Parnell, senators, trade jabs

Governor defends fairness of his scholarship plan to rural, urban students

Posted: Friday, March 25, 2011

Gov. Sean Parnell on Thursday challenged the Legislature to adopt his merit-based scholarship plan, called Alaska Performance Scholarships, despite rural legislators’ concerns that most of its benefits would go to well-funded city schools.

“I totally reject that notion that just because you are from a rural area you cannot earn an Alaska Performance Scholarships,” he said.

“I think that assures the mediocrity of our kids.”

The scholarship plan, approved in concept last year but not yet funded, would provide scholarships to students with high grades who take advanced classes.

A Senate subcommittee recently took most of the money from the merit scholarship plan and redirected it to a need-based plan, which they said was a more pressing issue in the state.

Some of those classes needed to qualify are readily available in the larger cities, but not available or only available by teleconference in some of their schools, rural legislators said.

Parnell said the scholarships would spur parents to demand their schools offer the advanced classes and motivate students to take them.

Parnell refused to say where the majority of the benefits would go or how successful rural students would likely be in winning the scholarships.

“They go to every kid who qualifies, I reject this notion that it goes to one more than the other,” Parnell said.

Sen. Joe Paskvan, D-Fairbanks, said Alaska was already last in the nation in providing its students with needs-based assistance and already has the University of Alaska’s scholars program to help top students.

At the time when Alaska is facing court challenges saying that it is not providing an equal education opportunity to rural students, the state’s top priority shouldn’t be another program what would mostly help those already getting a top-notch education.

In what’s known as the “Moore case,” the state was found to have failed in its Constitutional responsibility to provide adequate education, Paskvan said.

Parnell’s proposal could extend that disparity, he said.

“You have a Constitutional problem with the program itself,” he said.

He called it “troubling” that Parnell would provide information about how many scholarships would be earned.

At a Senate Finance Committee hearing chaired by Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, this week, some local students endorsed Parnell’s plan, however.

Deborah Kasberg of Juneau said she expected to have to pay for a majority of her college and was looking forward to being able to earn a scholarship.

“Since I was young I’ve always took an interest in keeping my grades up,” she said.

Alex Reed asked the Senate to replace the $7 million that it took out of the governor’s $8 million budget request.

“I’m hoping that money will be replaced,” he said.

Parnell said the Legislature made a promise to the state’s 9,000 graduating high school students when it adopted the Alaska Performance Scholarship program last year, and now the program needs to be funded.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 586-4816 or Patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.



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