JUNEAU -- Pounding on a theme of keeping "Alaska strong," Gov. Sean Parnell outlined an election-year agenda that includes advancing a gas pipeline, a budget that takes reduced revenue into consideration, and calls for a host of new education reforms, including a constitutional amendment that would allow vouchers in place of public-school funding.
His State of the State speech, taking under 30 minutes, was delivered to a joint session of the Alaska Legislature and to a statewide audience by television Wednesday evening.
Parnell got the most applause when he signaled his support for the school choice amendment now in the Senate, when he said he would trade for his education reforms by increasing per-pupil funding, when he urged expanding the charter-school program and when he recalled oil-tax cuts passed last year.
Citing the state's successful passage through the last recession, Parnell said, "With these polices in hand, the Great Alaska Comeback is underway."
In the Democratic response, the Legislature's two newly installed minority leaders, Rep. Chris Tuck and Sen. Hollis French, both of Anchorage, said Parnell was on the wrong track.
Tuck said Parnell was acceding to oil-company demands without protecting the state's interests. French said that improving public education, including making popular preschool programs more readily available, was the way to invest in Alaska's future.
Most of Parnell's speech repeated ideas he has been discussing for the last few weeks and months, such as investing state funds in a gas line from the North Slope to a liquefaction plant in Southcentral Alaska, paying down state pension deficits through a $3 billion deposit from savings, and continuing to balance the budget. On the oil-tax cuts made last year, he declared, "Alaskans are better off."
But many of his education proposals were new.
While Parnell has often said he supported school choice, he had never before come out publicly for Senate Joint Resolution 9, a constitutional amendment that would end Alaska's constitutional ban on spending public funds for private or religious schools.
"To keep Alaska strong, I urge the House and Senate to vigorously debate the provisions of Senate Joint Resolution 9 and move it to the people for a vote," he said. "On this question -- whether parents ought to have a greater say in their child's education -- it is time legislators let Alaskans decide."
Nearly a page of his nine-page speech was devoted to that subject, second in length only to his discussion of the gas line.
That brought the principal sponsor of the resolution, Sen. Mike Dunleavy, R-Wasilla, a former public school superintendent, to declare in a statement to reporters afterward: "Let the people vote."
Parnell urged other educational reforms as well. He said more money should be spent on boarding and technical schools, some inconsequential and obsolete standardized testing should be eliminated, and more support should be given to technological improvements in classrooms.
With charter schools being the public school system's answer to parent choice, Parnell urged reform there too. He said school districts must not be allowed to veto charter school proposals with no option for parents to appeal. He said the state Department of Education should be allowed to weigh in.
He also said charter schools should get about the same amount of money that regular public schools get per student from local, state and federal sources.
If the Legislature agrees to pass "real education reform," he would also agree to the single biggest request of public-school advocates: an increase in the base student allocation, which has not kept pace with inflation.
"To show my good faith in this, I am introducing legislation to reform Alaska's education system by focusing on charter school opportunity, career technical training, digital teaching, and other opportunities," Parnell said. "And I am introducing legislation to raise the BSA for each of the next three years."
In their response, the Democrats generally agreed that Parnell hit some of the state's most important issues, but challenged how the administration would carry out its agenda.
"We want to partner with our oil industry and others who want to help develop our resources, but we will not take the back seat in those negotiations," Tuck said. "We want a gas line, but we cannot afford to give away our gas like our governor did our oil."
French said the governor would hurt education by supporting the constitutional amendment.
"On the issue of vouchers, I listened very carefully to what the governor had to say, and I'm disappointed he's going in this direction," French said. "Diverting public money to private schools simply continues to deprive our public schools of the resources they need to do their job."
It should be little wonder that public schools have been suffering when the base student allocation has failed to keep up with inflation and other proposals have been ignored, he said.
"Innovations long embraced by other states, like statewide voluntary pre-kindergarten, do not get the attention they deserve from this administration," French said. "Keep doing what you've been doing, and you'll keep getting what you've been getting."
Reach Richard Mauer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 907-500-7388.
By RICHARD MAUER