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Divided committee narrowly moves Alaska school choice bill

Posted: February 3, 2012 - 1:29am

JUNEAU — An expansion of school choice programs available to Alaskans is one step closer to becoming a reality, but a 4-3 vote by the House Education Committee this week and concerns raised by legislators suggest the road ahead for the bill could be rough.

Rep. Wes Keller, R-Wasilla, envisions in HB145 a program that would give state funded “scholarships” for students to attend private or religious schools. In testimony before the committee, Keller said the approach would bring several benefits, including giving parents a greater ability to send their kids to private school if they opt for that over public school.

He said another plus is that increased competition would force schools to enact positive changes or lose out on students and funding.

Keller, in his sponsor statement, called his bill “the next critical step in allowing today’s Alaskan children to compete with the world on an equal footing educationally.”

Critics tell a different story.

Both Democrats on the committee, Reps. Sharon Cissna and Scott Kawasaki, voted in opposition. So did Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, who raised constitutional concerns. The state constitution prohibits use of public money for the direct benefit of any religious or other private educational institution.

Keller has said HB145 is predicated upon passage of a companion resolution that would strike that requirement from the constitution. But Seaton, in a recent letter to constituents, said the process is out of order

“We are working on a bill that is currently unconstitutional,” Seaton said in a recent newsletter to his constituents. “The proponents should get the constitution changed before we advance the bill.”

Seaton also criticized the bill for requiring the state to give more money to private schools than public schools, in that the state would pay to offset expenses for rural students shifting to urban schools. He also said the state would fund implementation at the district level and that private correspondence schools would get more funding than their public counterparts under the bill.

The bill is now pending before the House Finance Committee; so is the resolution on a constitutional amendment, HJR16. Any change to the constitution must be approved by voters in a general election.

Anchorage Democrat Sen. Bettye Davis, who is vice-chair of the Senate Education Committee, said in an interview Thursday that she is not following Keller’s bill closely unless it lands in front of her committee. But she said she is prepared to oppose the bill if it makes it that far.

Most troubling, according to Davis, a former president of the Anchorage School Board, is the effect such a program could have on cash-strapped districts like the one she used to serve, which recently announced an expected budget shortfall of around $19 million next year.

She also pointed to the existing 27 charter schools in the state as examples of choice and said students already have a way out if they attend a struggling school. The federal No Child Left Behind Act, she said, allows students to get funding to attend school elsewhere if performance standards.

Keller countered, saying, “The good public schools will have no problem (getting enough funding).” He adding that his bill is more about extending more options to parents than current policies provide.

Whether or not the bill eventually becomes law, Rep. Alan Dick, chairman of the Education Committee, said the most important takeaway is that the state needs to turn its attention to the root problems that affect education instead of trying efforts that failed in the past.

School choice, he said, is a worthwhile attempt that has drawn support from the Alaska Federation of Natives because they acknowledge the state’s current approach as broken.

“This bill is destined to be controversial,” Dick, said. “But there is an undercurrent of malaise that won’t go away until we shine the spotlight on all these issues around education that affect the classroom.”

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