Gov. Sean Parnell is calling on the Legislature to take on education reform. And as part of that, he wants lawmakers to advance “SJR 9.” That controversial resolution is the first step in amending the state Constitution so public funds can be spent at private schools. The second step would be to put it on the ballot, so Alaskans can make the final decision.
But do they want that option? Over the course of two days, scores of people weighed in before the Legislature on that prospect.
The Senate Finance Committee took testimony for four hours straight on Monday, and most of it sounded like this:
TESTIFIER #1: “Amending the Constitution in this way is a mistake.
TESTIFIER #2: I think diverting public funds to private educational institutions is wrong.
TESTIFIER #3: We are standing in opposition against SJR9.
Close to a hundred members of the public offered comment and all but a dozen spoke against removing the prohibition on state money benefiting private schools.
Many of the arguments against SJR9 focused on school vouchers. While the measure would not create a voucher system, it would enable lawmakers to set one up if they desired. Some testifiers worried that such a system could drain public school funding. Others expressed concern that private schools wouldn’t be held to the same standards as public ones, and that they would discriminate against students with special needs.
Brian Schilling, of Eagle River, told the story of his adolescent daughter, who has special needs. His family spent $50,000 on private schooling for her, but she continued to be years behind in her learning and was at risk of being expelled. Schilling says they ended up switching into the public school system, and her progress has been noticeable.
“Private schools do not have to take all kids, and they definitely don’t want my kid. And they don’t want kids like her,” said Schilling.
The people who testified in opposition to SJR9 were spread across the state. Some self-identified as politically conservative. Most said they were parents. And many said they were educators.
During the first portion of the meeting, Sen. Pete Kelly, a Fairbanks Republican, asked each person whether they belonged to the National Education Association, the union that represents teachers. He stopped after 45 minutes, saying he was doing that to get a sense of which constituencies opposed the bill.
KELLY: Mr. Chairman, I won’t be asking that anymore. I just want to make a point that whether people are a member of the NEA or not, does not make their testimony any less valid or their testimony less sincere. I just want to get a sense of where people are coming from, and I think I’ve got a pretty good idea here.
While the questions stopped, testifiers spent the rest of the meeting declaring their NEA membership or lack thereof – like in Terrie Gottstein’s case.
GOTTSTEIN: I am not now nor have I ever been a member of the NEA. I am however a member of Triple A. *laughter*
The public testimony offered the next morning was more supportive of SJR9. By that point, at least one conservative advocacy group had blasted an action alert urging members to testify. Just over half of the two dozen comments were in favor of the resolution.
Sen. Mike Dunleavy, a Mat-Su Republican who’s leading the charge on SJR9, told reporters on Tuesday that he thinks members of the public education community simply managed to rally their base faster, and that polling data shows the majority of Alaskans support his position.
“I think the folks that oppose SJR9 got a number of their people out,” said Dunleavy.
In defense of his resolution, Dunleavy has also said that concerns that SJR9 would negatively affect public schools are overblown. He wants people to separate his resolution from the idea of vouchers.
“There’s no case that we could find in which it spun out of control. In which it emptied the coffers. In which it bankrupted school districts,” said Dunleavy at the Monday morning committee hearing. “We can’t find any situations like that, although we’ve heard about this through those that don’t necessarily support this concept that this could be the case. We can’t find data that supports that.”
The measure needs the approval of two-thirds of the Legislature to advance. If successful, the constitutional question would then be put on the ballot for voters to decide.