State Sen. Gary Stevens, of Kodiak, (Dist-R) who used to represent us here in Seward prior to the recent redistricting, is fighting back. He is doing so after Senate President Charlie Huggins moved Senate Joint Resolution 9, (which would send a constitutional amendment ballot question to voters allowing Alaska religious and private schools to get public school money) out of the Education Committee Stevens chaired. Stevens was at a Council of State Governments meeting in Kentucky last week, so was unable to stop the move. Stevens, a longtime Alaska educator, and retired professor said he will still hold hearings on the measure, and bring in expert witnesses to testify—although it has already been moved to the Judiciary Committee. “I intend to jump into this issue with both feet,” he said. He plans to invite people such as the Commissioner of Education and Early Development, as well as other experts and school leaders to come speak.
“There is not a more momentous education issue that I have encountered in my 13 years in the Legislature,” he said.
The idea of using public funds for private purposes, such as private and religious schools, has been banned since statehood by the Alaska Constitution.
The school vouchers measure, which is strongly favored by our new Senator who replaced him, Cathy Giessel, would allow public school funds to follow students to private or religious schools if they choose not to stick with the public school system. It’s been lauded as a matter of school choice by its supporters who say it is much better than a one-size fits all approach to education. Sen. John Coghill co-sponsored the measure, and helped move it out of the education committee.
But public school system advocates, such as the National Education Association, are concerned that it will take dollars away from regular public school funding, and harm those left behind in schools with dwindling student numbers.
Hearings were held this morning in the House Education Committee on HJR 1. LaDawn Druce, President of the NEA, was among many who voiced opposition to the bill. Rather than spending public funds on private schools, she suggests more be spent on advances in technology, on advanced placement courses that prepare students for the workforce, to offer preschool for all Alaska children, and to provide a qualified teacher in every classroom.
School Board and PTSA Rep Lynn Hohl, accompanied by Seward High School Student Kara Knotek, have been on a lobbying trip to Juneau this week to urge lawmakers not to support the bill, and to support education funding and other issues PTSA Alaska support. They will talk about their trip at the upcoming PTSA meeting in Seward.
Speaking at a budget meeting in Seward on Tuesday, Dave Jones, Assistant Superintendent for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District said; “Will it have an impact on us here if it passes? You bet!” Jones predicted that this measure, if approved by the Alaska voters, could have a significant impact on state-wide school funding over the next two to four years, as would other bills in Juneau, such as the proposed oil tax reform/also dubbed the oil tax giveaway bill by its detractors.