Alaska lawmakers to take look at issue of school choice

LEGISLATION: Public funds could be used for religious schools.

Associated PressJanuary 23, 2012 

JUNEAU -- Students could attend private or religious schools with state-sponsored scholarships under a measure being considered by Alaska lawmakers.

A companion measure to the bill, sponsored by Rep. Wes Keller, would amend the state constitution to allow public funds to go to religious schools.

Keller, R-Wasilla, said this is about school choice. Last fall the Alaska Federation of Natives endorsed the proposed legislation, which it said would give Native parents flexibility to start new schools or choose schools that best respond to their children's needs. Keller's bill at the time also would have allowed for scholarships at public schools.

Both Gov. Sean Parnell and education Commissioner Michael Hanley support the concept of choice, but choice is different things to different people and neither has taken a public position on Keller's bill or a similar bill in the Senate. An education department spokesman said Monday that the department doesn't take positions on legislation.

Hanley told The Associated Press last fall that, when it comes to choice, he would like to see a range of opportunities for students to achieve success. He said that could include different models within the public school system, such as charter schools or theme-based education.

The Alaska Constitution states that public money cannot be appropriated except for a public purpose. Keller is proposing an amendment that would add that nothing in that section would prevent payment of public funds "for the direct educational benefit of students as provided by law."

It's not clear how many students such a program might benefit or how large the proposed appropriation might be. Keller said he would suggest starting small. There would be a cap on the scholarship amount and it could not exceed the amount that would go toward educating a similarly situated student in, say, public school, Keller said.

Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska, raised concerns with the proposal during a House Education Committee hearing Monday.

He said it's best and safest that government not get entangled in religion. While the ACLU would defend religious freedom, he said the issue of funding religious schools is an entirely different question.

He said the ACLU would argue that a school couldn't proselytize and get state funds.

Keller said in an interview that anytime anyone proposes a constitutional amendment it's a big deal and he said he expects extended debate. But he said providing money to send a child to a religious school isn't the establishment of religion.

"That's not the point," he said.

Among the people he's heard from in crafting his legislation are families working to come up with extra money to send their kids to private schools.

He said with so many people supporting school choice, he can see Alaska, at some point, moving toward providing for more alternatives.

"Whether it will be this bill, in this session, remains to be seen," he said.

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