JUNEAU — A sweeping education deal that includes vouchers, an expansion of charter schools and the conditioned promise of a boost to baseline education funding headlined Gov. Sean Parnell’s annual State of the State address Wednesday night.
Parnell called on lawmakers to make 2014’s session the “Education Session” and pass “real education reform” that includes a slew of items of Republican lawmakers’ wish list, as well as offering a long-requested increase to school funding.
He focused on drumming up support for Mat-Su lawmakers’ Senate Joint Resolution 9, which would put a constitutional amendment allowing vouchers on the ballot. He said it’s not an issue of favoring religious or private schools.
“The question of school choice is not about private schools or religious schools,” he said. “It is about whether parents should have the freedom to say what school best meets their child’s education needs with their child’s share of public money — their money.”
Increasing a parent’s choice in their child’s education was central, including a proposal to expand the state’s charter school system.
“I propose all local, state and federal funding — except some capped district administrative expenses — travel with a student to a charter school,” he said.
Parnell proffered the plan as a grand bargain between Republicans and Democrats, calling on them to leave their “trenches” and commit “to a respectful debate that ends with a plan to offer more opportunity to more students.”
Support was clearly divided during the speech.
The Republican tent-pole platform of school choice drew rousing support from party members, but little from Democrats, who have been staunch opponents of vouchers.
The only smattering of Democrat applause was for Parnell’s promise of an increase in the baseline student allocation funding during the next three years, which he conditioned on support for vouchers and charter schools.
Senate Minority Leader Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage, said his party didn’t trust the deal.
“The governor claims to have positive vision for the state, but a vision that doesn’t include a powerful education agenda is not a vision, it’s a mirage,” he said. “On the issue of vouchers, I listened very carefully to what the governor had to say, and I’m disappointed he’s going in this direction. Diverting public money to private schools simply continues to deprive our schools of the resources they need to do their job.”
Parnell did appear to have a few education-related propositions that met with support from both sides, such as the replacement of the state high school exit exam with more useful ACT, SAT and WorkKeys tests, the first of which would be paid by the state.
A proposal to allow students to test out of classes that aren’t challenging them received a hearty “I’ll go for that” from North Pole Republican Sen. John Coghill.
He also pitched his plan for digital and remote learning, allowing teachers and resources in urban school districts to be utilized by students in rural areas over the Internet.
The recent deal between the administration and the North Slope oil producers to build a large diameter natural gas pipeline also focused prominently in Parnell’s speech.
He called on the Legislature to approve the first steps to taking a financial stake in a big natural gas pipeline project backed by the North Slope oil producers and TransCanada.
He pledged for unprecedented transparency and public input on the deal, saying that the state will be treated like a true partner and the Legislature will have ample opportunities to review the deal.
“We have learned the lessons of history. For the Alaska LNG Project, we will insist on terms that any partner would enjoy in a traditional commercial agreement, one where parties make commensurate, proportionate commitments,” he said. “They go forward in phases and they seek approval from their boards of directors before committing to the next phase of the project. The state will return to its board of directors, the people, by seeking review and approval, at all key decision points, from legislators.”
The initial deal will include the state shouldering some $70 million and $90 million for early engineering work, a request that will need to be approved this session.
However, fresh off the passage of his controversial oil tax bill, Democrats were skeptical of Parnell’s proposal. They said the state must be sure that it’s not entering another bad deal.
“Our approach to the gas line is extremely simple,” French said. “Gas line yes, giveaway no. A pipeline that does not return an economic return to the people of the state might as well not be built. … As we consider the governor’s approach we have every right to consider it with skepticism. The public saw through that and 50,000 of them rose up and signed a petition to reverse that bill.”
Other highlights from Parnell’s State of the State speech included a proposal to deposit $3 billion into the state’s pension program to reduce payments to the program’s $12 billion unfunded liability.
The governor’s speech was received positively by Fairbanks senators in the Republican-led majority, who released statements in a press release after the speech.
“The people of my district, and all of Alaska, will benefit from the investment and jobs that will come from bringing Alaska North Slope natural gas to market,” Coghill said of Parnell’s pipeline deal. “I look forward to working on this issue that enables economic growth and creates private sector jobs.”
“This is the governor’s chance to tell us what he wants and now we have 90 days to tell him what we want,” said Senate Finance Co-Chairman Sen. Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks. “Fortunately, we agree on a lot of issues: smaller government, lower energy costs and better education for our kids. It should be a good session.”
Contact staff writer Matt Buxton at 459-7544. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMpolitics.