Elise Patkotak: Conservatives channel a liberal line in pitching public money for private schools

Elise Patkotak

If I correctly understand what's being asked of Alaskans regarding the proposed constitutional amendment to allow public funding of private schools, the legislators proposing this amendment freely admit they have not a clue as to how much it will cost, what it will take from public school financing, how they will ensure that standards are being met or whether teachers will need to be state-qualified to work in those schools. In essence, they are saying, "Trust us. We're from the government and we're here to help you." Isn't that the punch line of almost every conservative political joke about liberals?

Anyone who followed this paper's recent series about fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) and fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) knows that the problems created by maternal alcohol use during pregnancy can create children with significant emotional, physical and mental health problems. Perhaps one of the most startling things to come out of those reports is the extent of the problem in our state. We have the longest days, the shortest nights, the greatest number of sexual assaults and domestic violence, the highest rate of alcoholism and the most beautiful aurora displays. We are a state of great contradictions.

As we contemplate a constitutional amendment that may or may not cripple public school funding even more than the annual cuts we've come to expect from the state legislature, we should perhaps consider that all these FAS and FASD children are entitled by law to an education. We might want to pause and consider that public schools have no choice about accepting these children and trying to teach them within their sometimes limited academic capabilities. We might ponder how this obligation impacts the ability of public schools to function with ever less funding. Our legislators don't change education requirements when they reduce the budget. They still expect the public school system to meet the challenge of every child who walks through their doors, no matter the degree of handicap or disability.

And yet somehow, in the midst of all this, the proposers of legislation with the potential to devastate public education funding want us to trust them to work out all the details equally and fairly after we change the constitution. Isn't that what conservatives are always warning us about liberals doing?

It doesn't take too much of a genius to realize the potential disaster looming for public education if this amendment is ever passed. Given that public schools will continue to fall under the law requiring them to teach all children to the best of their ability, there is every chance we will end up with a two-tiered education system. One, publicly funded, that will handle every child with any level of challenge or intellectual handicap and another, also publicly funded, that will be able to pick and choose which child it will educate. I simply don't believe that the legislators pushing for this amendment will craft rules that mandate private schools, charter schools and religious schools be required to take every student who applies, regardless of academic ability.

So no, I don't trust legislators to make up the rules after the vote. If they want me to reconsider my opposition to this bill, then they need to come forward with some hard facts.

How will they structure the system so that private schools receiving public funding will meet all necessary standards to produce fully educated youth? If money is given to private schools, how will public school funding be affected? Will the money come from the current public education budget? If that's done, will it cripple public education's ability to fulfill its legal obligation to meet the needs of all students who enter through its doors? Will a child going to a private religious school being paid for with public funding be required to hold to the religious beliefs of that school to become a student? Will creationism be taught next to evolution as though each is an equally valid hypothesis? Will Muslim, Hindu, Hebrew and Wiccan schools receive the same treatment as Christian schools?

Until these questions are answered in a clear and definitive manner, this amendment should never see the light of day. "Hi, I'm from the government and I'm here to help you." -- greatest punch line in the world and even funnier when conservatives are saying it.

Elise Patkotak's latest book, "Coming Into the City," is available at AlaskaBooksandCalendars.com and at local bookstores.


Elise Patkotak