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Comment continues on proposed education funds amendment

Posted: March 19, 2013 - 12:06am

JUNEAU — The Senate Judiciary Committee continued hearing public testimony Monday about a constitutional amendment that would allow public funds to be used for private educational institutions, but debate was reminiscent of earlier discussions on the merits of establishing a school voucher system in Alaska.

SJR9, by Sen. Mike Dunleavy, strikes a provision in the Constitution that prohibits the state from using public funds for the direct benefit of private and religious schools.

Dunleavy, R-Wasilla, proposed the resolution so that funds for learning plans for students attending correspondence schools can be used for classes or tutoring at private institutions. He said he does not support using tax dollars to directly fund religious or private schools.

David Boyle of the Alaska Policy Forum said the debate over SJR9 pits parents against the power of special interest groups — notably, the National Education Association-Alaska.

“We support the right of parents to choose the best education fit for their child, and not those who want to maintain their stranglehold on Alaska’s education to the detriment of our children,” Boyle said. “This is about power and control, no doubt about it.”

One of Alaska’s Constitutional Convention delegates, Vic Fischer, said Monday the resolution leaves the door “completely open” for purposes other than the sponsor’s intent, including vouchers. Fischer also testified before the House Education Committee last month in opposition of HJR1, the resolution’s House counterpart.

HJR1’s sponsor, Rep. Wes Keller, R-Wasilla, is a proponent of vouchers and proposed the same resolution during the last Legislative session.

Fischer said that the resolution could retain the sponsor’s desired effect if he removed the proposed amendment’s section that strikes the language prohibiting the state from using public funds for the direct benefit of private and religious schools, but kept another section of the resolution that amends the Constitution to say that taxes can used for a public purpose or the direct educational benefit of students as provided by law.

However, Dunleavy’s office said in an email to The Associated Press that the Alaska Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Constitution — specifically, how they define direct and indirect benefit — requires the removal of the prohibition on using public funds for the direct benefit of private and religious schools. He added that the legislation would be subject to court challenges if that sentence were to be removed from the bill.

Testimony is scheduled to continue Wednesday.

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