Our View: Forget public funds for private schools

Erik Hill

Alaska lawmakers, led by Sen. Mike Dunleavy, should end their drive to amend the Alaska Constitution to allow public money for private schools. They should let Senate Joint Resolution 9 die and instead work to make our public schools better.

Here's why:

• Our public schools are not failing, broken or in crisis. The Anchorage School District, the state's largest, educates thousands of students each year and does it well.

Problems? Every day, in every school. Individual crises? No question. That's the norm in a school system that keeps an open door for every student. The challenge is a constant. We want the drop-out rate lower and the graduation rate higher. But the problems and the challenges shouldn't mask the successes. The claim that Alaska's public schools don't work anymore is bogus -- and an insult to the teachers and students who do good work there every day.

• Our public schools already provide choice. In Anchorage, it's a rich menu of choices among charter schools, optional programs, language immersion, back-to-basics. Demand exceeds supply, as critics point out. But the solution is to increase the public school supply of choices -- and to increase the range of choices available in our neighborhood schools. The solution is not to take from the public schools to support private and religious schools.

• The argument that a constitutional amendment will change nothing is another insult to any of us with even a little schooling, public or private.

First, the clear goal of this amendment is to provide public money for private schools. That's what the sponsors of the amendment have in mind, that's what supporters want to do. Their goal is not debate. Their goal is to open the public treasury to private education.

Second, if that's not the case, then this exercise is pointless, because you do not amend our constitution for the sake of debate. Constitutional amendments are substantial revisions to the fundamental law of Alaska.

• Finally, the process in the Senate for consideration of the amendment was flawed from the beginning by keeping it away from the Education Committee. That's where Sen. Gary Stevens would have asked tough questions and given the amendment a sound, skeptical vetting -- exactly what a constitutional amendment needs.

That's not what Senate President Charlie Huggins wanted. His argument -- that the amendment is a question of policy, not education -- was a lame excuse to keep the amendment away from Sen. Stevens and move it swiftly to the Senate floor.

Huggins and company got the bill to the Senate floor, only to be blocked by the same doubts, skepticism and outright opposition they sought to avoid by keeping the measure away from the Education Committee.

Senate Joint Resolution 9 went back to the Rules Committee, which is where it should expire as the Legislature draws to a close.

Our public schools deserve -- and the Alaska Constitution requires -- our lawmakers' support. That's where they should apply their energy and invest our public funds.

BOTTOM LINE: Keep public funds for public schools -- and provide enough.