Point-Counterpoint: Private funding for private schools

BY SEN. BERTA GARDNER AND REP. HARRIET DRUMMONDFebruary 22, 2014 

We have heard a lot of talk about "school choice" this year, and having spent a good part of the summer in education meetings learning about Alaska's schools and all they have to offer, we'd like to applaud the governor for having dubbed this the "Education Session." We challenge him to take it one step further. Let's make this the "Public Education Session."

It is easy to say Alaskans support educational choice, as Alaska has some of the best options available. However, we do not think amending the state constitution, allowing the diversion of funds from public schools to private secular or religious schools, is the right way to go. Also, voters should not be asked to amend the constitution without specific proposals and accompanying costs, particularly when just two years ago they overwhelmingly declined to hold a constitutional convention. The call to "let the voters decide" on this issue is disingenuous.

The Anchorage School District offers 130 different schools and programs to choose from. Most go with their neighborhood schools because they are happy with them but folks can also find alternative elementary and secondary options that include Montessori models, charter schools and student-centered programs in a variety of styles.

Student-centered schools, known as optional schools, focus on the basics while integrating the concepts of team teaching, flexible scheduling, and assessments based on self-evaluations, portfolios and goals. Most of our secondary schools also offer Career and Technical Education tracks such as culinary arts, construction trades, health occupations and digital technology. Our flagship King Career Center has 26 career pathway programs ranging from animal care to natural resource management.

Eight different charter schools operate in the Anchorage School District, emphasizing various aspects of academic rigor, from hands-on learning, to world language, and learning through the arts. Additionally, the district has two charter schools to serve the needs of home-schooling families and students: the Family Partnership Charter School and the Frontier Charter School.

Our alternative schools are open to any resident student, with participants selected through a lottery system. For many of the above reasons, alternative schools are very popular. We believe the waiting lists are too long. The challenge districts face is replicating these popular schools and programs, not diverting funds away from them. Most of these innovative schools are successful because they are driven by extremely committed parents, willing and able to transport their children to an alternative school and get involved personally on a regular basis. Parental involvement is a common recipe for school success, so we are not surprised to find it more abundant in these successful alternative school options.

So why is there such a push for a constitutional amendment to allow state dollars to be used for private secular and religious schools? Some people have not found what they want in the 130 different Anchorage School District offerings. They feel their needs are better met in home-schooling (with or without district support and funds) or private schools. We support parents informing themselves on the options available, making appropriate choices for their family, and then actively participating in the educational progress. We hope all parents will follow that model.

Yet the fundamental question remains: Who should pay for the choice of a private education? We believe the costs of choices outside the public system should be private, just as the schooling is.

Finally, we will leave you with this. Diane Ravitch, former U.S. assistant secretary of education under President H.W. Bush and reappointed by President Bill Clinton, was originally a strong proponent of school vouchers. As results-based data began to emerge on the subject, she changed her thinking, saying that "protecting our public schools against privatization and saving them for the future generations of American children is the civil rights issue of our time." We couldn't agree more.

Sen. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage, has served in the state Senate since 2013 and previously served in the House. Rep. Harriet Drummond, D-Anchorage, has served in the House since 2013 and is a former member of the Anchorage School Board.

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