School voucher bill pulled from Senate floor, avoiding fatal vote

JUNEAU -- Acknowledging a lack of support, Senate President Charlie Huggins, R-Wasilla, pulled a controversial constitutional amendment resolution from a floor vote Wednesday.

Senators said the body was divided on Senate Joint Resolution 9, meaning it was short of the two-thirds majority vote needed to ask the public to amend the Alaska Constitution to allow public funds to go to private and religious schools.

By sending the resolution back to the Rules Committee, Huggins ended for the moment an attempt to pass the school vouchers measure, but left it available to be resurrected. A failed vote would have permanently killed the bill.

Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, praised the action by Senate leaders.

"To force a vote on the floor and lose would have been an admission of enormous weakness, and it would have damaged the Senate, I think," he said.

Avoiding a vote will also enable senators who don't want to take a stand to avoid having to do so, something that might be of concern to some and a benefit to others with elections coming this year.

And it gives time for resolution supporters like Sen. Mike Dunleavy, R-Wasilla, to keep up their lobbying efforts on senators who could potentially be swayed on the vote.


Huggins supported the bill and had said earlier that votes would be there for passage, even as public statements of objection to the resolution mounted.

School vouchers -- which supporters call school choice -- have already had the way paved for them by Huggins' use of his power as presiding officer to pull SJR9 from the Senate Education Committee, and move it on to committees more favorably inclined to passage.

Stevens, chair of the Education Committee, said Alaska did not need to amend its constitution to allow state funding of private schools, despite strong pressure from outside the state by groups such as the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice to bring vouchers to Alaska.

Stevens has been prepared to deliver a speech on the Senate floor looking at the history of voucher programs and outlining his opposition.

"They've really not worked very well, they've been tried in several places, but even though vouchers occurred they didn't improve testing," he said.

"What they did was take money away from public schools and students," Stevens said.

Sen. Johnny Ellis, D-Anchorage, called the joint effort by out-of-state advocates of for-profit schools and Alaska religious groups seeking vouchers an "unholy alliance."

Those for-profit schools have been tried elsewhere and found wanting, he said.

"That has been disastrous in the rest of the country" he said. "And when things turn out badly, they just close the school and the kids come back to the public school behind in their curriculum, behind in their academic achievement."

But as Dunleavy was making his final pitch, he emphasized that all SJR 9 would do is allow a vote by Alaskans to decide that question. And if that vote passed, all it would do is enable future legislators to devise an as-yet-undefined program that includes more school choice options.

Contact Pat Forgey at pat(at)alaskadispatch.com.