Gov. Sean Parnell told legislators Wednesday night that he will, in “good faith”, propose an increase in per-pupil spending if they are willing to join him in “passing real education reform.” The governor said he wants the House and Senate to debate a constitutional amendment that would allow public money to be used for private schools.
“Tonight, I want each of us to climb out of whichever trench we are in and declare ‘2014 will be the education session,’” Parnell said.
Parnell said Alaska’s current charter school law is one of the most restrictive in the country and that charter schools and their students don’t get equal treatment under the law.
“This is grossly unfair,” Parnell said. “I propose all local, state and federal funding, except some capped district administrative expenses, travel with a student to a charter school.”
Parnell has been against increasing per-pupil spending, saying he wanted to see higher graduation rates before increasing funding for education. While he’s approved one-time spending packages for costs related to energy, pupil transportation and school security, the base student allocation hasn’t increased in four years.
Rep. Cathy Muñoz, R-Juneau, said Parnell is “absolutely right” that Alaska’s charter school law is limiting. Muñoz is one of the founders of the Juneau Community Charter School. She said once a public school board decides not to approve a charter school, there’s no recourse or appeals process. The current process hinders innovation in education, she said.
“Charter schools are great environments of innovation and opportunity within the public school system to try new programs on a smaller scale,” Muñoz said. “Then if they’re successful, expand them to other areas of the school district.”
But the deal Parnell is trying to make with those who oppose vouchers or school choice, primarily democratic legislators, isn’t appealing to Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, D-Sitka.
Kreiss-Tomkins believes that public education is the institution where people from all backgrounds can have “the same formative experience.”
“I think vouchers are a terrible idea for Alaska,” Kreiss-Tomkins said. “The founding fathers of the state, the people who wrote the constitution, had it right that public money shouldn’t go to private education or religious education, and it’s that simple.”
Kreiss-Tomkins said he did not appreciate the governor combining two issues, vouchers and per-pupil spending.
“I’m not interested in vouchers, period,” Kreiss-Tomkins said. “I think the merits of an increase in the (base student allocation) are pretty evident based on all the layoffs that are happening in Juneau and the struggles that rural districts are having.”
Ron Fuhrer, president of the National Education Association-Alaska, said he didn’t trust Parnell’s proposal, noting that there wasn’t funding for an increased base student allocation in his proposed 2015 budget.
“To trade increasing more money in the (base student allocation for a) change to the constitution of the State of Alaska, I don’t know if that’s a trade-off worth taking,” ” Fuhrer said.
Sen. Dunleavy, R-Wasilla, said in statement that he applauded Parnell’s message about a constitutional amendment to allow for vouchers in education. Dunleavy is one of the prime sponsors of the amendment, which would have to be approved by voters. Dunleavy said unlike the More Alaska Production Act, which voters will decide whether to keep or reject this fall, Senate Joint Resolution 9 is not complicated or technical.
“If Alaskans have the opportunity to vote on the tremendously complex and intricate issue of oil taxation, then surely they deserve to make their voices heard on the simple and personal issue of being able to choose the best education for their children,” Dunleavy said.
Correction: A previous version of this story identified Rep. Kreiss-Tomkins as a Republican; he is a Democrat. We regret the error.