2014 is the last chance for Alaska legislators to pass current school choice legislation

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A resolution has been making its way through the Alaska Legislature to enable more parents across the state to choose private schools for their children — and unless it is considered and passed this session, the bill will die.

Introduced last February by Senators Mike Dunleavy, Fred Dyson, Pete Kelly, John Coghill, and Cathy Giessel, SJR 9 proposes amendments to the state constitution that would permit public education funds to go directly to students to be used in a school of their parents choosing.

The legislation underwent numerous committee hearings before landing in the finance committee at the end of the 2013 session. There it sits awaiting the opening of the next session that runs Jan. 21 to April 20.

Although popularly known as the “school choice bill” the amendment, if passed, would not itself bring about school choice. It would, however, restore to legislators the freedom to consider alternate ways of funding education — options that might include private school choices.

Specifically, SJR 9 would eliminate old language — the Blaine amendment — that requires the establishment of a system of public schools, but also prohibits the use of public funds for the benefit of any private educational institution.

The proposed amendments would add language to clarify that allowing public funds to follow the student to whichever school his or her parents believe is best for their child serves a “public purpose.”

School choice advocates in Alaska aim to accomplish two steps to change the status quo in regards to education: Amend the Alaska Constitution and then pass a bill that allows tuition money to follow a student to the school of the parents choosing.

Both of these changes are necessary due to an Alaska Supreme Court decision (Sheldon Jackson College vs. State of Alaska) that interpreted the State Constitution in such a way that substantially limited the Legislature’s freedom to consider various options of school choice.

At the time of Alaska’s Constitutional Convention, a number of students receiving private education were doing so through public funding. The minutes of the convention show a concern among the framers that these situations not be jeopardized and thus indirect funding of private education was not prohibited. In the Sheldon decision, however, the court dismissed the historic intent of Alaska’s Constitutional framers and effectively prohibited the state from engaging in indirect funding of private choices in education.

However, some indirect funding still occurs and Senator Mike Dunleavy is concerned that without SJR 9, these situations might not survive court challenges. Examples of programs that could be jeopardized if challenged include the governor’s performance scholarships, the public funding of private homeschool materials and classes offered through the public charter homeschool programs.

Catholics should be particularly interested in the progress of SJR 9 because the Church has long recognized choice in education as a natural right of parents.

Among others, Pius XI’s encyclical on Christian education teaches that parents are the primary educators of their children and their wishes must be respected by society in this regard. Vatican II’s Declaration on Christian Education references the obligation of the state to ensure “that public subsidies are paid out in such a way that parents are truly free to choose according to their conscience the schools they want for their children.”

In his recent document, “The Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis stresses that hearing the cry of the poor means in part, “working to eliminate the structural causes of poverty and to promote the integral development of the poor.”

While some parents are able to exercise school choice, the poor rarely can.

CHANGING THE LAW

For most citizens, engaging in the political process takes the form of supporting candidates, voting, communicating with their legislators and giving public testimony on bills. The latter two are usually carried out during legislative sessions.

Before a bill becomes law in Alaska, a process normally ensues that can take up to two years. After the bill is introduced, there is typically a series of committees to which it is assigned during which public testimony is often taken. These hearings are opportunities for citizens to speak out.

Once introduced, the clock starts to tick on a particular piece of legislation and it must pass within two years or it expires and the entire process must be repeated.

Starting Jan. 21, SJR 9 will be in the second and final session of its consideration. If it passes, it will go before voters in the fall.

Tom Fink, a former speaker of the State House and a former mayor of Anchorage, has spearheaded support for this legislation. Those on his email list recently received an alert that it was time to contact Alaska legislators “urging them to put SJR 9 on the floor and pass it early in the session.”

Although support for SJR9 has been strong (three polls show a majority of Alaskans supporting school choice) opposition exists. NEA-Alaska takes credit for defeating a previous version of SJR 9 and according to their website, has mobilized members and lobbyists against the current resolution.

The testimony of Diane Ravitch, a nationally known opponent of school choice legislation, is featured at the website of NEA-Alaska. Ravitch details a list of her complaints against private schools and then states, “Public schools are the institutions that teach us to live together.”

This rationale echoes the one used by the Ku Klux Klan in Oregon in 1922 to advocate compulsory public school attendance. According to the online Oregon History Project, “Klansmen argued that private schools undermined democracy by isolating privileged elite and by promoting the religious distinctions that prevented the public from reaching a moral consensus.”

In fact, this reasoning predates the Klan and is found in its most virulent form during the mid-1800s when anti-Catholic sentiment in the United States was at an all-time high due to Irish immigration. This was the era that spawned the notorious Blaine Amendment mentioned above whose sole purpose was to prevent Catholics from accessing public funds for faith-based education in the same manner that adherents of other religions were doing.

The Catholic bishops of Alaska support the effort to expand school choice.

Anchorage Archbishop Roger Schwietz has spoken in favor of the legislation and Bishop Edward Burns of Juneau has written in favor of school choice measures, witnessing both to the rights of parents and to his own experience as a student where the community worked together to provide what was best for the individual student. He states, “Parents…should have the broadest possible range of choices in choosing schools that reflect, in their judgment, what will be best for their child.”

The US Supreme Court has determined that public funding of private school choice does not violate the US Constitution. Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia currently offer school choice options.

If the constitutional amendment passes the legislature and is confirmed by the voters, Alaska may join that number.

Kristina Johannes is a parishioner at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Anchorage and a trustee of Holy Rosary Academy. She is a contributing writer to The Catholic Thing website. Recently she has participated in an informal task force assembled by Tom Fink to study and support school choice options.


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