Legislators balk at merit scholarships

Education officials asked to add help for poor students as well

Posted: Wednesday, February 17, 2010

A new College Board report on who's taking advanced placement classes in Alaska is raising questions about where most of the financial benefit for Gov. Sean Parnell's new scholarship plan would land.

According to the College Board, the nonprofit organization that also provides the SAT college placement tests, Alaska Native students lag far behind white students in taking advance placement classes.

AP classes are college-level classes taken in high school. Students who successfully pass AP tests earn credits that allow them to arrive in college ahead of other freshmen, save thousands of dollars in tuition costs and increase their chances of graduation.

A College Board report released last week showed that Alaska students have less access to AP classes than others in the nation.

And Alaska Native students are well below others in Alaska in taking and passing AP tests, with College Board data showing that only 5.3 percent of Alaska Native students take AP tests, while they make up 20.5 percent of all seniors. That compares to white students, who make up 69.9 percent of those taking AP tests and only 63.1 percent of seniors.

The GPS program would pay in-state tuition for students who take a rigorous course load, including four years of math, and maintain certain grade point averages and college entrance test scores, but those classes are not equally available throughout the state.

Education Commissioner Larry LeDoux said it will be up to parents to demand their schools improve so their children can qualify for the awards.

"This is a reform bill as much as it is a scholarship," LeDoux said.

Parnell's plan would offer in-state tuition scholarships to students who met certain GPA requirements and took a prescribed course load, such as four years of math.

Commissioner of Education Larry LeDoux has been defending Parnell's $400 million Governor's Performance Scholarships proposal, but reluctantly acknowledged that not all students in the state have access to the same education.

Smaller rural schools have less course offerings than those in the state's largest cities, but LeDoux said online or other distance education options are available everywhere.

LeDoux said Parnell's plan also would force smaller schools to offer courses they don't now offer.

"I had one principal tell me, 'We only offer three years of math,'" LeDoux said. "My response was 'Why?'"

LeDoux did not say what the principal's response was, but did acknowledge that smaller schools have difficulty providing the same educational opportunities as larger schools.

The governor's proposal uses scholarships as a way to force improvements in K-12 education as much as to help pay for college.

"It is a reform bill; it is going to cause some changes we should have done a long time ago," LeDoux said. "Communities are going to demand this."

Legislators and others were worried that it would channel more money to those who already can afford to pay for college, and would do so at the expense of students who might be unable to pay for college.

"While it is nice to talk about academic success, those from low-income families have a harder time," said Ryan Buchholdt, a student government leader from University of Alaska Anchorage.

Several key legislators, including House Education Commmittee Chair Paul Seaton, R-Homer and Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, have made similar comments.

While rural legislators have questioned the fairness of Parnell's proposal to children who are in schools without the resources to offer advanced classes, some Anchorage legislators have joined in as well.

"How realistic is it in a smaller community for folks to be able to get the classes they need in order to qualify or the scholarships?" asked Sen. Johnny Ellis, D-Anchorage, majority leader of the Senate.

At one point, Rep. Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham, asked LeDoux to explain "outside the mantra of educational reform" why the advanced classes the proposal requires would be demanded of both those on the college track and of prospective vocational school students studying diesel mechanics.

Many career training programs require advanced math that in years past wasn't needed, LeDoux said.

"It s not just rural Alaska. In urban Alaska, too, there are a lot of kids who are not working up to their potential," LeDoux said.

To improve college success, students need to do better before they get there, he said.

"The purpose of the GPS program is improving the graduation rate in the state and academic performance of K-12 education in the state," LeDoux said.

At a Tuesday press conference, Ellis questioned whether the money spent on GPS was the way to do that.

"Maybe some of that money should be going into K-12, to try to improve K-12," Ellis said.

LeDoux and Seaton said the governor's proposal would likely have a needs-based element added to it. That will likely help more students succeed in college, said Stevens, a retired university professor.

A young person from an upper-income family has an 85 percent chance of graduating, while those from lower-income homes only graduate at a 45 percent rate, Stevens said.

"Often the reason they don't make it is because of financial need," he said.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.

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