Parnell's proposals include expanding charter schools and rural boarding schools.
JUNEAU – Like a mantra, Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell kept repeating the phrase “to keep Alaska strong” in his State of the State speech Wednesday night.
In fact, he used some form of the word “strong” more than two dozen times to talk about state investment in a natural gas pipeline, state spending and education reforms.
“Tonight, I propose key changes to keep Alaska strong,” the governor said as he outlined his plans to improve education.
Among those changes: a digital teaching initiative, scrapping the high school exit exam, more vocational and technical training, expanding charter schools and rural boarding schools.
“To keep Alaska strong, we need more significant reforms that create more educational opportunity for our children,” Parnell said. “Tonight, I want each of us to climb out of whichever trench we are in and declare 2014 will be the Education Session.”
Democrats sitting on the house floor visibly flinched. Up until that point, they had been applauding politely.
As school districts across the state have announced drastic cuts in funding and teacher layoffs, Democrats have pushed for increases in the state’s per pupil spending formula — the Base Student Allocation (BSA).
Until now, this increase is something Republican leaders, including the governor, have resisted. They say every year they’ve spent more money on education for big-ticket items like energy, transportation and school construction, as well as protecting school funding from the budget ax.
But Democrats argue that classroom costs have risen sharply and so flat funding amounts to a cut.
Parnell pitched a deal he’s hoping will end the standoff. He promised to increase per student spending in exchange for help in putting a measure on the ballot which would make it possible for the state to pay some of the costs of students in private schools.
The state constitution currently restricts the state from using public money to benefit religious or private schools.
“To keep Alaska strong, I urge the House and the Senate to vigorously debate the provisions of Senate Joint Resolution 9 and move it to the people for a vote,” Parnell said.
“The question of school choice is not about private schools or religious schools, it is about whether parents should have the freedom to say what school best meets their child’s education needs with their child’s share of public money,” he said.
Republicans warmly embraced the governor’s education reforms.
“It’s definitely one of my priorities, so I was very pleased to see that the governor has made it one of his top priorities in the state of Alaska,” said Eagle River Rep. Lora Reinbold, one of the co-sponsors of Senate Joint Resolution 9
Rep. Lance Pruitt, the House majority leader, called the governor’s education reforms bold.
In contrast, Democrats responded coldly at a news conference following the governor’s speech
“I’m disappointed he’s going in this direction,” said Sen. Hollis French, (D) Anchorage, the Senate minority leader. “Diverting public money to private schools simply continues to deprive our public schools of the resources they need to do their job.”
“Remember, education is a constitutional obligation, and it can’t be done with half measures,” said French, who called the governor’s vision a “mirage.”
Other Democrats said they were insulted by the governor’s proposal and felt they were being bribed to trade their vote for something they don’t believe in.
But if the governor can lure a few Democrats to his camp, he might be able to get the two-thirds vote from the Legislature needed to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot.
“It’s time legislators let Alaskans decide,” the governor told lawmakers during his address.