School’s small class sizes, she said. This year, the smallest class is fifth grade, with three students. The largest is pre-kindergarten and kindergarten, with 11 students. The maximum class size is 15, she said.

Like Juneau School District’s Montessori Borealis, grade levels are paired together. The school, which rents the top floor of Auke Bay Bible Church, has six full-time teachers and one part-time. The school goes on regular field trips and has its own playground for recess.

“We pretty much do everything a public school does — we are a school,” Conniff said.

The school started eight years ago when Juneau Christian School shut down after 26 years, she said. That school had about 100 students when it closed, according to a past Empire report. Conniff said she and a few other teachers decided they weren’t ready to give up on Christian education in Juneau.

“We started the new school the very next year,” she said.

St. Ann’s Catholic School, located where St. Ann’s Center now stands downtown, closed in the 1960s, and Juneau hasn’t had a Catholic school since. Juneau Bishop Edward Burns said there’s been a push to get another Catholic school going.

“I am in great support of Catholic education, and we have gone through a survey with whether a Catholic school would be feasible and viable in Juneau,” he said. “At this point in time, we’re not so convinced that would be the case. However, we are looking at some other options for the future.”

While there is no Catholic school in Juneau, Burns does oversee Holy Name Catholic School in Ketchikan as part of the Diocese of Juneau.

Burns said he believes a school choice program in Alaska would be “so beneficial” for its residents. He pointed out that although people are worried about vouchers, “the legislators are not talking about vouchers right now, they’re talking about the constitution” and it’s important “for the legislature to advance (SJR9) so the constituents can weigh in,” he said.

He said a school choice program in Alaska would “let parents have a voice in the education of their children.”

“You can never go wrong with parents being actively involved in their children’s lives.”

He said private schools around the state shouldn’t be afraid of a school choice system.

“It’s been implemented elsewhere and it’s not a concern,” he’s said. “Also, to stop a conversation because of an unknown fear is paralyzing. I think we need to work together as a community, and to automatically say that we’re gripped by fear and unable to further the discussion is unfortunate.”

Throughout U.S. history, different states have implemented school choice programs in different ways. The state governments of Maine and Vermont have supported private education for almost 140 years, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The states provide private school scholarships for rural students who don’t have a public school nearby. Indiana implemented the nation’s first statewide voucher program for low-income students in 2011.

According to the NCSL, 13 states, plus the District of Columbia and one county in Colorado, have implemented a school voucher program. The programs differ: Some provide money to low-income students, some to special needs students, and some to rural students, among other situations. A breakdown of different voucher programs across the country can be found online at http://www.ncsl.org/research/education/voucher-law-comparison.aspx.

Romine has taught at Juneau’s Adventist school for 12 years but spent the 12 years before that teaching in Texas public schools. When a similar school choice measure was up for discussion in the Texas state legislature years ago, Romine said public and private schools across the state were worried.

As a public school teacher, she worried that her district wouldn’t be able to maintain its funding levels.

“Once the voucher system comes and people go to different places, we’re still having to fund public schools,” she said. “Taxpayers are having to meet this need.”

Now a private school teacher, she sees the other side, she said. Vouchers for private schools seems great “on the surface,” but could have negative impacts for both public and private schools across the state, she said.

“The cost of it in the end is going to be kicking us in the rear end,” Romine said.

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

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