Legislators considering school voucher program

A dozen states across the country have school voucher programs. Now, some legislators are trying to bring vouchers to Alaska. The push for directing state funding to private schools has more momentum than its had in the past.

On Wednesday, legislators packed one of the Capitol’s biggest committee rooms to learn about some major ways Alaska’s education system could be changed. You had the House Education Committee, the Senate Education Committee, House Judiciary, and Senate Judiciary, and then at least a couple of legislators who just wanted to observe. As Judiciary Chair John Coghill — a Republican from Fairbanks — noted, it wasn’t ordinary to get so many legislators together to talk about a single issue.

“This is an informational meeting and it’s a little bit unusual in many respects,” Coghill says.

“School choice” has been a phrase frequently tossed around the Capitol since the session started. More and more legislators have been pushing for Alaska to institute a voucher program, and efforts are being made to amend the state Constitution to allow that to happen. Right now, the Constitution expressly prohibits direct public funding of private religious schools. Wednesday’s hearing brought together a group of voucher advocates to explain to Alaska’s legislature how the law could be changed and why, in their opinion, it should be. None of the invited presenters opposed voucher programs.

Many of the legislators in the audience seemed receptive to the idea of vouchers, asking about their mechanics and how they’ve worked in other states. But there were some concerns, too, even from legislators who had complimentary things to say about the idea of school choice. Sen. Lesil McGuire, an Anchorage Republican, asked how implementing a voucher program would affect funding for traditional public schools.

 “We have limited funding as it is, and in a state that’s funded 90 percent by oil revenues and in a decline mode, what would happen if you were able to allocate that individual resource to every family unit and allow them to vote with their feet, if they voted to choose private schools in a way that allowed the public school system to deteriorate?” McGuire asks.

In response, Kevin Chavous, a voucher advocate and former Democratic Party politician, pointed to voucher programs in states like Minnesota, where public schools are still performing adequately.

“It will help really put the external pressure on the system to do what they have been saying they want to do,” Chavous says.

Much of the push for school vouchers has comes from legislators representing Southcentral Alaska. Sen. Mike Dunleavy, a Republican from Wasilla, introduced one of the resolutions that would get the constitutional amendment process rolling, and Rep. Lynn Gattis, a Wasilla Republican, has said that school choice is one of her priorities as education chair. At a press conference, Rep. Lora Reinbold, a Republican from Eagle River, stressed that her constituents also want to send their kids to places other than traditional public schools.

“They strongly support school choice, and so that’s something that I am definitely going to be representing,” Reinbold says.

But not everyone in the legislature is pushing for education vouchers. Rep. Bob Herron, a Democrat from Bethel who caucuses with the Majority, expressed skepticism over the voucher program.

“My constituents have grave concerns about that, so I’m going to represent the people that elected me to office,” Herron says.

For the Constitution to be changed, a resolution to amend it needs two-thirds of the vote in both chambers of the legislature. After that, the amendment would go to the ballot, where a majority of Alaskan would have to vote for it.

A similar resolution to allow for vouchers was introduced in the previous legislature, but it was never taken up by the Senate Education Committee. On Friday, the Senate voted not to refer the resolution to that same committee, which removes one potential roadblock for passage.

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