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Support wanes for constitutional amendment that would blend public, private school funding

Pat Forgey

JUNEAU -- A controversial bill that would shift public school money to private schools appears to be faltering, but supporters vow to keep pushing ahead.

A Senate resolution, SJR 9, would ask voters to approve a constitutional amendment allowing state money to go to private or religious schools.

That's called "school choice" by supporters like Gov. Sean Parnell, and "vouchers" by opponents, like local school districts fearing a new drain on resources.

SJR 9, sponsored by Sen. Mike Dunleavy, R-Wasilla, was singled out for praise by Parnell in his State of the State address, but the new attention may have also motivated opponents to step up their fight against the resolution. Amending the Alaska Constitution, which currently prohibits using public money to fund private or religious schools schools, takes a two-thirds vote of legislators and a majority vote of the people.  

But Parnell, who appeared to link approval of SJR 9 with his support for an increase in the base student allocation -- the amount of money school districts receive per student -- is now backing away from the earlier suggestion that approval of the amendment may be tied to base student allocation increase and his education agenda.

Parnell has called on lawmakers to make this year the "education session" of the Legislature, with a package of education reforms.

At a meeting Wednesday with Alaska municipal leaders, Parnell didn't list a constitutional amendment as part of his education package that includes bill and budget items, like more career and technical education, a digital learning initiative, more residential school offerings, an increase in the base student allocation, elimination of the high school graduation examination and other items.

"I'm not going to talk about the constitutional amendment this morning because it is not part of my education package," he said, though he said he still supports Dunleavy's resolution.

Later, Sen. President Charlie Huggins, R-Wasilla, went further in discounting the amendment's prospects, calling it "probably a dark horse" this year.

He, too, supports the resolution, and had earlier raised hackles in his Republican-dominated majority caucus by pulling it from the Education Committee and moving it on to the friendlier confines of the  Judiciary Committee, chaired by Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole, a co-sponsor.

That helped move SJR 9 through the committee process, but while it is now awaiting a floor vote, it doesn't appear to have sufficient support for passage, according to Sen. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage.

Senate resolutions placing constitutional amendments on the ballot take 14 votes for passage.

"Right now we believe that they do not have the votes to move that forward," Gardner said.

But the resolution's powerful backers still have ways to gain votes, she said.

"They still haven't started knocking heads, twisting arms, making threats and all kinds of things," she said.

Prime sponsor Dunleavy said Wednesday that he was still confident in the resolution's prospects, and that he was still working to build support despite the comments of the governor and Senate president.

"Full steam ahead," he said.

A companion measure has been introduced in the House of Representatives, HJR 1. House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, had earlier said he expected Dunleavy's Senate resolution to take the lead, but when it stalled, HJR 1 began to move -- but its prospects are unclear as well.

At the same time, Democrats are expected to roll out their own education proposals Thursday, including some potential school choice options that work within the public school system.

Contact Pat Forgey at pat(at)alaskadispatch.com.