The House of Representatives handed Gov. Sean Parnell a big victory on his performance scholarship plan in the last days of the Legislative session as lawmakers disregarded concerns over its fairness and constitutionality and approved it unanimously.
Prospects for passage, which just recently appeared dim, now appear much brighter after the action late in the week.
Some of those concerns had been expressed in the final days and — and even hours — before the House vote, with some of those who arrived on the House floor intending to vote against it instead supporting it.
That followed an impassioned speech from Rep. Alan Dick, R-Stoney River, who said the scholarships would transform education in Alaska by expecting more from its students.
Offering the scholarships will be a “turning point, a defining moment in the history of education in Alaska,” Dick said.
The concerns expressed earlier had been that most of the scholarship money, estimated at about $8 million in its first year, and eventually $20 million annually, will mostly go to students in larger schools with more courses available.
The state currently spends more than $2 billion annually on K-12 and higher education in Alaska.
To qualify for the scholarships, students would have to take advanced classes, and the size of the scholarship would be tied to grade point averages. They could only be used at Alaska colleges or technical schools.
Rep. Reggie Joule, D-Kotzebue, who represents Alaska’s northern rural schools, said the state needs to have high standards to get good results, and the governor’s plan would do that.
“We need to keep that bar high,” he said.
He said he hopes the program would “spotlight” the schools that are failing to perform for students.
“We will find those areas to hone in, to try to make improvements, he said. “If there are troubled areas, I think having something like this will in the end help.”
Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, tried to amend the legislation to help more students qualify if they came from schools where the required classes weren’t offered or if they graduated with a GED.
That change was voted down 26-13, with Democratic rural legislators voting with the scholarship plan’s longtime Republican supporters.
Rep. Anna Fairclough, R-Anchorage, acknowledged that some students would have more access to the scholarships than others.
“It will prepare students to meet an unfair world, where everything is not equal,” she said.
Just the offer of the scholarships will likely improve schools that don’t now offer the advanced classes, said Rep. Dan Saddler, R-Anchorage.
“Parents will knock on the door and ask their locally-controlled school districts to offer the classes so their children can qualify for these scholarships,” he said.
Rep. Alan Austrian, R-Kodiak, was one of those who said he arrived on the floor intending to vote no, but instead voted in favor, despite some misgivings.
“The whole issue with having to pay our students to get better grades bothers me,” he said.
Following House passage, the bill is now under consideration by the Senate.
• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 586-4816 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.