JUNEAU — A Senate panel began hearings Friday on the subject of school vouchers, less than two weeks after the committee’s chair adamantly declared on the Senate floor that the issue needs to be thoroughly vetted.
Two resolutions in the Legislature — SJR9, by Sen. Mike Dunleavy, R-Wasilla, and its House counterpart, HJR1, by Rep. Wes Keller, R-Wasilla — propose to amend Alaska’s Constitution to allow the state to appropriate public funds to private or religious educational institutions. Critics argue that it could siphon off funds from a public school system that is already seeking additional money.
Senate Education Committee chairman Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, said his panel would take a look at the issue, even though Senate President Charlie Huggins, R-Wasilla, pulled SJR9 from a Senate Education Committee referral while Stevens was out of town and without advance notice. Senate majority leaders have said SJR9 involves a legal issue and that the measure could be heard by the committee if “significant education issues arise” during the legislative process.
Stevens said he has not encountered a “more momentous education issue” during his 13 years in the Legislature and told his fellow lawmakers that he will evaluate vouchers whether or not SJR9 is placed before his committee.
“By the time we get to a vote, I trust that members of the Senate will clearly understand how vouchers affect Alaska,” he said on the Senate floor. “We owe this to our children and to our grandchildren, to the children of our neighbors and our friends and to the children of Alaskans we don’t even yet know, because they’re all our sons and daughters and they deserve the best education we can provide.”
Three experts were called in to testify before the Senate Education Committee: one advocate, one opponent, and a journalist who extensively covered the country’s first voucher program in Milwaukee but does not take an opinion on vouchers.
Robert Enlow, the president and CEO of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice — one of the country’s most prominent pro-voucher think tanks — stressed that vouchers are not about saving money but about putting children in schools that are appropriate for them.
Enlow said multiple studies and reports have not found a negative impact on public schools by vouchers. He also cited studies that show an increase in parent satisfaction with their children’s education when vouchers are implemented.
“Children are generally learning more — although modestly, let’s be blunt about that,” Enlow said. “There is no way that school choice in and of itself is a panacea.”
Alan Borsuk, a former reporter and editor for the Milwaukee Journal and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, said there’s a lot that can be learned from Milwaukee’s experience.
Up until 2005, Milwaukee’s voucher program was highly unregulated. While there where some excellent schools that sprung up after the voucher system was implemented, there were a lot of middling ones and some that were awful — including one run by a convicted rapist, according to Borsuk.
“Frankly, if there’s anything I think we’ve proven in Milwaukee, is that it’s not that simple,” he said.
Milwaukee has since instituted stricter financial and academic oversight for schools that receive voucher funding.
Borsuk did agree with Enlow’s assertion that the voucher program is popular, but he did not agree with him on its success in his hometown.
“Overall, student achievement is very disturbing. It was then (before vouchers), it is now,” Borsuk said. “I don’t think there’s very much evidence that voucher kids are doing any better than MPS (Milwaukee Public School) kids here.”
Dr. Diane Ravitch, a professor at New York University and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said vouchers divide schools based on race, religion and class while drawing away tax dollars from the public schools — one of the most “essential intuitions of a democratic society.”
Ravitch staunchly opposed the narrative that the institution of American education is in a crisis; she said test scores and graduation rates for white, black, Asian and Hispanic students are higher than they’ve ever been while dropout rates for the same demographic are at their low point.
By the end of the meeting, only two committee members were left: Stevens and Sen. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage. Huggins left before Ravitch and Borsuk spoke due to a previous commitment, and Dunleavy, who had an overlapping Senate Finance Committee meeting, left before Ravitch’s testimony. Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, was out of town.
The House Education Committee heard testimony and continued deliberations on HJR1 Friday morning, at the same time the Senate panel was meeting. The measure was held in committee.