Anchorage residents continued the conversation with legislators Saturday where they left off in January: decrying the lack of state support for education and arguing over the merits of the proposed change to the state constitution and whether to call it "school choice" or "vouchers."
Most of the city's legislators flew back home from Juneau for the weekend to attend the regular listening session of the Anchorage caucus. It was the second time this year that Anchorage legislators met their constituents at Loussac Public Library. They had a similar gathering, with similar themes, before the Legislature convened its 90-day session Jan. 21.
Arrayed in the seats normally used by the Anchorage Assembly in the chambers at the library, 17 state senators and representatives, weighted slightly in favor of Democrats, listened to pleas and petitions, praise and criticism delivered in two- and three-minute bursts from dozens of area residents.
Most were from Anchorage but one said she flew down from Fairbanks for the opportunity to make a two-minute pitch for the amendment. Supporters of the amendment were outnumbered by opponents about two to one.
A large number of the speakers said they had gone to Anchorage schools as children and now themselves had children in the district -- and most lavished praise on the education they received and that their children were getting even as they attacked the state for low funding. Many who took the microphone were clearly uncomfortable or unfamiliar with public speaking, though a few were pros, like Anchorage Baptist Temple pastor Glenn Clary (pro-amendment) and former Alaska Revenue Commissioner Pat Galvin (more money for schools).
Few of the speakers on education said they were representing anyone other than themselves or their families. An exception was Kathleen Tonn.
"I represent God Almighty," Tonn said. "You heard me correctly -- God Almighty!" She spoke in favor of vouchers.
At 1 p.m., while the last hour of the five-hour session wore on, the pro-public-education forces moved outside for a big rally on the hill north of the library. Hundreds of adults and children, many wearing red scarves and holding red balloons, cheered speakers who called for more education money from the state.
Politics can be a numbers game, and the pro-amendment forces and public school advocates worked hard to get their people out.
Jim Minnery of the conservative Alaska Family Action blasted out an email alert calling on supporters of the school-choice amendment to show up an hour early so they wouldn't miss the sign-up sheets. He asked them to wear yellow and provided them with talking points, such as, "The goal of school choice is to promote better public education through competition among government-run and non-government schools."
A new group, Great Alaska Schools Anchorage, sent its own emails urging supporters of more education funding and opponents of the voucher amendment to testify, attend the rally and wear red.
The morning began with testimony by Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan, who asked the legislators for millions of dollars in roads and building projects, though pointedly not for the troubled port expansion -- yet. School Superintendant Ed Graff and School Board President Tam Agosti-Gisler talked about school layoffs made necessary in part by the Legislature's funding freeze since 2011 of the base student allocation, the $5,680-per-student payment to districts from the state treasury.
Gov. Sean Parnell, a Republican, is asking the Legislature to approve an $85 raise to the BSA this year. Democrats say that amount is "measly" and proposed a $404 raise instead, which they say would just cover the money lost to inflation in four years of flat funding. The minority party's bill would also "inflation-proof" the allocation by increasing it when the cost of living goes up.
The three local officials proved to be long-winded. Public testimony, supposed to begin at 9:15 a.m., didn't start until 9:54. Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, an Anchorage Republican who co-chairs the caucus, noted that 70 people had signed up to speak and only 240 minutes remained. She told them they could each have three minutes, a limit cut to two minutes when 60 speakers were still awaiting their turns at 11:30 a.m.
Minnery's call for early sign-ups seemed to be effective. It wasn't until late in the morning that red-clothed opponents of the amendment began to outnumber the yellow-dressed supporters. The first on any side to speak was the Rev. Clary, the administrative and lobbying pastor at the Baptist Temple, which runs a Christian school.
Clary declared that the Alaska Constitution's ban on the use of public funds for private and religious education was a legacy of "vile" anti-Catholic bias. Comparing a voucher program to the Permanent Fund dividend, which Alaskans can spend freely, including on Bibles or tithes, Clary said religious school parents were the victims of discrimination because the same can't be said of state education funds.
"Six thousand children are discriminated against simply because they choose to do school differently," Clary said.
Others, like Becca Bernard, said Anchorage already has plenty of choice -- through charter schools and other special programs in the Anchorage School District.
"I have an 8-year-old son who is a second grader in one of our public charter schools, and when he was ready for kindergarten we started researching schools and we were so impressed by the array of school choices available within the public schools," Bernard said. Then, to a hearty round of applause, she added: "Let me say it again: We have school choice in Alaska."
Most of the speakers, from grandparents to high school students, expressed concern about education funds -- suggesting a big election issue later this year.
"I find it absolutely reprehensible that education is seen as a political issue and not a public service, which is what it is," said Margaret Clark, a student at West High School.
Alyse Galvin, a mother of four, including two still in the School District, described the pain of attending meetings where district officials tried to decide what programs to cut.
"I have sat through hours of public testimony from teachers and counselors as they share the work they do, and I think it's truly sad that we're in a place right now, in our community, where these professionals have to spend their time defending their work instead of just doing their public work for our children," Galvin said. "I know of no other profession that is put through such a constant threat."
Tina Bernoski said the loss of school counselors to layoffs and attrition was a school safety issue that compounds the loss of teachers.
"As a mom, I expect you to do what's right, keep my kids safe and well educated in public schools," Bernoski told the legislators. "As a community member and a voting member, I expect you to invest in my future -- which is my kids. You have woken the sleeping momma bears -- we are ready to protect our cubs. We want you to increase the BSA and inflation-proof it to promote safety and great education in our public schools."
Reach Richard Mauer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4345.
By RICHARD MAUER