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SJR 9 testimony draws overwhelming support for public schools

By Rhonda McBride 5:40 AM February 4, 2014

Above: Sen. Mike Dunleavy responds to Monday's testimony in opposition to the school voucher proposal.

JUNEAU – Gov. Sean Parnell asked for debate over the prospect of state funding for private schools, but there wasn’t much of one at a Senate Finance Committee hearing Monday night.

Instead, there were four hours of public testimony from across the state, and there were very few voices in support of Senate Joint Resolution 9.

Dozens and dozens of people weighed in against SJR 9 which, if passed, would allow voters to decide whether the state constitution should be changed to allow public money to be spent to cover tuition and other costs for students attending religious or private schools.

“Vouchers, I believe, lead to ideological enclaves,” said Mary Hakala of Juneau, who is co-founder of the Juneau Community Charter School. “I believe in options, but I believe in those options within the pubic school framework.”

Many encouraged lawmakers to provide more support for public schools instead of giving state dollars to private schools.

Joan Pardes of Juneau, who is currently not a teacher but has worked as an educator, told lawmakers to put their resources into the current system.

“Fix it and then look at other options,” Pardes said.

“If there’s money for the public school system as a result of this, then there’s money for the public school system,” said Geran Brown, who teaches elementary school in Juneau.

There was testimony from rural school districts. From Bethel to Barrow to Kodiak, many expressed fears a voucher system would pull money away from rural students.

Tina Wegener of Sterling was one of the few to testify in support of SJR 9. She said most of those who testified are members of the teacher’s union. She asked lawmakers to listen to the “real” people.

Lance Roberts of Fairbanks also wants to let voters decide the issue. Roberts believes if students in private schools were given money for tuition, there would be competition for public schools.

Roberts compared it to the deregulation of the phone industry.

“When we got deregulation, we got lots of innovation, because that’s what competition breeds when you let it loose,” Roberts said. “So please do this. Let the people vote on this and help us have a chance of having some competition in this state.”

In earlier testimony, the committee heard from a legal expert who has studied the impact of school vouchers in more than two dozen states. He said there was no shrinkage of public school budgets as a result of vouchers.

Sen. Mike Dunleavy, (R) Wasilla, argued before his fellow finance committee members that while the framers of Alaska’s constitution banned direct funding of religious and private schools, they left the door open for indirect aid.

Dunleavy said that’s because Alaska has a different model of delivering education, in which many of the state’s early schools were started by religious institutions.

“It’s been in the last 25 years, as a matter of fact, during my tenure as a teacher, we have seen those models disappear and become a more state-centered model,” Dunleavy said.

Dunleavy said public schools already have partnerships with religious and private schools that are very successful, but constitutionally questionable.

One example Dunleavy gave are online courses offered by Brigham Young University, which are popular with many high school students.

“If we expand those partnerships, or if more and more students are taking those type of vendor courses, you run the risk of a lawsuit,” Dunleavy said. “It could be from the teacher’s union, the ACLU.”

As the hands on the clock in the Senate Finance Committee room turned past 10 p.m. Monday, a retired Juneau minister had the last word for the evening.

“Please do not change such a sterling document and marginalize the most needy,” said Paul Beran, who strongly opposed funds going to private schools, whether directly or indirectly.

Dunleavy said he’s neither discouraged nor surprised by the overwhelming testimony against a constitutional amendment.

“I knew that NEA (National Education Association) would have a number of its folks out,” Dunleavy said. ”This means a lot to them, to not allow us to go to the people for a vote.”

“Polls have been done consistently showing, overwhelmingly, that the majority of Alaskans want the right to vote on their constitution on this issue,” Dunleavy said. “There are no polls showing the opposite. If there were polls showing the opposite, we would have seen them already.”

The Senate Finance Hearing on SJR 9 resumes Tuesday at 9:00 a.m. with more public testimony expected.

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