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As Parnell pushes for public funding for private schools, Democrats fight back

By Rhonda McBride 5:31 AM January 24, 2014

“What I’m doing is generating a public conversation,” Parnell said.

JUNEAU – Gov. Sean Parnell is expected to roll out a package of bills aimed at education reform Friday.

The measures include a digital education initiative, scrapping the high school exit exam, more vocational and technical training and more money for charter schools and regional boarding schools for Rural Alaska.

Parnell announced these reforms on Wednesday night during his State of the State address: “2014 will be the Education Session,” he said.

He also said he would increase the “per student” funding formula, a cause Democrats have fought hard for. But there was a catch: The governor said they would have to support putting a constitutional amendment on the ballot to clear the way for a voucher system for private school students.

The governor’s deal didn’t go over well with Democrats, who said they couldn’t trade their vote when an important principle was at stake.

“I would never support using state dollars for private, for-profit and/or religious schools,” said Sen. Berta Gardner, (D) Anchorage, who argues that education money should go towards public schools only.

“Should we take a park strip in Anchorage and say, ‘My share is three squares by three squares — I can do what ever I want and I’ll have choice?’” Gardner said.

Democrats also pointed to numbers compiled by Legislative Research Services, which researches the financial impacts of proposed legislation.

Gardner said she commissioned the research to find out what it would cost the state to give private school students money for tuition.

The researchers based their estimates on the current amount the state spends per pupil, $5,680. They included the number of Alaska students enrolled in private schools — approximately 11,000 students — as well as some other factors which put the price tag for private school funding at about $100 million.

They also looked at the Anchorage School District and estimated that a 5 percent reduction in enrollment translates to a loss to the school budget of more than $16 million.

At a news conference on Thursday, following his State of the State address, the governor called those estimates premature.

“If anybody gives you a number, they’re in the range of wild speculation,” Parnell said.

The governor also appeared to back away from making passage of Senate Joint Resolution 9, the measure which would remove the Alaska constitution’s ban on state funding for private education, a condition for increasing what’s known as the Base Student Allocation (BSA), a formula which determines how much money that state will pay per student.

Even though the governor has opposed raising the Base Student Allocation (BSA) formula in the past, he promised to increase it if Democrats support his omnibus education bill.  He didn’t say how much the increase would be, a number that would be important to school districts in the process of making massive cuts and layoffs.  He said this would be subject to negotiation.

“This is about two entrenched positions that I want to move forward for Alaska’s good,” Parnell said.

Lawmakers had mixed reactions to the ballot measure.

“There’s a lot of scaring going on, a lot of boogeyman stuff,” said Sen. Mike Dunleavy, (R) Wasilla, who is vice chairman of the Senate Education Committee and a former school superintendent. He is also one of the primary sponsors of SJR 9.

“This idea that public schools are going to collapse, that they’re going to lose funding, I don’t believe it,” Dunleavy said.

He also feels the votes are there in the legislature for the 2/3 majority required to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot.

“I’m confident we’re there,” Dunleavy said. “If there were a vote tomorrow, would we have two-thirds? I believe so.”

Dunleavy said the governor’s strong show of support for SJR 9 during his State of the State speech has given it momentum. Dunleavy also believes voters will ultimately approve the amendment, based on a Dittman Research poll conducted last March.

Of the voters the company surveyed, 84% said they support changing the state constitution to allow for a school choice program in Alaska.

Senate Minority Leader Hollis French, (D) Anchorage, doubts the validity of the poll because of the way the questions were framed. He also said Alaskans should look at history, specifically a 1976 ballot measure that failed by a wide margin. It would have amended the constitution to allow state funding for private and religious colleges.

French also believes the Legislature is a long ways off from reaching a two-thirds majority.

“If it was there, we would have had the vote by now,” French said.

“What I’m doing is generating a public conversation,” Parnell said.

But whether it’s a conversation or a vigorous debate, it’s not likely to end anytime soon.

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