Lawmakers battle over governor's role in scholarship debate

Anchorage Democrat questions constitutionality of Parnell administration's participation in committee process
Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, waits for the House Rules Committee to take up the governor's education bill. Gara Wednesday added an amendment to the bill to help students from small schools with limited resources, but that amendment was controversially removed Thursday.

Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, won a rare victory recently on the House Finance Committee, where he’s the member of a small minority. Thursday, that victory was taken away.

One of Gov. Sean Parnell’s top priorities this session has been winning funding for his scholarship plan, but he has found it difficult to persuade legislators, including some members of his own party, to do so.

Gara’s victory came when he persuaded seven members of the Finance committee on which he sits to open the scholarships to high-performing students that obtain a GED certificate instead of a diploma.

Thursday, the scholarship bill took an unusual detour to a Rules Committee meeting, where that GED provision was removed.

Gara said that was done at the request of the Parnell administration, who said the House Finance amendment was a violation of the governor’s prerogative of having the bill he wants.

Gara said that was a violation of constitutional separation of powers.

“That doesn’t sit well with me, and it doesn’t sit well with the Alaska Constitution,” Gara said on the House Floor Thursday morning.

House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, a committee member who voted to back the governor, said the scholarship plan was to do more than provide money, it was to push students into striving more, especially in struggling rural schools.

“What incentive does this give kids” if they can fail to graduate their high school, get a GED and still qualify for a merit scholarship, Nikiski asked.

Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, a former House Education Committee chair when the scholarship was developed, warned that making them too easy to obtain would undermine the program’s purpose.

“It would defeat the very purpose of what the merit scholarship does, and that’s to change the K-12 education system,” he said.

Plan advocates said schools that do not now offer the advanced classes the scholarships require would be forced to begin to make those classes available.

Critics said the scholarships will be out of reach for many, and will go to already high-performing urban schools.

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

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