JUNEAU -- The proposed constitutional amendment to allow public funding of private and religious schools got its first airing in the Senate Finance Committee on Monday, with its sponsor arguing it wouldn't lead to "chaos" in the public school system but the public itself testifying in overwhelming opposition.
What was supposed to have been a two-hour statewide public hearing Monday evening turned into a marathon session going long past the scheduled 8 p.m. stopping time. By that point, 48 people had testified, only three in favor, and more were still waiting to speak from both sides.
Opponents described public education as foundation of the nation's democracy that brings together people from all segments of society, and that a voucher system would starve public schools. Those in favor said competition would improve education, much as it did the phone system.
The finance committee heard the proposed amendment, Senate Joint Resolution 9, in two segments, a morning session with mostly invited testimony, and the public testimony that began at 6 p.m. In the first session, Sen. Mike Dunleavy, a Wasilla Republican and the measure's lead sponsor, said the amendment would only be a first step before public money can move into areas forbidden now by the Alaska Constitution.
"It doesn't happen unless there's a robust discussion" in the Legislature after the amendment passed.
But one senator whose vote would be critical for the amendment's passage, Sen. Click Bishop, said the details of a voucher program should be aired now, not after a potential public vote on the amendment. Bishop, a Fairbanks Republican and a member of the Finance Committee, said after the session Monday that nothing he heard convinced him that the amendment could be divorced from legislation that actually relied on it to send money to private schools.
Backers of the amendment have so far resisted that discussion. The bill was originally supposed to get a hearing in the Senate Education Committee where the effects of the amendment would be the subject of hearings. But that referral was revoked last year over the objections of the Education chairman, Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak. Senate President Charlie Huggins, a Wasilla Republican who is a co-sponsor of the amendment, said at the time that he changed his mind because the amendment was "a legal issue, not an education issue."
For the amendment to get out of the Legislature and to Alaskans for a vote, it needs approval of two-thirds of the legislators in both chambers, a major hurdle given the strength of the opposition.
In the morning session, the committee heard enthusiastic support for the amendment from an attorney from the Arlington, Va., based conservative public-interest law firm, Institute for Justice.
Testifying on a balky telephone line, attorney Dick Komer said the amendment shouldn't be necessary. The language of the Alaska Constitution doesn't forbid the state to give education money to parents to spend wherever they want -- in other words, vouchers. He said the Alaska Supreme Court, in a decision in 1979, interpreted the Constitution too strictly in a case involving state grants to students who wanted to attend a private college in Alaska.
"What we have is a state Supreme Court decision that clearly went too far and that has had a inhibiting effect on the Legislature's ability to do things that other states have done routinely," Komer said.
In that case, Sheldon Jackson College v. State, the Supreme Court declared that the Constitution's ban on "direct payments" to religious or private institutions included grants to students, because "the student is merely a conduit for the transmission of state funds to private colleges." A proposed constitutional amendment to overcome those objections passed the Legislature in 1976 but was soundly defeated by voters, 64,211 to 54,636.
Mat-Su Schools Superintendent Deena Paramo, testifying by phone as an invited witness, said she believed her district was already giving residents a wide choice of education options through the public schools but wouldn't comment directly on the amendment because her board hadn't taken a stand.
Dunleavy had once served on that board, but in his first question to her, he didn't find a vocal ally in support of the amendment.
"From your perspective, does your school district fear having SJR 9 on the ballot?" Dunleavy asked her.
Paramo said she couldn't speak for the board, which represented the community, then punted the question: "Certainly the administration and our school leadership, we look forward to being the best and providing the best and learning and growing, and, I can't speak for everyone, but certainly we look forward to just continue to provide what we can."
Later, in response to a question from Bishop about teacher layoffs, she said the district, in the fastest growing region of the state, has faced layoffs every year for the last three years, and four years ago had a round of teacher buyouts.
"We run pretty leanly," she said. "Yes, it is the reality every year due to increased costs and fixed costs with employment."
Dunleavy regularly hands out polling data that purports to show Alaskans would overwhelmingly support the amendment at the polls -- by more than 80 percent. But if that number is an actual reflection of Alaska opinion, almost none of those supporters showed up to testify in the hearing room in Juneau and at legislative information offices around the state.
Arguing in favor of separating church and state, asserting that the public schools are society's great leveler, describing the efforts by the schools to promote school choice, and generally praising their own public education and that of their kids, the witnesses shot down the amendment.
"It's the only system we have with equitable access," said Geron Brown, an elementary school teacher in Juneau.
Chris Villano, a self-described Catholic from Fairbanks whose siblings who went to parochial schools, said, "Public dollars should be used for public schools and should not be diverted to unaccountable private, sectarian and religious schools."
"School choice is code for public funding of private schools," added Anchorage witness Kevin McGee of the NAACP. "It will promote education as a private commodity rather than a public endeavor."
Sen. Pete Kelly, a sponsor of the amendment, questioned the first dozen or so speakers about whether they were members of NEA-Alaska, the state's main teachers' union. That prompted several sarcastic responses.
"Are you a member of the NEA?" Kelly asked Betty Mactavish of Fairbanks, an amendment opponent.
"No," she replied, "I'm a grandmother!"
A couple witnesses later, Terrie Gottstein of Anchorage opened her statement in opposition to the amendment as if she were testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s: "I would like to begin by saying I am not now, nor ever have I ever been, a member of the NEA," she said to uproarious laughter.
Kelly said he wouldn't discount the testimony of union members.
Deena Mitchell, testifying in Anchorage as a stay-at-home mom who also said she wasn't an NEA member, said she couldn't understand why the effects of the amendment weren't the subject of hearings too.
"I was a little bit surprised by the comments that we don't need to know how this will work and that we don't know what this will do to public school funding," Mitchell said. "Is that the way legislation is normally approached, that one has no idea what the cost of passing legislation would be? That's seems very very foolish and scary to me."
Speaking for the amendment, Mike Brax of Fairbanks said vouchers would make education consumer driven. He agreed with other supporters that discussions about the amendment's affects on schools was premature.
"The only discussion you have before you is to allow the public to vote," he said.
"I think competition is a good thing," said Lance Roberts, also testifying in Fairbanks. "Remember 30 years ago when we had phone calls and making long distance -- one teenager on the phone could cause a second mortgage on the house. We had deregulation, we got lots of innovation because that's what competition breeds."
Reach Richard Mauer at email@example.com or (907) 500-7388.
By RICHARD MAUER