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Parnell supports giving voters a say on amendment

Posted: February 21, 2013 - 1:16am
Gov. Sean Parnell speaks to reporters during a press conference at the Capitol on Wednesday.  Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Gov. Sean Parnell speaks to reporters during a press conference at the Capitol on Wednesday.

JUNEAU — Gov. Sean Parnell supports legislative efforts to let voters decide whether to change the constitution to allow public funds to be used for private schools, his spokeswoman said Wednesday.

Sharon Leighow said Parnell has always supported more choices in education for parents and that as a legislator, Parnell helped establish charter schools.

“In the case at hand, the governor supports legislative efforts to move the resolution to the voters for Alaskans to have their say,” she said in an email.

The Alaska Constitution states that public money cannot be appropriated except for a public purpose. HJR1 and SJR9, as proposed in the House and Senate, respectively, would add that nothing in that section shall prevent payment of public funds “for the direct educational benefit of students as provided by law.”

The measure would have to pass with a two-thirds vote of each the House and Senate before it could be put to voters.

A similar measure died in the House last year but the issue has gotten new life with changes in the makeup of the legislature. Supporters say the proposal would give parents more choice in where to send their kids to school. But opponents fear it could take money away from the public education system.

The issue of so-called school choice is emerging as a flashpoint in the debate over education — and education funding — in Alaska.

The Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman, in a recent editorial, noted that a number of legislators from the Wasilla area, including Senate President Charlie Huggins, have been clear in their support of choice. “But in this case, that will mean changing our constitution so it is legal to send limited public tax dollars to religious and other private schools,” the editorial said. “This is surely not an appropriate use by Huggins of the bully pulpit of the Senate presidency. We call on all of our elected representatives to uphold the oath they swore to honor and defend our constitution. And we encourage all citizens to do the same.”

Leaders of the new GOP-led Senate drew criticism last week for pulling an Education committee referral for SJR9, and instead having it heard by the Senate Judiciary and Finance committees. Huggins at the time said the measure involves a legal issue and that he made a mistake in initially referring it to the Education committee. The majority caucus issued a statement Tuesday saying the measure could be heard by the Education committee if “significant education issues arise” during the legislative process.

The chairman of the Senate Education Committee, Gary Stevens, who was gone when the measure was introduced and pulled last week, has vowed to hold hearings on school vouchers regardless of whether he has SJR9 in his committee or not.

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Follow Becky Bohrer on Twitter at http://twitter.com/beckybohrerap.

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