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Alaska school choice: Should state money be used to fund private schools?

Cai Doran
Alaska Dispatch illustration

Summer is only months away and the school year is winding down, but talk of education funding in Alaska is just gearing up. House Bill 145 was introduced last year but just recently gained ground in the state House, legislation that if passed will essentially provide parents with state money so they can send their kids to private schools if they wish.

The purpose of the bill is to create the Parental Choice Scholarship Program, helping cut the tuition bill for parents sending children to private school.

Parents could choose to pull their kids from public schools and send them to private schools. Those private schools would receive money from the state, in the form of a scholarship on behalf of the student. The amount of the scholarship would then be deducted from the amount the parent owes as tuition.

House Rep. Wes Keller, R-Wasilla, sponsored the bill. In his sponsor statement, Keller says the legislation is "the next critical step in allowing . . . Alaskan children to compete in the world on an equal footing educationally." He feels that parents should be supported if they want to send their kids to private schools, religious or not.

The bill aims to give parents and students more accessible education options that differ from normal public schooling. However, it contradicts language in the Alaska Constitution, which specifies that "no money shall be paid from public funds for the direct benefit of any religious or other private educational institution."

Another section of the constitution may prove nettlesome for the so-called school choice scholarship, too: "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." This restricts the use of public money to "public use" only.

Keller's staff said Tuesday that the bill's wording has been reworked to no longer contradict the constitution. However, Keller is also sponsoring House Joint Resolution 16, which will amend the constitution and allow state funding of private schools.

How school choice scholarship might work

So what determines the amount of the scholarship? According to HB 145, the amount of money provided by the state would be either the cost of tuition at the chosen school or the amount the school district would have received from the state had the child gone to public school, whichever is the lesser amount.

If there are other fees, or the cost of tuition is more than the scholarship money, parents must pay the rest.

All K-12 private and religious schools that meet program requirements are eligible to participate in the program.

Joe Ellis, a substitute teacher for the Anchorage School District, supports the bill.

"The proposition could open up opportunities for education that may not otherwise be available in public schools."

However, not everyone is happy with the proposed bill.

"If parents want their kids to go to private schools, they should have to pay for it and not make the state spend money on it. Private schools have chosen to be separate from the government so why should they receive funds? Especially when we don't know exactly where they are going," said Kevin Lankford, a senior at Steller Secondary School.

Like Lankford, some may be skeptical about the government just giving away state money, but sponsors of the program have made clear that any scholarship money would go directly to the school of choice and be used for educational purposes only.

Rochelle Wilhelm, a member of the Steller Secondary School's parent group, strongly opposes the bill.

"I think everyone deserves a public education and if we don't invest in public education, we won't have public education anymore. If private religious schools want to have schools then it is up to the people attending them to pay for them."

Though Wilhelm is just one parent, her view mirrors that of the National Educators Association, the union representing most Alaska educators, which believes public schools are already diverse enough. If a parent wants a different kind of education, there are charter schools and alternative schools within some Alaska school districts, like Anchorage, that already receive state funding.

There is no denying that there is diversity within Alaska's school districts, but what about parents who want their children to get a basic education and a religious education? While there is strict division between religion and government, supporters of the bill believe that parents should still be given the option and the resources to send their children to whatever school they believe is the best.

Rep. Keller feels that where a child goes to school should be a choice made by his or her parents and not the government, Keller's legislative aide, Jim Pound, said on Tuesday afternoon. Whether that choice is a religious school or not should be of no importance.  

"Yes, some private schools have religious ties but if someone is against sending their kid to a private school, they don't have to. [The bill] puts control back where it belongs, in the family," Pound said.

Students weigh in

So, what do Alaska students think about the legislation?

"No, the state should not pay for private schools … it is the parent's decision. If they want their kids to go to a private school then they should pay for it instead of making the state pay for it," said Marcus Freeman, an 11th grader at East High School in Anchorage. "If a kid wants a higher education there are already higher level programs within public schools."

Other students believe that, aside from the religious aspect, private school education is no different than public education.

West High School senior Chanelle Zamora didn't think it would be fair to fund private schools with state money. "Private schools are just like public schools so the state shouldn’t waste money on the same education," she added.

Mitchell Adams is a senior at West High School who thinks parents should have more autonomy in using the state funds appropriated to their students. And Adams said that private and religious schools should qualify for state scholarships to educate children -- even if those schools do not follow state- or federally-mandated student achievement standards.

"I think even though they don’t use state standards, private schools should still get state funding because their goal is the same as public schools; to educate children," he said.

However, these are just the opinions of a few and aren't necessarily representative of all Alaskans -- or Alaska students. KTVA-TV reported on a survey recently sponsored by The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, a national organization that supports school choice legislation. In the survey, 1,000 people were questioned about alternative forms of education. One of the questions asked was whether respondents approved of using state money to fund both religious and non religious private schools. Of the Alaska respondents, 64 percent were in favor of using state money to fund religious and non-religious schools alike, while 29 percent were opposed.

The bill has passed through the House Education Committee on a 4-3 vote. It has been referred to the House Finance Committee, where it awaits a decision. The final deciding factor will be if the public chooses to amend the constitution to allow the state of Alaska to fund non-public, private or religious schools.

Cai Doran is a student journalist from Steller Secondary School in Anchorage who's mentoring at Alaska Dispatch. Contact Cai through her editor at eric(at)alaskadispatch.com