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Parnell's scholarships win approval Rural legislators call performance scholarships 'elitist'

Posted: April 15, 2012 - 10:10pm  |  Updated: April 15, 2012 - 11:05pm

A state scholarship plan that funnels most of its help to schools already doing well will be balanced with a financial aid program for needy students that had been lacking.

The compromise was reached in the legislative session’s last day in a conference committee made up of House and Senate members. To reach an agreement, they had to reject a provision added in the Senate by rural legislators who said their schools weren’t always able to offer the classes needed to qualify for the scholarships. They had wanted those who graduated with a general equivalency degree, or GED, to be able to seek the scholarships as well.

That provision led Gov. Sean Parnell, the scholarships original sponsor, to withdraw his support at one point.

Rural legislators who saw their constituents largely excluded from the scholarships still criticized the plan, however.

Sen. Albert Kookesh, D-Angoon, called it “an elitist scholarship, as far as I’m concerned.”

Parnell has been seeking a $400 million endowment to keep the scholarships going, even if the state runs out of money for basic services.

In the program’s first year, 40 percent of white high school graduates were eligible for the scholarships, while just 7.3 percent of Alaska Native graduates were, with 2.7 percent of Alaska Native graduates accepting them.

Sen. Donny Olson, D-Nome, who represents the North Slope and a wide swath of the state were many of the schools don’t even offer the classes necessary to qualify for the scholarships, said the program wasn’t what was needed to improve education.

The scholarships provided by the plan will widen the gap between haves and have-nots, Olson said.

The winners, he said, will be “sons and daughters of oil corporation executives” that have class offerings in their city schools that are unavailable in his district, he said.

Sen. Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage, said helping her Anchorage constituents would help everyone by giving them something to strive for.

“In life, it’s been my experience that a rising tide lifts all boats,” she said.

Sen. Tom Wagoner, R-Kenai, a longtime Cook Inlet drift-netter, questioned that.

“Only if one boat doesn’t have a hole in it,” he said.

The scholarship plan won support from Rep. Cathy Munoz, R-Juneau, however.

She said offering the scholarships would give students in both urban and rural schools a goal.

“I think the governor has been very clear that we wants to use this program to raise the bar, if you will the academic excellence, across the state,” she said.

She said there was no reason why rural students, through online and other classes, couldn’t qualify for the scholarships.

“I think it is wrong to think that rural kids, just because they’re rural kids, cannot excel,” she said. “That’s not a good attitude, that sends a really wrong message.”

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or at patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.

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