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Proposal to amend Alaska Constitution draws much debate

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Posted: Sunday, February 24, 2013 12:00 am | Updated: 6:38 am, Mon Feb 25, 2013.

JUNEAU — A proposed constitutional amendment that would allow public funds to go to private schools is sparking a heated debate in the Alaska Legislature, and the debate largely boils down to whether there should be a debate.

The amendment, if approved by a two-thirds vote of each body and a majority of voters, would set the stage for a school voucher system. Opponents fear it could hurt a public education system that’s already short on funding.

Supporters of the amendment say that because the amendment doesn’t implicitly set up a voucher system it’s inappropriate to discuss the financial ramifications of a voucher system on the state.

“It’s the cart and the horse problem,” said Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole. “How can you devise a policy before you ask the public if you can devise that policy? You’ve got to change the constitution before you have the debate.”

That thinking lead the Senate to pull Senate Joint Resolution 9 from the Senate Education Committee to be heard only by the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is chaired by Coghill, and the Senate Finance Committee.

It was a similar conversation that arose in the House Education Committee on Friday. Rep. Wes Keller, R-Wasilla and sponsor of a House version of the resolution, said Alaskans should be given the opportunity to decide.

“This resolution has absolutely nothing to do with funding,” said Keller’s aide, Jim Pound. “That is a discussion down the road.”

Rep. Harriet Drummond, D-Anchorage and a former Anchorage school board member, told Keller that argument “appears to be skirting the issue.” She said that if he wants to create a system to publicly fund private schools, she wants to know where that money is coming from.

“I do believe we have to consider the down-the-line implications of a positive vote on this constitutional amendment,” she said.

That debate was cut short by committee chair Rep. Lynn Gattis, R-Wasilla, who said there should be a overall discussion on the amendment, but not on the actual financial ramifications of a voucher system.

Drummond also was backed up by some Republicans from rural districts and one of the framers of Alaska’s constitution.

Vic Fischer, a delegate to Alaska’s Constitutional Convention in 1955 and 1956, called the “let the people vote” defense for the measure as a “lousy” argument.

“This is a very serious matter, amending the constitution” Fischer told the committee on Friday. “This is the reason why you have to vote two-thirds of a majority in each house in order to even put it before the people.”

Fischer’s opposition is backed up by the other living delegate to Alaska’s Constitutional Convention, Jack Coghill, the father of Sen. John Coghill. During the convention, Jack Coghill was a strong supporter of the current language that bars public funding for private and religious schools and offered an amendment that would have gone further to bar indirect funding of private and religious schools.

When asked about undoing an issue that was important to his father, John Coghill said that’s why the amending process has such a high bar.

“You don’t just change the constitution lightly,” he said, “but I think you prod and look for answers, and there’s too many students who aren’t getting the benefit of public dollars right now.”

John Coghill also conceded that getting the amendment on the ballot won’t be easy.

“It’s a tall order,” he said. “It’s a big hurdle, but I think that’s legitimate. And any time you change the constitution, it should be.”

While some committees appear to be shying away from a deep look at the long-term implications of the amendment, Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, vowed to hold public hearings on school choice in the Senate Education Committee he chairs.

Contact staff writer Matt Buxton at 459-7544 and follow him on Twitter: @FDNMpolitics.

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