Mike Dingman: Begich has it right on school funding

Mike Dingman

"Public funds for public schools. Period."

That's what Sen. Mark Begich told the joint session of the Alaska Legislature when he addressed them last week.

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

On Monday, a week after Sen. Begich gave his speech, Senate Joint Resolution 9 -- the very piece of legislation he was railing against -- was on the Senate Floor calendar for Monday.

This legislation would amend the Alaska State Constitution in two ways. Right now Article 5, Section 1 of the Alaska Constitution states "No money shall be paid from the public funds for the direct benefit of any religious or other private educational institution."

SJR 9 would delete that clause.

Article 9, Section 6 of the Constitution states "No tax shall be levied, or appropriation of public money made, or public property transferred, nor shall the public credit be used, except for a public purpose."

SJR 9 would add the following statement to that section "however, nothing in this section shall prevent payment from public funds for the direct educational benefit of students as provided by law."

Because this is a change to the Constitution, the legislation requires a two-thirds majority in both houses of the legislature before it goes on the ballot for approval by Alaska voters.

Opponents complain that these two changes, combined in one piece of legislation, would pave the way for a system that would allow parents to choose either sending their kids to public schools or receiving a voucher for private schools.

This would require separate legislation; however, this is the first step towards that sort of system and if you can figure out what other eventual end there is to this Constitutional change, I'd love to hear it. Make no mistake about it; this legislation is about a voucher system.

Supporters of this measure rally under the banner of school choice. They say that parents need more choice in where their child goes to school to escape the failing public school system. They fear that despite outrageous spending on education, the system remains broken.

With that, I agree. The system is broken and one of the solutions to that is choice.

However, I also agree with Sen. Begich.

I think choice is important, it's important in nearly everything in life. Choice creates competition and that leads to a better product.

The idea that government subsidizing private school tuition for whoever asks will fix the education system is a mistaken notion. This assumes that private schools simply provide a better education, which -- while it may or may not be true -- is not the only factor.

Private schools already have a couple of advantages. They have some choice in which students they have and no students are forced to go to their school. By virtue of these two factors, they generally have a student base that is more willing to learn, more eager to be at school and will have a family that is more active in their education.

Changing these factors will definitely change the educational outcome of these schools.

Also, take a look at the private schools around the state; most of them are religious schools. The same conservative base that is touting government paying for religious schools argue against government paying for abortion because they say that government is using their money to an end that is against their religious beliefs.

How can they turn around and then say that the state should pay for religious schools even though it violates the religious beliefs of many in the tax base?

As I said, choice is important in our education system. We should be encouraging competition in our public school system. We can do this with our alternative and charter school options.

Anchorage has great options in our public schools, but there should be more. We should strive for a system in which almost every student is in a school that is tailored towards their learning style or desires. This will encourage more parental involvement and student investment in their education and the outcome will have to improve.

On this issue, Sen. Begich has nailed it -- we shouldn't throw the baby out with the bathwater in our education system.

Mike Dingman is a fifth-generation Alaskan born and raised in Anchorage. He is a former UAA student body president and has worked, studied and volunteered in Alaska politics since the late 90s. Email, michaeldingman@gmail.com.

Mike Dingman