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Begich's criticism of Alaska education funding brings sharp rejoinder from legislators

Pat Forgey
Getting the jump on any Alaska Republicans who might want to tell him how to do his job in Washington, D.C., U.S. Sen. Mark Begich told lawmakers in Juneau on Monday what he thought of the job they were doing here. When it came to education, he wasn't complimentary. Loren Holmes photo

JUNEAU -- Getting the jump on Alaska's Republican legislators who might want to tell him how to do his job in Washington, D.C., U.S. Sen. Mark Begich told lawmakers in Juneau on Monday what he thought of the job they were doing here.

When it came to education, he wasn't complimentary.

"I'm troubled by what's happened to state education funding over the past few years and the questionable direction for our public schools advocated by some in this legislative session," Alaska's junior senator told a joint session of the Alaska Legislature Monday in the state Capitol.

Of particular concern, he said, was a move to amend the state constitution to allow public money go to private or religious schools.

Praise for military brings cheers

Begich's speech and the question-and-answer session that followed lasted an hour, and included most of the usual fare from the state's congressional delegation: Praise for the military that prompted cheers and pledges to fight federal overreach that drew applause.

But he was also bluntly critical of state education funding, likening it to not putting enough wood in a wood stove.

"It's like you've built a fire in the woodstove but refused to add enough wood. Now some are complaining that the stove doesn't work and we need a brand new heating system," Begich said.

Begich pointed the finger at the state budget and blamed the state for Alaska teacher layoffs, and he pushed back against state leaders who say they are being asked to make up for federal school funding cuts.

House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, last week said federal education cuts appeared to be behind budget shortfalls and teacher layoffs around the state.

At least that’s what he said he read in the Anchorage Daily News, where that city's school system blamed cuts on lost federal money that the state was now being asked to make up. "In that article it stated that because of cuts at the federal level the Anchorage School District was losing $23 million," Chenault said.

Those worried about the lost revenue should talk to the federal government to get it restored, he said.

"Why aren't (school district officials) at the federal level talking to Sen. Begich and Sen. Murkowski and Congressman Young and asking about the funding that they lost," Chenault said. "The federal government shorted the Anchorage School District, not we the Legislature. Why is he letting the federal government do that to Alaskan kids, increasing the financial burden at the state and local level?”

Supports public dollars for public schools 

Monday, Begich was standing before lawmakers urging them to do more, but also explaining federal cuts. Some came in the wake of the economic downturn and were part of efforts to reduce the federal deficit, he said.

But he expects more federal funding next year, money targeted at special education and pre-kindergarten programs. Begich also discussed the efforts to amend the Alaska Constitution to allow public money to go to private and religious schools.

"Public dollars are for public schools, period," he said.

There are already plenty of school choices in Alaska, he said, outlining a number of successful alternative programs such as Fairbanks' Barnette Magnet School and Wasilla's Career and Technical High School.

"I believe strongly we should never amend the Alaska Constitution as a fix for education," he said.

That constitutional amendment was proposed by Sen. Mike Dunleavy, R-Wasilla, and is supported by Gov. Sean Parnell.

'Maybe he should ... run for the Legislature'

After the speech, Dunleavy, wasn't happy with Begich's focus on legislative issues. "I thought that's what we do here in the state, and he focuses on federal issues, but apparently I was wrong," Dunleavy said.

He also pointed out that Begich's son attends a private school, an option he wants to make available to more Alaskans. "Maybe he should come back here and run for the Legislature and let somebody else run for the U.S. Senate," Dunleavy said.

Begich said he's a strong supporter of public education, and that his son attended public school in Anchorage. The family moved to D.C. before school reform efforts had improved Begich’s neighborhood school, and the family chose a private school. Begich added that he's paying for it himself.

Begich is currently running for re-election to the seat he won in 2008. Republicans competing for the opportunity to challenge him include Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, former state official Dan Sullivan and Joe Miller, who defeated Sen. Lisa Murkowski in a Republican primary before Murkowski won the general election as a write-in candidate.

Contact Pat Forgey at pat(at)alaskadispatch.com