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Paul Jenkins: Begich wrong on school funding amendment

Paul Jenkins

For a guy who likes to sing with the chorus railing about federal overreach in Alaska, Sen. Mark Begich is an unabashed buttinski, cherry-picking state issues to weigh in on, while dodging others.

He chided state lawmakers last week, for instance, that they dare not allow Alaskans to vote on repealing state constitutional language that prohibits public money from supporting private or religious education.

Public money for public schools, Begich said: "Period."

This from a guy who loves to have it both ways, a guy whose kid goes to private school, a guy who deigns to lecture Alaska parents on public education. Apparently, in his view, if you have the dough -- and, really, what senator does not? -- your kid should have all the choice you can afford. If you are a working stiff with two kids, a mortgage, a truck payment and a slew of bills, you get whatever he says you get.

It apparently does not bother him the constitutional language in question is antiquated, anti-Catholic bigotry forced on Alaska by an antiquated federal law, or that the U.S. Supreme Court says parents can spend public money to support education in private and religious schools, or that some states successfully already have such programs. Worse, it apparently does not bother him that the current state constitutional language dooms Alaska's educational system to mediocrity.

Grounded in politics rather than policy, Begich is not so chatty about his position on the Democrats' wrong-headed August primary effort to repeal oil tax reform. He refuses to "go down that road," is how one reporter says he characterized it.

He opposes federal meddling, but attacks the Pebble mine project on state land before the first permit application can be filed. He is sure King Cove needs a road to Cold Bay for safety's sake, but votes to confirm Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, the woman who nixes the land swap that would have made it happen.

With his fervent and energetic support of other federal intrusions such as Barack Obama's health care fiasco, where does our junior senator ever find time to fret about us?

This much is certain. He is dead wrong about denying Alaskans a vote in the fall on changing the state constitution to allow a long-delayed discussion about education's future in Alaska. Inarguably, something is wrong. We have the nation's second-highest per-student education spending and yet nearly three-quarters of Alaska's fourth-grade students cannot read proficiently.

Critics and those invested in the status quo -- teachers' unions -- are scrambling, doing anything and everything they can to deny Alaskans that vote. The next thing you know, Begich will be arm-twisting Democrats in the Legislature to block that opportunity.

Parroting the company line, he argues home-schooling, charter schools and various alternative programs offer ample choice in public schools, but that is just part of an expensive, comprehensive union shell game aimed at confusing and twisting the vote debate and refocusing it on school choice, vouchers or anything else that happens to come to mind.

If those interests can distort and confuse the issue and make Alaskans believe the vote would be about something else -- destruction of the public school system, the end of civilization, giant cooties -- they are convinced they can head it off.

The actual debate is -- and should be -- focused on those few words in the state constitution that allow teachers' unions to maintain their iron-clad monopoly on our children's educations in a public school system failing so miserably the unions actually fear a vote by Alaskans.

What changes would occur immediately if Alaskans opted to repeal the wording in the state constitution? None. Nada. Zip. If a future Legislature were to make changes -- and there is no guarantee any would -- that would come sometime later, after a long and likely raucous debate.

Why teachers' unions fear such change is beyond me. Voting to remove the offending constitutional language opens a wide, new vista for educational exploration and advancement. It does not mandate anything, but there may be, after all, a better way of educating our children. What we are doing now is simply not working for everyone. It is time, after all these years of driving down the same road, for a new map.

Allowing Alaskans to vote on the issue is a step in the right direction.

Begich apparently does not trust Alaskans to begin that journey.

Paul Jenkins is editor of the AnchorageDailyPlanet.com.


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