State lawmakers doubt chances for scholarship plan

Questions about funding, scope remain unanswered as session nears end

Posted: Wednesday, March 31, 2010

A key piece of Gov. Sean Parnell's legislative agenda appears in jeopardy, with leading lawmakers casting doubt on the prospects for his $400 million merit scholarship program moving forward this session.

The concerns came Tuesday from members of the Senate's bipartisan majority and the House Democratic minority. Questions of funding and scope remain unanswered with the Legislature weeks from its scheduled April 18 adjournment.

Despite the considerable committee time and attention that's been devoted to the issue, lawmakers are "all over the map" on the right approach to take, said Rep. Berta Gardner, an Anchorage Democrat and education committee member. "I don't know that it's really going to go anywhere."

Parnell proposed setting aside $400 million as an endowment for in-state tuition or professional training. While his focus has been on merit - rewarding graduating Alaska high schoolers earning at least a C+ average and completing a rigorous course schedule - Parnell has been open to addressing the issue of unmet financial need for students who also qualify on merit.

But some lawmakers don't think that goes far enough. Others question whether the state should pay for scholarships to students whose parents can afford to pay for their children's education.

Rep. Mike Doogan, D-Anchorage, said the plan has suffered for lack of leadership.

"I've got to tell you, I don't see a clear path out of this," said Doogan, a finance committee member. "And I don't see anybody sort of at the front of the pack saying, 'This is the way we should go and this is how, you know, where we're trying to get to.' And until that happens, that's against anything passing."

Parnell has talked about the program for months. Spokeswoman Sharon Leighow said the scholarship program remains a priority of the governor's, and that Parnell would continue working with legislators from both chambers. "He is optimistic this bill will pass this session," she said.

Gardner considers Parnell's proposed $400 million set aside "completely off the table." Senate President Gary Stevens, a Senate Education Committee member, said he's not sure lawmakers are ready to make a final decision on how to fund a scholarship plan. There are numerous options, including annual appropriations, loan forgiveness provisions and helping fund existing university scholarship plans, he said.

Gardner suggested the issue may need to be looked at further, during the interim.

Sen. Kevin Meyer, an education committee co-chairman, doesn't consider the funding issue insurmountable and doesn't think it should kill the bill.

Mayer said that while he understands concerns of lawmakers like House Democratic Leader Beth Kerttula - who wonders if scholarship money would be better spent on teachers and improving public school standards - motivating students and getting parental support is also important to bolstering achievement.

"I hope we don't scrap the whole plan," he said. "It's a good plan."

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