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Alaska school 'choice' amendment is legislative malpractice

Terry Snyder

Apparently before any real conversation is allowed on the flow of public money to private and religious education, the case is closed.

Last week, Senate Joint Resolution 9, described as “proposing amendments to the Constitution of the state of Alaska relating to state aid for education” took a swift kick from Senate President Charlie Huggins right past the Senate Education Committee. Sponsored and supported by our own Mat-Su Valley delegation, this first lob of an assault on our public education system will likely punt it toward the voters in the form of some constitutional amendment in a future election — but not before millions of dollars of outside money likely will be spent trying to convince us that this bitter pill is good for Alaskan children and parents.

The irony in our own Valley legislators teeing this up is endless, really.

Irony No. 1 — The charge is being led to pour public money into private and religious schools in the name of “parent choice” and its being led largely from the school districts with the most choice in the state.

With 17,500 students enrolled in 45 public schools in the Mat-Su Borough, 11 schools are described as nontraditional, which charter schools fall under. In this enrollment, 1,500 students are in the Mat-Su Correspondence School (home school) and additionally another 540 students are in a vocational career tech school and an alternative high school. Total enrollment in the Valley of these parent selected “choice” schools is reaching nearly 3,000 students with voter approved bond and legislative grants building expansions in progress currently to serve even more.

Parent choice in Anchorage, the largest school district in Alaska, is even more prolific. For the nearly 50,000 students there are eight charters listed and 19 alternatives. These schools offer programs from back to basics, language immersions, schools within a school, open optional, Montessori and Career Center, to name just a few.

It would be hard to find a gaping hole in curriculum in Southcentral schools unless it’s teaching religious doctrine. For that there are several private schools that seem to be doing just fine on their own.

Irony No. 2 — The biggest proponents of following the Constitution who participate in endless rants about following the vision of crafters of our guiding documents are the very ones who want to change our Constitution to fit their conservative evangelical ideology.

No one — and especially not elected officials — should be able to pick and choose things to pluck out of our state Constitution. How safe can any of our personal rights be if legislators are given the green flag to spend tax money willy nilly and make changes to our constitution to serve their own special interests or personal dogma?

Irony No. 3 — The consistent battle cry for practically all elected officials includes the claim to be fiscal conservative. What part about jamming through legislation to drastically change how the state and communities provide education without a thoughtful debate and current evaluation on how existing charters and alternatives are performing is cost saving? It’s clear from listening to the first 30 days of education committee meetings in the current legislative session that several sitting legislators don’t even have a clear grasp of how the current funding mechanism works. Shouldn’t a basic understanding of just how the current state ATM funding card works be required before legislators slip it into the shredder?

It's become all too convenient to hide behind the curtain of reducing the costs. But if you pull the curtain back on expanding charters just a little farther you will see that substantial amounts of money will be made by individuals, private management companies and others. It's easy enough to follow this money trail in other states. It’s all too often that banks and equity funds are investing in charter schools so they can take advantage of tax breaks and combine them with other investment credits to make returns almost a sure thing. It's easier to see all the time why lobbyists for charter schools have signed up to roam the halls of our capitol.

We are being told this is about “choice” for parents, but shouldn't it include all students? The data is clear that the percentage of disadvantaged and challenged students are much lower in our present charter schools. Shouldn't we be trying to right the ships we have in the water first so parents can really have a choice where to send their children? Should we allow more special interest schools to flood the market now with changes to our public school system without identifying the impact for the existing charter and special mission schools? They, too, have been pleading for increased funding.

This is really about religious right activists joining forces with radical free market think tanks and Libertarian-minded investment and hedge fund managers to rob our traditional neighborhood schools of even more state funding and put it in the pockets of outside interests. Religion should be left to families, churches and private schools devoid of public funds. Gamblers, even in the form of hedge fund managers with fancy investors, should roll the dice in Las Vegas and not on the future of our children. Shame on our legislators if they shortchange the people of Alaska by allowing future generations to be treated as pawns in this giant political game.

Public education is supposed to be the great equalizer, an inclusive, welcoming place that gives all kids a chance to climb the ladder of success. Jamming through legislation leaving the conversation to be decided by a media campaign is akin to legislative malpractice.

Terry Snyder is a community activist that lives in Palmer Alaska.  She is a regular commentator on Radio Free Palmer's "Valley Edition" show and blogs at citizenlobbyist.blogspot.com.

A version of this commentary was first published by The Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman. The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.