Scholarship could lead cultural shift

Posted: Sunday, February 14, 2010

JUNEAU - Beyond simply helping kids get to college, Gov. Sean Parnell's scholarship proposal is about culture change, according to state Education Commissioner Larry LeDoux.

By giving every Alaska student an opportunity to earn in-state college tuition or vocational training if they take tougher classes and finish with good grades, the program could transform the state's underperforming education system and promote a new culture that values learning, he said.

As the program goes forward, LeDoux said, communities will demand "that their districts, their superintendents, their principals deliver a quality program. And I believe this program will restructure schools in this state."

If the governor's scholarship bill passes, the Alaska Commission on Postsecondary Education estimates 2,300 out of about 8,000 graduates in Alaska's high school class of 2011 will use it.

As is, about one in three Alaska students who reaches ninth grade does not graduate, according to the Department of Education, and half of the University of Alaska system's first-time freshmen must take remedial coursework, according to a system spokeswoman.

The proposed scholarship requires high school students take a minimum of four years of math, four years of language arts, four years of science and three years of social studies. LeDoux said studies show taking tougher classes in high school has a strong correlation to success in college - more so than grade point averages or standardized test scores, which are also scholarship eligibility factors.

The plan calls for a $400 million to be set allocated from the state's general fund. From that, $20 million in annual investment earnings, a 5 percent return, will pay for the scholarships. The college awards will be tiered and pegged to the University of Alaska's 2010-2011 tuition rates, about $4,800 a year. The governor wants an A average to earn full tuition, B average to earn three-quarters, and a C+ average to earn half tuition or up to $3,000 a year for two years at a technical school.

LeDoux said spending $20 million annually on this merit scholarship program issues a clear challenge and reward with the responsibility squarely on the student.

The $20 million directly targets children and their attitudes, he said, "And that's the hardest thing to affect."

"It's the concept of inviting kids to take responsibility of their own education," said department spokesman Eric Fry.

Some legislators have complained that the proposed scholarship program isn't based on need.

But LeDoux said setting expectations high for one group of students but not another because of their family circumstances would dilute the program's ability to change the learning culture.

"So I don't care what their parents' position to pay (is), I need to affect that attitude, because that's what's going to determine their success," LeDoux has said. "I'd hate to try to say to a child, 'We're not going try to change your attitude because your parents can probably do this anyway.' That's not going to work."

The administration hasn't objected to the inclusion of a need-based element, but hasn't warmed to it, either. It is deferring to the legislative process for changes. House Education Chair Paul Seaton said the push appears to be for additional money for needy students that qualify on merit first, rather than a prerequisite that would exclude well-to-do students.

Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, signed on as a co-sponsor last month to a needs-based scholarship bill by Sen. Johnny Ellis, D-Anchorage, held over from last year. That bill establishes the structure for an endowment for scholarships for needy students, an idea he expects will be merged with Parnell's merit-based bill.

"I think in the end we'll have a marriage of the two," he said.

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