Proposed amendment stirs debate

  • By DAN BALMER
  • Saturday, February 8, 2014 10:34pm
  • News

A ballot measure calling for a constitutional amendment to allow public funds to go to private schools has been a hotly contested issue in the state senate and has educators on the Kenai Peninsula pondering the implications to public education.

Senate Joint Resolution 9 passed through the Senate Finance Committee Wednesday following two days of public hearings. The amended resolution, if it reaches the ballot, would allow the use of public money for private and religious school institutions. A companion measure, House Joint Resolution 1, is being debated in that body.

Dr. Steve Atwater, superintendent for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, said while the board has not officially taken a stance on SJR 9, he said he has some concerns regarding the implications the amendment would have on public schools.

Details need to be flushed out — specifically the issues of public money for private education, he said.

“I am not threatened by the bill as long as private schools are held to the same standards as public schools,” he said. “I worry (passage of bill) could further segregate those who can and cannot use the voucher.”

Atwater said school enrollment would be one of the issues. Public schools take anyone within their district, while private, religious and charter schools have selective acceptance standards. He also questioned if private schools would open their doors to students with disabilities who would otherwise have a difficult time meeting the need without state funding.

Presently, the Alaska Constitution prohibits the use of public funds to be used for any private educational institution. The proposed bill, sponsored by Sen. Mike Dunleavy, R-Wasilla, would give voters the decision to keep or abolish the restrictions on the use of public money for education.

Sen. Cathy Giessel, a Republican whose District N includes parts of the Kenai Peninsula, is one of eight co-sponsors for SJR 9. She said the purpose of the resolution is about giving families the choice of which school is best for their children.

“I would like to see public money follow the public citizen,” she said. “Not to vilify any school structure. Let’s put the choice in the hands of the voters and let them express their opinion.”

Giessel cited a recent poll which asked Alaskans if they would support or oppose SJR 9. She said 56 percent would strongly support while 36 percent would strongly oppose.

During the first day of Senate Finance Committee testimony, a majority of people who testified opposed public funding going to private schools.

Giessel said this is not the first time the state Legislature has attempted to amend the state constitution. According to a State of Alaska Constitutional Amendment Summary, since 1966, 28 amendments have passed while 12 have failed, including three resolutions in 2000. The last constitutional amendment passed in 2004.

Even with the potential adoption of SJR 9, legislators still need to have an in-depth discussion on how a compromise can be reached between private and public education, she said.

“A lot of teacher workforce express fear that this will decimate schools,” she said. “To say decimate is an over dramatization.”

Atwater said it is frustrating to throw a bill to voters without a sense of where to go without further details and discussions. While he acknowledges school choice as a good thing, his main concern is, with budget cuts looming, that district funding will not be further affected by more students added to the mix of public dollars.

“It is important to note that the school district is in favor of offering kids options,” he said. “It is wrong to box anyone in a corner. I think the present process works fine and don’t see the need to change.”

Education continues to be a top priority during the current legislative session, Giessel said.

“Education is what predicts a person’s productivity,” she said. “We are making sure we have the best school system possible.”

Giessel said she is impressed with the work Atwater has accomplished at KPBSD. In 2013, Atwater was named the state’s Superintendent of the Year. She said he is a wise man who keeps the students’ best interests in mind.

Atwater said he is encouraged by Gov. Sean Parnell’s recent State of the State address when he emphasized his education bill. More discussions in the legislature regarding the importance of strengthening Alaska’s education system can only be a good thing going forward, he said.

Four members of the Finance Committee recommended advancing SJR 9: Dunleavy, Sen. Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, Anna Fairclough, R-Eagle River and Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks.

SJR 9 is headed for the Rules Committee and needs two-thirds majority in both House and Senate to go onto the November ballot.

Reach Dan Balmer at daniel.balmer@peninsulaclarion.com.

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