Committee advances school vouchers

The House Judiciary committee quickly advanced a resolution Tuesday that will put school vouchers on the ballot this fall if approved by the Legislature.

The resolution, HJR1, passed out of committee with individual recommendations attached. Rep. Max Gruenberg, D-Anchorage, voted against passage, with Reps. Lance Pruitt, R-Anchorage, and Wes Keller, R-Wasilla, voting for.

“I believe it overturns a fundamental principle by dividing the use of state money for non-public education,” Gruenberg said, later adding, “I will continue to do what I can to urge the constitution not be amended in this manner.”

Republican Reps. Gabrielle LeDoux and Charisse Millett, both of Anchorage, chose not to vote, according to committee staff.

Public testimony was not taken on Wednesday, and supporters of the resolution voted without prior discussion.

To become effective, the resolution must be approved by a two-thirds majority of both houses of the Legislature and a vote of the people this fall.

The resolution seeks to strike a sentence from the Alaska Constitution: “No money shall be paid from public funds for the direct benefit of any religious or other private educational institution.”

It also adds a line in another section: “however, nothing in this section shall prevent payment from public funds for the direct educational benefit of students as provided by law.”

While the exact impact of vouchers on Juneau schools is unknown, school district officials aren’t expecting a mass exodus if the Legislature and voters approve the resolution.

“The impacts would have to be determined by subsequent legislation,” said David Means, the Juneau School District’s director of administrative services. “I would think the students who would enroll in private schools already go there.”

School board president Sally Saddler said the district and the board oppose the measure because the harm it could do to schools across the state.

“It’s probably less of a concern in Juneau, but Juneau has a strong interest because it’s undermining ... our public education system,” she said. “Any time you weaken that anywhere in the state, my perception is you weaken it for all students and all communities.”

She added that people shouldn’t be able to pick and choose which public services they support based on their interests alone.

“You’re doing away with a long-standing commitment to public education. It’s a public good,” Saddler said. “It would be akin to me saying, ‘I don’t really believe in war, so I don’t want my tax dollars to go to war.’”

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