JUNEAU — A proposed constitutional amendment that would allow public money to be used for private or religious schools was pulled from the Senate floor ahead of scheduled debate Wednesday.
The measure’s sponsor, Sen. Mike Dunleavy, said he expected it to return, though there was question about whether it would.
“I would be surprised to see it again, frankly,” Senate Education Committee chair, and critic of SJR9, Gary Stevens, said Wednesday.
Dunleavy, R-Wasilla, told reporters he asked that SJR9 be returned to Senate Rules while he awaited information on constitutional and legal issues surrounding the measure. He said he expected the information he was awaiting — including surrounding current practices on things like post-secondary scholarships, pre-kindergarten funding and public money going to nonpublic entities for education or training — would bolster, rather than poke holes in, his position. Senate Rules is the committee that sets the Senate calendar. It also is where bills wait until they receive sufficient support to advance.
Dunleavy said he was confident the measure would reach the floor again. Senate Majority Leader John Coghill, a co-sponsor of the measure, was more cautious. While Coghill, R-North Pole, supports having a debate on the issue he said there’s a difference between having a debate when people are flexible in their position and having a debate “and it just flops without a whole lot of support.”
“I think if it comes back, you’ll see that it actually has the support level and beyond,” he said.
SJR9 proposes striking a provision in the state constitution prohibiting use of public funds for the direct benefit of private or religious schools. It also proposes adding, 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.”
Since it would affect two sections of the constitution, questions have been asked about whether the change could be proposed by the legislature as an amendment or if it would require a constitutional convention.
The issue has stirred strong reaction on both sides. A rally was held in front of the Capitol last month in opposition, and the conservative Alaska Family Action, which supports the measure, sent an email blast to supporters Monday, urging them to reach out to certain senators. Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, was one of them.
He said a survey he did in his district found an overwhelming percentage of respondents oppose changing the constitution. He said he has concerns with what this kind of change would mean, and while he said he appreciates comments from others, the calls and emails he pays most attention to are from constituents.
The measure seemed to gain new life when Gov. Sean Parnell, in his State of the State address, called on lawmakers to debate SJR9 and send it to voters. A similar measure is pending in the House.
Supporters of SJR9 say a constitutional change would allow for more choices in how parents educate their kids. But critics fear it could take money from public schools. They also expressed concerns with not knowing how any constitutional change would be implemented.
Proposed constitutional changes require two-thirds vote in each the Senate and House before qualifying for the ballot. That means the measure would need at least 14 Senate votes to pass. Stevens, R-Kodiak, said his best guess was the measure would get eight to 10 votes in support at most. In addition to Dunleavy, seven senators had signed on as co-sponsors.
Dunleavy said there’s “no doubt” the majority of legislators — “without wishful thinking involved there” — want the amendment. A majority in the Senate would be 11. He said he’s hoping the information he receives will “seal the deal” when he talks to lawmakers.
In the lead-up to Wednesday, Dunleavy had been coy when asked if he had the votes, saying he was hopeful and optimistic about the outcome. He and other supporters argued it important to at least have the debate. All 20 senators were present for floor session Wednesday.
Senate Minority Leader Hollis French joked later about there being more “whimper” than bang. But he called it a “dangerous” measure that could re-emerge and urged the public to stay alert.
He disagreed with Dunleavy’s assessment that if this measure went to the people, the people would vote for it. He said his sense was that it would fail.
Dunleavy, whose education background includes working as a public school teacher and serving as a school board member, said he is a strong supporter of public education. But he has said children have different needs and what he is seeking to do would not destroy public education. He has said a goal with SJR9 is to clarify that funds used for learning plans for students attending correspondence schools can be used for classes or tutoring through private or religious schools.
He also has stressed the importance of including the public in the discussion about education in Alaska.
Stevens said Dunleavy, who also serves on Senate Education, has some “interesting, exciting ideas about education that need to be listened to and thought about. This is not one in my estimation that should be given any currency,” he said of the resolution.
“But, no, I think that anything that would move kids forward, anything that would help the children get a better education and be prepared to compete in the world, I would be glad to consider. Any innovative thing — except the issue of using public money for private and religious schools,” Stevens said.