Conservative leaders pushing a constitutional amendment to restructure public education in Alaska told a crowd at a South Anchorage Catholic church on Tuesday night that the time is right.
Many at the event were supportive of a proposed change to the Alaska Constitution to allow public money to go to private schools, including religious schools. But some critics also attended, including a Service High School teacher who spoke of education as being for "the public good." Opponents also warn that vouchers for private schools could drain money from already pinched public schools.
The event was hosted by St. Elizabeth Ann Seton parish. Anchorage Archbishop Roger Schwietz has spoken out in favor of the legislation.
Tom Fink, a former Anchorage mayor and state House speaker, is one of the leaders of the "school choice" effort. Measures now pending in the House and Senate would allow a statewide vote in November to amend the constitution. If the legislation doesn't pass, backers will have to start over with new resolutions and a new Legislature in 2015, he said.
"We are pushing the Legislature hard this year. It's ripe. We want people to have the chance to vote on it," Fink told a crowd of about 80 people who gathered at the parish.
The proposal would strip away a sentence in the constitution that says "no money shall be paid from public funds for the direct benefit of any religious or other private educational institution." It would add wording to a section on finance and taxation that requires public money to go for a public purpose to specify that "nothing in this section shall prevent payment from public funds for the direct educational benefit of students as provided by law."
There's one-party Republican rule in Juneau but the bar is high to change the constitution. Two-thirds of the House and the Senate would have to pass resolutions for an amendment in order for the matter to go before voters. That's 27 representatives and 14 senators.
Gov. Sean Parnell gave the cause a boost when he said in his State of the State address last week that he supported a constitutional amendment. After that, three more Republicans including Senate President Charlie Huggins signed on as co-sponsors to the Senate proposal, joining the prime sponsor, Sen. Mike Dunleavy of Wasilla, and four other co-sponsors. Rep. Wes Keller, another Wasilla Republican, is the prime sponsor for the House measure, which has three co-sponsors.
Fink told the forum crowd that backers have commitments from a majority of legislators, but not the two-thirds needed.
The biggest problem proponents have, Fink said, is firm opposition from the National Education Association, the teachers' union.
No official representative from NEA-Alaska was able to attend the forum, said Rev. Tom Lilly, pastor of the parish. NEA-Alaska was having its delegate assembly this week, its biggest function of the year, a spokeswoman said in an email late Wednesday.
NO UNIVERSAL VOUCHERS
David Boyle, the executive director of the Alaska Policy Forum, and forum researcher Bob Griffin on Tuesday laid out the case to give parents choice in where their children go to school. The forum is a conservative think tank run by volunteers.
Boyle asked audience members to consider where they did their grocery shopping and where they bought their lattes. They didn't have to shop in their neighborhood, he noted.
"Then why does the government have the right to tell you what school your children should go to because you live in a particular ZIP code?" Boyle asked.
While the Anchorage School District has numerous charter schools, specialized magnet programs, and alternative schools, Boyle said that children from the neediest families often are stuck at the lowest-performing schools. The district does allow exemptions so that students can switch schools, audience members reminded him.
Griffin said 23 states have some sort of parental choice program allowing public funds for private schooling.
"It's actually a trend that's sweeping the nation," Griffin said.
Since 2011, 41 states have considered some sort of private school choice legislation, either to start a program or amend an existing one, education policy specialist Josh Cunningham of the National Conference of State Legislatures, said in an email Wednesday. The 23 states, plus Washington, D.C. and one Colorado school district, offer a variety of programs, including vouchers, tax credits and deductions, and education savings accounts, he said. In 13 states, voucher programs work like scholarships funded by the government for private schools.
Griffin said 11 of 12 studies found benefits to student performance from private school choice programs. And he and Boyle said that public schools also improve when there's competition. They pointed to a report by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice titled "A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Choice." The foundation's founder, the late Nobel laureate Milton Friedman, was a leading advocate for vouchers.
But Cunningham, at the national conference, said in an email Wednesday that "research on the academic impact of school vouchers and school choice in general has shown little change in how students perform. Students generally perform at the same level as similar public school students."
However, research does show a link between vouchers and higher rates of high school graduation and enrollment in college, he wrote.
Late Wednesday night, Lori Blakeslee, communications manager for NEA-Alaska, emailed that the studies finding educational benefits from school choice programs are flawed. Research methods for some of the studies have been called into question, she said.
Five of the 13 states with vouchers target low- or lower-middle income families, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Some target students with disabilities.
"No state has opened it up to all students, or what some call 'universal vouchers,' " Cunningham said.
'FIX THAT SCHOOL'
At Tuesday's forum, Service High teacher Jake Todd talked about his work with kids on the margins, who are at risk of dropping out, who may already have criminal records. When he tries to reach their parents, he may get a dead number, an aunt, a friend or no one at all.
Anchorage public schools already have undergone severe cuts and are facing more, he said. If he hired a private security firm to protect his home, should he get a voucher to offset his property taxes against what goes toward the Anchorage Police Department, he asked.
One aspect of the public good is safety, he said.
"But another part of the public good is public education," he said.
On Wednesday, Anchorage Education Association president Andy Holleman said the state responsibility is to ensure public schools are well funded, which keeps everyone invested in making sure they are well run.
"If you are running a really bad school, the alternative shouldn't be to hand a check to the few parents who are making noise about it and let them go somewhere else," he said. "The solution should be to fix that school."
Bill Walker, a Republican who is running as an independent for governor, listened to Tuesday's forum. He said afterwards he likes the idea of school choice, but not at the expense of public schools. The state is in a budget crisis and "we can't fund what we have now," he said.
A voucher program could be structured to let local districts keep a portion of state funding for every child who transferred to a private school, Boyle said.
The proposed constitutional amendment is expected to be heard in the Senate Finance Committee on Monday, Fink said.
Backers are pushing for the matter to come to a quick vote on the floor of the Senate. But moderate Republicans may be a hard sell. Last year, Huggins yanked the measure from the Senate Education Committee, chaired by one of those moderates, Gary Stevens of Kodiak, insisting it was more of a legal issue than an educational issue.
By LISA DEMER