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Parnell's scholarship funding falters as session draws to a close

Legislature unlikely to endow scholarships, but may fund them for one year

Posted: April 13, 2011 - 8:40pm
House Minority Leader Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, along with Rep. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage, and Rep. Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage, hold a press conference at the Capitol on Wednesday.   Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
House Minority Leader Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, along with Rep. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage, and Rep. Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage, hold a press conference at the Capitol on Wednesday.

One of Gov. Sean Parnell’s top legislative priorities, a $400 million endowment for the performance scholarship plan he’s promoted, appears unlikely to pass this legislative session.

Now, he’s just trying to get single-year funding to get it started while facing a last-minute crush of legislation.

Some Democratic legislators think Parnell’s goal of educational improvement is admirable, but misguided in its implementation.

Speaking at a press conference Wednesday, House Democrats, led by Minority Leader Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, said they wanted to see more focus on early education, instead of Parnell’s incentive of college scholarships for high school graduates who completed rigorous coursework.

“We can’t get them into college if we can’t get them through elementary school,” said Rep. David Guttenberg, D-Fairbanks.

The Democrats said they feared the bulk of the scholarship money Parnell sought would go to already strong city schools that offer more advanced options than do small rural schools.

That difference in opportunity was highlighted in what’s known as the Moore case, in which rural schools challenged the constitutionality of Alaska’s school funding system.

A scholarship that’s available mostly to students in bigger cities could widen that disparity, the Democrats said.

The governor’s merit scholarship plan “feeds into the same problem as Moore,” Guttenberg said.

Rep. Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage, said he was worried the scholarship plan would bring another court challenge.

“I’m concerned that if we get a merit scholarship plan we’re going to have another Moore versus State case, we’re not going to have scholarships for rural Alaska if we don’t bring up the programs and the results we desire out there,” Tuck said.

Parnell has dismissed that concern and expressed confidence his scholarship plan would transform both urban and Bush education.

“I totally reject the notion that just because you are from a rural area you cannot earn an Alaska Performance Scholarship,” he said earlier in the session.

A scholarship bill that passed out of the House Finance Committee this week includes both merit and needs-based components in a compromise that is still not certain to pass.

Tuck praised the concept behind Parnell’s bill, however.

“I appreciate the governor’s vision, we do need to have more science and math, I think that’s a great vision to have,” he said.

Legislators appear reluctant to approve the $400 million Parnell had sought, with some saying it was not prudent to set aside that much money without knowing what the state’s future financial situation would be.

House Democratic Whip Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage, defended the concept Wednesday, however.

“You have to have kids understand that if they chose to strive for college, there is this big carrot there,” she said.

“If that’s going to be available you have to have a really reliable funding system,” she said.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 586-4816 or at patrick.forgey@juneauemprie.com.

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