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Lawmaker listening session sparks education debate

By Shannon Ballard 11:22 AM February 23, 2014

Anchorage legislators host second listening session. Outside the session, more people find a way to make their voices heard.

ANCHORAGE – An open mic opportunity drew hundreds to the Z.J. Loussac Public Library Saturday.

Anchorage legislators were all ears at the second caucus listening session of the year.

Again, it was dominated by education funding.

People spoke mostly about their hope for the state to raise the base student allocation by more than $400 and also debated Senate Joint Resolution 9, along with its companion measure, HJR1.

The proposal would ask voters to approve a constitutional amendment allowing state money to go to private or religious schools.

People on both sides of the argument spoke up.

“Nothing quite arouses people’s concerns as much as educating their kids and making sure we have an educated workforce and we’re investing in our kids’ futures,” said Sen. Bill Wielechowski. “You saw that today and it’s a good dialog, a good debate about how we go forward as a state and educate our kids as best we can.”

Because so many people signed up to speak, the meeting was extended for more than two hours.

Outside the caucus, more people found a way to be heard.

Two education rallies were held at the library.

But there’s a divide. One side dressed in yellow and the other in red.

Most people agree Alaska needs more money in its education system. The debate is about which schools should be given state funding.

Ray Kreig is in favor of SJR 9.

He said he wants a constitutional amendment allowing state money to go to private or religious schools.

“I’m very unhappy that low income and folks that are not wealthy or well off cannot send their kids to the best school for them,” Kreig said.

Deena Mitchell disagrees.

She said she wants an increase to base student allocation. If more public funds are set aside for education, Mitchell said, it should be given exclusively to public schools.

“If parents, within the myriad of choices that are available in our public school district, don’t find something that is adequate they have the right to go and buy private school education,” Mitchell said. “I have the right to go and buy private security protection for my home if I don’t think the police is adequately protecting me. It doesn’t mean I can access my share of tax dollars to pay for that.”

Wielechowski said he expects there to be some kind of increase in base student allocation.

But when it comes to using public funds for private schools, he said it’s too early to tell what will happen.

The arguments heard during the listening session will be used to debate the issue in Juneau.

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