JUNEAU, Alaska — Parents will be able to send their kids to private or religious schools using public education funds if a new constitutional amendment passes.
Wasilla Republican Rep. Wes Keller has renewed his efforts to create a school voucher program, which would be significantly different from the state's limited charter school system, even as the state teachers union stands in opposition.
Advocates say the proposal would give parents more choice and provide better educational opportunities for low-income students, allowing "all students to attend a school that challenges them, regardless of family income," Keller said in a statement.
Opponents say the plan would cut much-needed funding from Alaska's public school system. "We're opening a huge can of worms if we let that money go," said state Rep. Harriet Drummond, a former Anchorage School Board member.
Seven states, including Alaska, are debating similar programs this legislative session, according to Robert Enlow, president and CEO of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, a pro-voucher think tank.
As it stands, 21 states and the District of Columbia offer what the Friedman Foundation refers to as "school choice" programs.
Alaska's proposal would also strike a provision in the state constitution that prohibits the government from sending taxpayer dollars to religious schools.
The plan faces criticism on several fronts, including opposition from many who support offering more public school options to students and the expansion of Alaska's charter school system — the independently-run, state-funded, non-religious schools are available in only a handful of districts.
The voucher plan would allow for stipends given by the government to be used to help students pay for their education outside of the public school system.
Those in favor say it will improve education by creating competition for students between private, religious and public schools, eventually improving education all the way around.
It "infuses competition into a monopoly," said supporter Rep. Lynn Gattis, R-Wasilla, the chairwoman of the House Education Committee.
Citing studies from the Friedman Foundation, Keller said the amendment "actually introduces more money into, for education."
The National Education Association of Alaska, the major teachers union in the state, staunchly opposes the plan and doubts Keller's assumption.
"It's frustrating to see that the leadership of Alaska seems to be engaged in helping for-profit companies increase their profits, and at the same time are holding education — public education in Alaska — hostage," union president Ron Fuhrer said.
Two House Democrats from Anchorage — Drummond, who serves on the House Education Committee, and Andrew Josephson, a certified teacher — don't think a voucher system would benefit the state's children.
Drummond said she is particularly concerned by the lack of controls and oversight over how the money would be spent in private or religious schools.
She also rebutted the idea that school choice would introduce more money into education, but would instead divert funds away from the public school system. She said a voucher system would be particularly costly for rural or sparsely populated districts, most of which only offer one school to choose from.
"Our schools are already suffering from cuts," Drummond said. "This will exacerbate that situation."
The proposal is currently before the House Education Committee. If it's ultimately approved by lawmakers, it would go before voters in 2014. Any proposed constitutional amendment requires a supermajority — or three-fourths approval — in both the House and Senate before it can be placed on the ballot during a general election for voters to decide.
Keller put forward the same resolution during the last Legislature, but the plan never made it to a vote after it became clear that it lacked the support to pass the House. This time, Keller believes the resolution has a better chance, saying he's received support from newly elected lawmakers.
One such freshman, Wasilla Republican state Sen. Mike Dunleavy, a former public school principal and superintendent, said in an email that he supports letting the people of Alaska vote on the issue. Gattis, the education committee chairwoman, also is a newly elected member of the state House.
The outcome, however, is not certain. Drummond also is new at the Capitol. And the desire to protect and educate Alaska's children could lead to a heated battle as the resolution makes its way through the legislature.
Keller said that as any parent knows, there is a "visceral desire to make sure the kid gets every break they can."