The education quality debate in America and in Alaska necessarily renews itself in regular cycles. Good idea for educators, parents, politicians and businesses to weigh in their demands. According to consistent studies comparing U.S. academic outcomes with other countries, Americans have fallen woefully behind.
This year, the discussion spark is the proposed education voucher system in two resolutions before the Alaska Legislature: SJR9, by Sen. Mike Dunleavy, R-Wasilla, and its House counterpart, HJR1, by Rep. Wes Keller, R-Wasilla. Both propose to amend Alaska’s Constitution to allow the state to appropriate public funds to private or religious educational institutions. Critics argue that it confiscates funds from public schools already lacking adequate academic programs. Proponents say private, smaller schools do a better job turning out academically-proficient students.
No matter what is decided in Juneau, the final decision isn’t going to come from legislators. It’s going to come from voters in a ballot measure. If it tinkers with the Alaska Constitution, then it has to go to the voters.
The Senate version got embroiled in politics early in a power tussle. Senate President Charlie Huggins, R-Wasilla, pulled the bill from the Senate Education Committee when chairman Sen. Gary Stevens was out of town.
Stevens had said he has not encountered a “more momentous education issue” during his 13 years in the Legislature and told his fellow lawmakers that he will evaluate vouchers whether or not SJR9 is placed before his committee.
“By the time we get to a vote, I trust that members of the Senate will clearly understand how vouchers affect Alaska,” he said on the Senate floor. “We owe this to our children and to our grandchildren, to the children of our neighbors and our friends and to the children of Alaskans we don’t even yet know, because they’re all our sons and daughters and they deserve the best education we can provide.”
The debate over the pros and cons and the unsurfacing of facts is an important role of the Legislature in this particular case. What’s the problem that a voucher system might fix? What’s the cost? What are the drawbacks? How to strengthen education overall?
These are important questions. If the Legislature agrees the voucher system has merit, the matter will go to voters. If they drop the discussion in Juneau, then there it rests.
Alan Borsuk, a former reporter and editor for the Milwaukee Journal and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, testified before Stevens committee that a lot can be learned from Milwaukee’s experience.
Up until 2005, Milwaukee’s voucher program was under-regulated. While there were some excellent schools that sprung up after the voucher system was implemented, there were a lot of mediocre ones. Some were awful – including one run by a convicted rapist, according to Borsuk.
“Frankly, if there’s anything I think we’ve proven in Milwaukee, is that it’s not that simple,” he said.
Milwaukee has since instituted stricter financial and academic oversight for schools that receive voucher funding.
Other states, like Colorado, are debating the school voucher issue in court. A Colorado court recently ruled against a voucher program proposing to give students just under $5,000 for tuition to private schools. One of the primary objections was that public funding for religious institutions offends the U.S. Constitutional separation between church and state.
Public funding for college students is another matter, apparently, than it is for students under 18 years of age. A college-bound student may use tuition scholarships for Baptist colleges or Catholic universities or any other religion. Parents who point this out illustrate the double standard. Why can’t an 8-year-old have the same right?
No doubt this is a debate that can spin off in many directions. The bottom line for America’s future is a better-educated youth. If we undermine a broad-based public education system by reducing its funding, what is ultimately accomplished?
These are key questions best left to a broader based population of voters than to a deeply partisan Alaska Legislature.
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