JUNEAU -- A fight over the fundamentals of education in Alaska is erupting in Juneau over a proposed constitutional amendment that would for the first time allow the state to direct public dollars for private schooling including religious schools.
About three dozen people testified Friday morning in the first legislative hearing this year on the proposal, and they were split evenly for and against it.
Backers want it as a way to route financial help from the state to parents, letting them choose a private school even if they otherwise couldn't afford it. Critics fear it as potentially devastating to public school systems by siphoning away state dollars that already fall short.
Alaska is joining a debate happening across the country. Since 2011, 37 states have considered legislation that would help parents pay for private schools through state-paid vouchers, scholarships or in states with an income tax, credits or deductions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
As of December, vouchers were in place in 12 states plus Washington, D.C. But even in Milwaukee, where the first modern voucher program began in 1990, the controversy doesn't fade. Problems emerged there with voucher schools over the years that were never anticipated.
While similar measures have been proposed before in Alaska, this year the prospects that it will pass with the hefty margin required are heightened because for the first time since 2006 there's one-party rule by Republicans.
If the amendment resolutions clear both the House and Senate with the necessary two-thirds support, Alaska voters would get the final say in the November 2014 general election and set the stage for state-paid vouchers for private schools.
Fellow Wasilla Republicans are the prime sponsors: Rep. Wes Keller with House Joint Resolution 1 and Sen. Michael Dunleavy with Senate Joint Resolution 9.
Both say they say they just want Alaska voters to decide what they call a simple change to the Alaska Constitution.
"Whether or not to include one sentence," Keller told the House Education Committee on Friday, when the resolution had its first hearing. "That sentence is 'nothing in this section' -- it's a section on taxation -- 'nothing in this section shall prevent payment from public funds for the direct educational benefit of students as provided by law.' "
Later, Keller clarified that the proposal also strips another sentence from the Constitution: "No money shall be paid from public funds for the direct benefit of any religious or other private educational institution.
Dunleavy, a former teacher, school superintendent and Mat-Su School Board president, said in an interview this week that he's a big supporter of public schools and wouldn't push anything destructive. Critics are leaping ahead to critique a voucher system that isn't yet proposed or designed, he said.
"There is no one, quote, voucher system that looks the same," Dunleavy said. "People are getting the cart way before the horse."
Already the state is providing money for students to attend private colleges including religious schools through the Alaska Performance Scholarship program. Clarifying the constitution to give K-12 students and their parents the same type of choice makes sense, he said.
The American university system is arguably the best in the world and students with federal grants and loans aren't confined to public schools, he said.
"But if you apply that same construct to K-12 public education, people will burst into flames and the universe will rip in half," Dunleavy said.
While Maine and Vermont have provided limited public funding in some rural areas for private schooling since the 1800s, the first modern voucher program started in 1990 in Milwaukee. It's costly. It hasn't been without trouble. And it's immensely popular.
Some 24,000 Milwaukee students are enrolled in various private voucher schools, some excellent, some not, said state Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee, who steered through accountability legislation in 2009. Eligibility is limited to families with incomes no more than three times the federal poverty level.
"There's no way it doesn't change the landscape," Taylor said.
Public schools haven't been decimated because local taxpayers are footing the bill. While Wisconsin this year is diverting nearly $60 million that otherwise would have gone to Milwaukee Public Schools to voucher schools, property owners are making up most of that.
Taylor said it's like a divorced couple. Now there are two households to support with no more income. If Alaska public schools can give parents the choices they crave, that's the smarter route, she said.
Teachers in Milwaukee voucher-backed schools initially didn't even have to have a high school diploma, she said. There were no sex offender background checks. Some of the new voucher schools were evicted from rented spaces mid-school year, Taylor said.
Now teachers must have bachelor degrees and the state monitors their financial and academic performance.
"It's not choice at all if it's not quality," she said.
A number of parents use the vouchers because they want a religious education, which Taylor said has a place but shouldn't be the driving factor.
"Teaching your child to have faith and pray and about God is not going to teach them the basics that they need, math and reading," Taylor said. "Don't get me wrong. I believe that's important. But I really need them to be able to read."
How do the voucher students stack up academically? In Milwaukee they are slightly behind their public school counterparts on the latest round of testing, according to the school district.
But in some comparisons elsewhere, voucher students do better, the National Conference of State Legislatures found. States generally limit participation to students with disabilities or from lower income families, the group said. There are also programs in Arizona, Georgia, Florida, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma and Utah.
ALASKA SIDES LINING UP
Gov. Sean Parnell, a Republican, supports a vote on the proposed constitutional amendment. Former Anchorage Mayor Tom Fink does too. He told the House Education Committee the public school system is broken and that a system that gives all parents a choice is the answer. Education consultant Jerry Covey, who was education commissioner under Wally Hickel, is another booster. The Alaska Home Educators Association supports it too.
Parents who testified so far are split, though a number said children were not well-served in public schools if they had certain disabilities, needed specialized help or struggled in big classes.
The Alaska Association of School Boards is against the proposal. So are Alaska and national PTAs, the National Education Association-Alaska, the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska. Even Arnie Cohen, head of Pacific Northern Academy, a private school in Anchorage, is against it, telling legislators the school doesn't want to lose its independence. Plus, the cost of educating a student there tops $19,000.
"Who is going to provide the difference?" Cohen asked.
A number of people urged lawmakers to just let voters decide.
But Vic Fischer, a delegate to Alaska's Constitutional Convention in 1955 and 1956 and former legislator, said that is "a lousy argument."
He told the committee that "the burden of proof is very heavily on those that would change their constitution." That's why two-thirds of the Legislature must support sending a proposed change to voters, he said.
The framers unanimously backed the language that Keller and Dunleavy want to strip out, he said. It tracks closely with the Blaine Amendment, a failed U.S. Constitutional amendment proposed in 1875 that has become a flashpoint for school voucher advocates. But Fischer said he never even heard of the Blaine Amendment until recently, not that it was some evil thing.
Keller and Dunleavy both stress their resolutions don't create a program allowing state-paid vouchers for private schools -- even though that's the end desired by supporters.
Keller, as well as Education Committee Chairwoman Lynn Gattis, R-Wasilla, on Friday deflected questions from other lawmakers about the ramifications.
Rep. Harriet Drummond, D-Anchorage and a former member of the Anchorage School Board, asked where the money for private schools would come from.
"The resolution does not appropriate or spend money. The only money that is spent on this resolution is the cost of printing ballots," Keller said.
"That appears to be skirting the issue, Mr. Keller," Drummond said.
But Keller said her question wasn't valid.
Later, Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, tried to ask questions about the funding too.
"Rep. Seaton, sorry to cut you off here," Gattis said. The committee was looking at a proposed constitutional amendment and nothing more at this point, she said.
Rep. Peggy Wilson, R-Wrangell, said voters will want the information too.
The committee will take a second look at the measure on March 1.
In an earlier version of this story, Pacific Northern Academy head Arnie Cohen was quoted as saying tuition there tops $19,000. That's the cost of educating a student, Cohen said. Tuition is less than that.