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Vic Fischer: Don't let public funding go to private and religious schools

The Alaska Constitution is the fundamental document for our state. It sets forth basic principles and individual rights, the structures and responsibilities of government, and other provisions for the functioning of the state.

Amending the constitution is a serious matter. We've done it before, prudently, to strengthen our right to privacy, to establish the Permanent Fund, and for other substantive purposes. But changes are made only if the need is great, the justification is clear, and changes don't create more problems than are solved.

An amendment is before the Legislature to delete the following sentence from the constitution's section on Public Education: "No money shall be paid from public funds for the direct benefit of any religious or other private educational institution." (House Joint Resolution 1, Senate Joint Resolution 9)

Supposedly, the amendment is needed so that home-schooled and other children may obtain vouchers, schoolbooks, tutoring, and other services to increase school choice.

But is that all the amendment does? No way. Eliminating that one sentence would allow the state to appropriate or otherwise spend public money for the direct benefit of any religious or private educational institutions.

I can't imagine that such is the intent of the amendment's legislative sponsors. Yet, those would be the doors this change would open.

Beyond that, I'm appalled by the nonsense and drivel that has surrounded consideration of this amendment.

The argument that legislators should "just let the people vote", and the Legislature would later decide what is to be done, denigrates the amendment process of the constitution, which requires a two-thirds vote by the Senate and the House to just bring a proposed change before the electorate. This is serious stuff, and the people need to know what they're voting for.

The lack of consideration and specificity is further evidenced by the pretense that there are no financial effects to this proposition. As others have calculated, the negative effect on public schools of spreading limited education funds to religious and other private institutions could run hundreds of million dollars, having particularly deleterious effects in rural areas. The cost in the long run could be far greater.

Alaska's Constitutional Convention delegates extensively discussed the particular sentence that some legislators now wish to eliminate. It was included in the constitution not because of any such federal requirement. The Statehood Act provided only that we have a system of public schools open to all children of the state and that it be free from sectarian control.

And, despite the implication by some, the language that amendment supporters like to refer to pejoratively as the "Blaine Amendment" was not included out of any anti-Catholic bias. In the nonpartisan convention, there was none such.

All constitutional delegates, every one, including the roughly 20 percent who were Catholic, supported the education provisions of Article VII as they exist.

Today's education language is in the constitution because all convention delegates accepted the basic policy that public funds were not to directly benefit religious and private educational institutions.

That policy is in line with the fundamental reality that separation of church and state protects both -- public schools remain open to students of all faiths and religions, and religious schools remain free of the government regulations and interference that are inevitably connected to public funds.

So let's please protect Alaska's system of public schools, reject the education amendment, and leave the constitution be.

Victor Fischer was a delegate to the Alaska Constitutional Convention, and was a member of the Territorial Legislature and State Senate. He is author of "Alaska's Constitutional Convention" and "To Russia with Love: An Alaskan's Journey."

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.