An effort to amend the Alaska Constitution to allow public money to go to religious schools stalled in the House of Representatives Monday, as supporters acknowledged they didn’t have enough support to pass it.
The House had been scheduled to vote on House Joint Resolution 16, but the measure was pulled from the calendar just before the scheduled vote.
“We didn’t have the votes to pass it,” said Rep. Wes Keller, R-Wasilla, the resolution’s chief sponsor.
The measure would ask the public to amend the Constitution to allow for publicly funded vouchers for private schools, including religious schools, something now explicitly prohibited.
Constitutional amendments require a supermajority of 27 votes in the House to pass and be sent to the voters.
Keller’s proposal may have suffered a blow earlier Monday, when House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Kenai, said he had “concerns” with it, though he didn’t say he’d oppose it.
Among the issues Chenault raised were whether some schools would be left with handicapped and other expensive-to-educate students, and whether there would be fairness in options available to students.
Most Democrats, and some Republicans, have already said they’d oppose it, often citing an unwillingness to take money away from public schools.
“In a year when funding is critical for public schools, it is especially frustrating to see this proposal,” said Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau.
Chenault told reporters Monday morning, just hours before the scheduled vote, that he had concerns about how such a measure might be implemented and whether it would be fair to all students.
If a child was able to take a voucher to any school and was admitted to any school regardless of what conditions or issues they may bring, being handicapped or other issues, I could probably support that,” he said.
Chenault said he was worried those students would all wind up on the one school system that has to accept them, the public school system.
Public funding for religious schools will blur the line between religion and government, said Kerttula, and that line should be kept clear, she said.
“That separation of powers line is much better kept distinct, and that’s why I’m going to vote against it,” Kerttula said.
Rep. Cathy Muñoz, R-Juneau, said funding concerns were the reason for her worries about the measure as well.
“I do have concerns over public education and what happens when we start pulling away public funds to our public schools,” Muñoz said at a press conference recently, with Keller also in attendance.
Other Southeast representatives were split on the measure, with Muñoz and Rep. Peggy Wilson, R-Wrangell expressing opposition, while Reps. Kyle Johansen, R-Ketchikan, and Bill Thomas, R-Haines, both voicing support.
Keller said he would continue to lobby his fellow representatives, and hoped to bring the bill back for a vote.
“There’s a lot of misinformation out there, and we need to work on that,” he said.
One misconception is that passage of his proposal would automatically take money from public schools if it were to be approved by voters, he said.
Changing the Constitution would only allow the Legislature, in the future, to offer some type of funding for private or religious schools, he said. The specifics would be up to future legislators to decide.
• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.