School-choice measure headed to Alaska Senate floor; does it have votes to pass?

Lisa Demer
Chris Miller

JUNEAU -- A surprising development in the legislative debate over a constitutional amendment that could completely restructure Alaska's educational system puts the proposal before the full Senate this week -- amid significant doubts about whether supporters have the votes.

The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Mike Dunleavy, R-Wasilla, would change two sections of the Alaska Constitution to allow public money to be spent on private and religious schooling. The measure has seven co-sponsors, all Republicans.

Proposed constitutional amendments require two-thirds support in each house, meaning 14 senators would have to vote "yes" on Senate Joint Resolution 9. It then would need backing of 27 House members. If passed, it would go to voters in the November general election.

The resolution emerged Friday afternoon from the Senate Rules Committee and is scheduled for consideration Monday on the Senate floor, surprising even some members of the GOP-led majority.

It won't get a first vote until Wednesday, said Sen. John Coghill, R-Fairbanks, the majority leader and one of the resolution's co-sponsors. That's assuming it's not pulled back for lack of support, as happened last year with a controversial House bill to cut back environmental protection for rivers and limit public involvement in permitting on state land. The permitting bill now is being reworked.

Coghill was involved in the decision to schedule the education measure, and said GOP leaders were assured by Dunleavy that the votes would materialize. Coghill said he hasn't counted who's a "yes" and who's a "no" but knows that some senators in the majority caucus have concerns.

"When I see open questions, I'm not as sure as the sponsor," Coghill said.

Even more skeptical is Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, the previous Senate president and the Education Committee chairman. He opposes the measure and said Saturday he is certain backers do not have the votes for it to pass in the Senate.

Senate President Charlie Huggins, a Wasilla Republican and another co-sponsor, last year yanked the measure from the Education Committee, which Stevens says was a mistake and prevented the measure from being thoroughly vetted.

Backers argue that lawmakers should pass the resolution whether or not they agree with it to allow a statewide vote on public money for private schools.

But if legislators haven't taken the time to understand the ramifications, Stevens asked, how can the public be expected to do so?

"It's our job. We are the Legislature. Our job is to carefully consider every issue that comes before us, particularly the most important change to education in the 100 years of statehood and territorial days," Stevens said.

Of the 15 members in the Senate majority, at least three say they oppose the measure: Stevens, Sen. Dennis Egan, a Juneau Democrat who is organized with the Republicans, and Sen. Click Bishop, R-Fairbanks.

Egan, whose father led the constitutional convention, said Friday he would never support such a change to the state constitution for education. Bishop said Saturday: "I'm still a 'no.'"

Another, state Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, said he is undecided.

Democrats in the five-member minority caucus have spoken out against the resolution as a threat to public education.

Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, said Saturday he remains opposed to the proposed amendment.

"They are so far away from getting the votes, it's crazy," Hoffman said.

Sen. Hollis French, the Democratic minority leader, said he too opposes it but is concerned given that the Republican leadership has scheduled it for the floor.

"This is an extremely serious moment," French said Saturday. "The only bills that come before us are bills that are going to pass. My sense is that they are short, but apparently they have a different sense."

When the resolution cleared the Senate Finance Committee Feb. 5, Bishop and the panel's two Democrats, Hoffman and Donny Olson of Golovin, who is organized with the Republicans, all gave it "no recommendation." Four said "do pass:" Dunleavy and Sens. Kevin Meyer of Anchorage, Pete Kelly of Fairbanks and Anna Fairclough of Eagle River.

It's been holed up in the Rules Committee ever since.

Coghill said Dunleavy pushed hard for it to come to the floor.

Efforts to reach Dunleavy Saturday were unsuccessful. On Friday, he wouldn't tell the Associated Press whether he had the votes. "I have a pretty good sense, I'll leave it at that," he said.

Coghill said he expects senators will debate the resolution, offer amendments and take a first vote on Wednesday. He said he wants the final vote, called a reconsideration vote, to then be delayed until the next floor session to ensure all senators have time to evaluate their position on such an important matter.

Backers say they want to give parents more choice, including those who cannot now afford private schools. Opponents argue that the proposal would starve public schools through vouchers for private schools or other means of siphoning off needed dollars.

Dunleavy, a former public school teacher and Mat-Su School Board president, has said the constitutional amendment is just a first step and that the Legislature would then come back and design a program.

The resolution seeks to eliminate this sentence from the Constitution: "No money shall be paid from public funds for the direct benefit of any religious or other private educational institution."

It also proposes to change a section on finance and taxation that now specifies public money must go for a public purpose to say that "nothing in this section shall prevent payment from public funds for the direct educational benefit of students as provided by law."

Some legislators also question whether an amendment can change two parts of the Constitution.

Reach Lisa Demer at or 952-3965.


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