Parnell: School funds increase linked to reforms, not vouchers

rmauer@adn.comJanuary 23, 2014 

Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell, right, is led into the House chamber for his State of the State speech by Rep. Bob Lynn, R-Anchorage, left, and Sen. Mike Dunleavy, R-Wasilla, Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014, in Juneau, Alaska.

MARK THIESSEN — AP

Update 10:45 a.m. Friday:

JUNEAU (AP) — Gov. Sean Parnell's education proposal would increase the per-pupil funding formula by about $200 over current levels over the next three years. 

Parnell proposes raising the base student allocation from $5,680 to $5,765 the first year. It would go to $5,823 the following year, and $5,881 the year after. 

The increase is part of an overall education proposal introduced Friday that includes changes that Parnell said are aimed at giving kids more opportunities and parents more choice in options in where to send their kids to school. 

Original story:

JUNEAU -- Gov. Sean Parnell said Thursday that legislative passage of a school voucher constitutional amendment wasn't a precondition for his support of the first increase in the per-pupil school funding formula since 2011.

That appears to be an important point. The lead senator among Democrats on education matters, Berta Gardner of Anchorage, said she's open to listening to Parnell's ideas on school reform but not to a constitutional amendment allowing public funds to be spent on private or religious schools.

In his State of the State address Wednesday, Parnell tied an increase in the base student allocation -- the $5,680 per pupil that Juneau now sends to districts around the state -- to passage of education reforms by the Legislature. He also, for the first time, said he supported a proposed constitutional amendment that would remove the longstanding ban on paying private and religious schools with state money.

A day after his address, Parnell met with reporters and clarified that he was not linking the amendment to his other reforms.

"At this moment, no, it doesn't have to pass," Parnell said of the amendment. "But I think it's important to have that discussion."

Parnell acknowledged he had been one of the foes of raising the base student allocation, or BSA, allowing the allowance to slip substantially behind rises in the cost of living. Instead, he said, he had long favored reforming the public school system.

"Is it a change of position? Of course it is but that's how governors lead," Parnell said.

In his news conference, Parnell wouldn't say how much money he planned to spend on the BSA, long supported by teachers and their union, school boards and many public-school parents. He said the administration's bill probably will be made public Friday. It would contain the amounts along with sections for each of his other reforms.

Parnell said he wants more choices in the areas of charter, boarding and technical schools. He also wants to eliminate the high school exit exam and replace it with standardized college or job-skill exams like the SAT and WorkKeys, and allow students to take a proficiency test to opt out or receive credit for a class.

"The bill that I will put forward on Friday will contain this list of about six items, including the BSA increase," Parnell said. "That would constitute real reform. If they (legislators) took it as I put it in, I would sign that bill."

Though Parnell stopped short of linking the BSA increase to the constitutional amendment, his support heartened the amendment's prime sponsor in the Senate, Mike Dunleavy, R-Wasilla.

"It propels it forward," Dunleavy said in an interview Thursday. "If you don't have the executive, the leader of a state, out in front of any piece of legislation, it makes it that much more difficult to move forward."

Identical versions of the amendment, Senate Joint Resolution 9 and House Joint Resolution 1, were introduced last year and are slowly progressing through the two chambers. Both would remove a rule that's been part of Alaska basic law since the Territorial Organic Act of 1912: Public funds can't be spent on private or religious schools.

Passing an amendment takes a two-thirds vote in the Legislature and then a majority vote in an election. Dunleavy acknowledged that the measure is uniting minority Democrats with members of the Bush caucus who have joined the Republican majorities but he said he's still hopeful for passage.

Even if the amendment passes, it wouldn't lead to such a wholesale shift of funds that public schools would be starved, Dunleavy asserted. At least, it hasn't happened in other states that have passed similar amendments, he said.

"If the Constitution of Alaska is changed, it doesn't mean it will metastasize into this out-of-control conduit of money to the pope, Jerry Prevo or the ayatollah," Dunleavy said.

But Gardner, the Democrat from Anchorage, said a nonpartisan legislative research study suggested it would result in as much as $100 million migrating out of the public school system.

Gardner also said she "took umbrage" at Parnell's characterization of supporters of increased school funding as people who didn't want education reform.

"I would never support using state dollars for private, for-profit and-or religious schools," Gardner said. "On other issues, I think I'm willing to look at the details of things and consider them. We don't hold a monopoly on good ideas but we do understand the principles about what contributes to student success and what kinds of things are impediments to student success."

She and other Democrats say that voluntary pre-kindergarten classes and early screening for learning disabilities have proven to be keys in helping students succeed in school and in life, but Alaska has not fully adopted those programs.

 

Reach Richard Mauer at rmauer@adn.com or 907-500-7388.

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