A proposed bill this session would send to the Alaska voters an amendment that would allow the state to use public funds to pay for students who attend private or religious schools instead of public ones. The amendment was one of the signature education policies outlined by Gov. Sean Parnell in his “State of the State Address” to the legislature last month.
With the legislative session nearing its halfway point, the Daily Mirror spoke with Kodiak’s legislators in Juneau. Sen. Gary Stevens said he’d vote against the current bill. Rep. Alan Austerman expressed ambivalence about the bill. He declined to answer a hypothetical question about if he’d vote the current bill up or down.
Stevens, a Republican and the chair of the senate education committee, said he’s received several hundreds of emails about this subject, about the same quantity of mail he received last session about the oil tax.
“I’d vote against it (if the voucher bill was on the senate floor),” he said. “It’s not ready to go to the public for a vote.”
Asked if he can think of any change that could be made to the bill that would change his vote he said he couldn’t .
“Not at this point, I just don’t see how that would work,” he said.
He added that it’s his understanding that even if voters approved the amendment the Alaska Supreme Court would likely find it unconstitutional. That’s because such a major change to the state constitution should require the state constitutional convention to convene and couldn’t be done through a simple referendum, he said.
Austerman, also a Republican and a co-chair of the house finance committee explained his ambivalence about vouchers as a philosophical support for vouchers mixed with concern about hurting the public school system.
“The pure concept of vouchers, I don’t disagree with them,” he said.
However he said he was reluctant to support a constitutional amendment “until somebody can show me that our goal is not just to kill the current school system and leave a bunch of school with half their population and not able to maintain their system.”
He said he was reluctant to say whether he’d support the bill that’s now in the senate because the bill could change before he sees it in the house of representatives.
"The current form in the senate, I don't know how I would vote," he said.
"Until it comes from the senate and we see what it's going to be, you're trying to place me in the awkward position of telling you I'm going to vote for something that may not be what will be there for me to vote on," he said.
Base student allocation
Another key education issue identified by Parnell in his State of the State this year is base student allocation, the amount of money the state pays school districts per student. The number has remained at $5,680 since 2011 with no adjustment for inflation. Parnell proposed raising it by $201 per student over the next three years.
Both Austerman and Stevens said they’d like to increase the base student allocation, although neither said how much.
Austerman said he didn’t have a preferred figure because it’s not something he’s working with directly in the finance committee. He added that he believes an increase to the allocation should be tied to school performance including graduation rates as an incentive for schools to get good results.
“Part of the problem is they (the school districts) want the state pay for everything but they want total control on how they spend the money,” he said.
Stevens said he’d like the increase to be higher than what Parnell has suggested. Stevens declined to say how high he’d like to raise it. Quoting a number could jeopardize the negotiations, he said.
“We are working on a compromise, we are trying to get people to agree on a figure,” he said. “Some of that happens behind closed doors, some of it happens out in the open.”
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