JUNEAU — Senate Finance Committee co-chair Kevin Meyer on Tuesday said he believes there is support on his panel to advance a proposed constitutional amendment on education.
Whether there is enough support for it to get past the full Senate, however, is another issue, with a high bar for any proposed constitutional change to clear. A similar proposal is also pending in the House.
SJR9, from Sen. Mike Dunleavy, R-Wasilla, would strike a provision in the state constitution prohibiting the use of public funds for the direct benefit of private and religious schools. It also would add — in a section of the constitution that says public money cannot be appropriated except for a public purpose — that nothing in that section shall prevent payment of public funds “for the direct educational benefit of students as provided by law.”
The proposal seemed to gain new life when Gov. Sean Parnell last month urged lawmakers to pass it and send it to voters. The measure would have to pass with a two-thirds vote in the House and the Senate before it could qualify for the ballot.
Supporters say it would allow for more choice in where parents send their children to school and that the public should be given a right to vote on it. Opponents fear it could take needed resources away from the public school system.
The committee heard hours of testimony Monday, much of it in opposition. Sentiments were more evenly divided in testimony Tuesday morning. People and groups on both sides of the issue, including the state Democratic Party and the conservative Alaska Family Action group, released action alerts in advance, urging people to weigh in at the hearing.
Dunleavy gave a closing argument of sorts to the committee, reiterating his support of public education but also describing himself as an advocate for kids. He said children have different needs and his proposal would not destroy public education. In states like Maine and New Hampshire, which have had similar, long-standing programs, “nobody’s hair caught on fire, and it didn’t rain toads,” he said.
The panel, in choosing whether to advance SJR9, will be deciding whether the people can become more deeply engaged in the state’s education system, Dunleavy said. The state’s education system belongs to all Alaskans, and it needs to be discussed by all Alaskans, he said.
Dunleavy noted that this year’s ballot is expected to include issues like an oil-tax referendum and initiatives on the minimum wage and legalizing the recreational use of marijuana, which the people will decide. “But when it comes to their constitution and their educational program, ‘Oh my god! Don’t let them near it, they may ruin it. They may screw it up,’ “ he said.
If Alaskans want the proposed constitutional amendment, they’ll support it, and if they don’t they won’t, he said. But it would be wrong not give them that opportunity, Dunleavy said.
Sen. Donny Olson, D-Golovin, said there’s a difference between initiatives and constitutional amendments.
Sen. Click Bishop, R-Fairbanks, said there needs to be a discussion on education. “Personally, I think we should be able recognize where our deficiencies and shortfalls are in education, working with all stakeholders, and fix those problems before it ever becomes a constitutional amendment discussion,” Bishop said.
Meyer, R-Anchorage, held the proposal for further consideration. He said in an interview that he would like to see if he can get unanimous agreement on forwarding SJR9. That wouldn’t mean unanimous support on the proposal itself but rather agreement on moving it out of committee.
At least three members of the panel — Dunleavy and Sens. Pete Kelly and Anna Fairclough — have signed onto SJR9.
Meyer said he did not see moving forward this session with companion legislation that would spell out how the change could be implemented. The proposed constitutional change would be the first step, he said.
Dunleavy, who has proposed such legislation, said he plans to press ahead regardless.
Voters in 2012 rejected a constitutional convention, but Dunleavy said such an event would have potentially opened the entire constitution for discussion. What he’s proposing is a far narrower look.
He does not consider the lopsided turnout in testimony Monday — with many testifying in opposition — as representative of a majority of Alaskans, Dunleavy said.
He said if the proposal reaches the Senate floor, he believes it will have votes to pass.
Senate Majority Leader John Coghill, R-North Pole, said he, like Dunleavy, is an optimist. But he said he’s also a realist. “I know that any change is going to be tough to come,” he said.