Giving Alaskans the option to vote on whether or not the state should provide families with vouchers to attend private schools moved one step closer to becoming reality Friday.
The House of Representatives Education Committee narrowly advanced HJR1, which would amend the state constitution and pave the way for tax dollars to be used by students seeking private education.
If approved by a two-thirds majority of the Legislature, voters would then decide the issue this fall.
“I would hope the Legislature would not stand in the way and let Alaskans express their opinion on HJR1,” Bethany Marcum, of Anchorage, testified to the committee.
The resolution itself strikes a line from the constitution that states: “No money shall be paid from public funds for the direct benefit of any religious or other private educational institution.”
The Juneau school board and National Education Association-Alaska came out in strong opposition to the resolution, saying it is not a foregone conclusion that the move would be a good thing for Alaska.
“There is no evidence that HJR1 would result in students having better educational opportunities and options in school choice,” said LeDawn Druce with the NEA.
When asked, Druce said a survey of teachers’ opinions on the matter had not been conducted.
Juneau Board of Education member Andi Story cautioned the committee that voters may not be getting what they vote for should the constitution ultimately be changed.
“Vouchers give choices to private schools, not parents,” Story said. “Students may qualify for a voucher, but not be able to use them.”
Public schools are not allowed to discriminate based on learning ability, socio-economic status or any other grounds, but private schools are not under that same standard, she added.
For Anchorage resident Elizabeth Manning, the issue comes down to ensuring equality in the Last Frontier.
“It makes no sense why we would siphon public funds for private schools when most people who send their kids to private schools already have the funds to do that,” Manning said.
Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, said the base student allocation would have to be raised by $500 to offset the loss in funding if voters approved HJR1.
“If this goes forward, we would be reducing by a major hit the funding that goes to public schools,” Seaton said.
Reps. Harriet Drummond, D-Anchorage, and Peggy Wilson, R-Wrangell, joined Seaton in voting against the resolution, but a no-recommendation vote from Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, R-Anchorage, meant the bill would be moving on to the House Judiciary Committee on a 3-3 vote.
“I feel strongly that we’re going to have unintended consequences with this,” Wilson said. “We’re going to start funding private schools. That’s what this is going to do.”