After flailing around for years, doing the same tired things and spending billions, does anybody today really believe Alaska produces the best-educated kids in the United States? What was the tipoff? The dropout rates? Graduation rates? College entrance rates? We have a problem.
The best, perhaps only, way to fix what ails schools is competition. The best way to spur competition is to provide vouchers, or scholarships, allowing public money to go to parents who can choose their children's schools, including private -- even religious -- institutions. To do that, because of a federal law rattling around since the year Custer bought the farm, Alaska's Constitution must be amended.
An effort to give Alaskans final say on school choice -- House Joint Resolution 16, sponsored by Rep. Wes Keller, R-Wasilla -- is bogged down in the state House. Supporters are scrambling for the 27 votes necessary to pass it and send it to the Senate. Opponents include Democrats and -- gasp! -- teachers' unions unfazed that Johnny is dumb as strudel.
One professed concern is that students seeking a real education would abandon ship for good private schools, leaving the hard- or expensive-to-educate or disabled in public systems legally required to take them; that vouchers automatically would siphon much-needed money from public schools. Hogwash. Future legislatures would decide funding. Nobody else. Despite opponents' twattle, the real fear is that parents long disgusted with public schools would spend the money elsewhere -- where unions may hold no sway.
Then there is the purported, and bogus, religion-government divide concern. One legislator referred to this stretch as the "separation of powers line," the Juneau Empire reported. (How does this nation survive?)
Could Alaska establish a voucher system? The U.S. Supreme Court says it can -- in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, a landmark 2002 decision. The Ohio Education Association, the Ohio Federation of Teachers, the American Civil Liberties Union and People for the American Way challenged Cleveland's $2,250 school voucher plan, claiming it violated the First Amendment's establishment clause.
The Cleveland City School District allowed children to be enrolled in non-religious and religious private schools, using public funds for tuition help. The program was wildly popular -- so popular that vouchers were issued by lottery, as there were not enough to go around.
The Zelman decision essentially says children have equal options despite their economic status. The high court's majority opinion, written by the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist, gives Alaska, and other states, a road map to get there. Here is the court's five-part test:
• The program has a valid secular purpose;
• Aid goes to parents, not schools;
• A broad class of beneficiaries is covered;
• It is neutral with respect to religion; and,
• It offers adequate nonreligious options.
At least 30 states' legislatures debated school vouchers last year. Why has Alaska not joined Ohio and others in adopting them?
The short answer: Alaska's Constitution.
Article VII, Section 1, says, "No money shall be paid from public funds for the direct benefit of any religious or other private educational institution."
In an opinion piece on the AnchorageDailyPlanet.com supporting the legislation, Dennis Fradley said of Article VII, "Although this article restricts public funds from 'directly' benefiting a religious or other private institution, Alaska's Supreme Court has ruled the article restricts 'indirect' funding, as well. So scholarships for individual children whose parents might want to choose a private school alternative are unconstitutional in Alaska."
Also, Article IX, Section 6 restricts public money and public property to public purposes -- which the Alaska Supreme Court interprets as preventing assistance to private school students.
Alaska's Supreme Court is overruling the nation's high court based on a misguided federal law relic from 1876 that was the price of statehood.
Maine's James G. Blaine was, in 1875, speaker of the U.S. House. Aflame with anti-Catholic fervor, he sponsored a constitutional amendment barring public funding of religious schools. It failed, but a compromise required states created after 1876 to have a Blaine-like provision in their constitutions -- including Alaska's.
We can change our constitution. The U.S. Supreme Court has shown the way, and the Legislature could start the process. If not this session, then next.
It is time. After flailing around for years, doing the same tired things and spending billions, does anybody today really believe Alaska produces the best-educated kids in the United States?
We have tried everything else. Why not something that will work?
Paul Jenkins is editor of the AnchorageDailyPlanet.com.