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Don't open the floodgates: Public money belongs in public schools

Ron Fuhrer

National School Choice Week started Jan. 27 as part of a national campaign to inform the public about the educational choices available to students and families.

NEA-Alaska supports the idea of choice in education, and students in Alaska are fortunate to have great choices. Whether it’s charter schools, boarding schools or the opportunity to open enroll into a non-neighborhood school, parents and students are able to find programs that fit their needs.

However, NEA-Alaska is strongly opposed to HJR 1, which would open the door for public dollars to go directly to religious and private schools.

No matter the name -- parental choice scholarship programs, vouchers, tax tuition credits or educational saving accounts -- the end result is fewer resources for public schools and state funds directed to religious and for-profit “choice” schools.

At a time when Alaska school districts are making significant cuts in their budgets, it makes no sense to divert even more financial resources from public schools. Instead Alaska should be investing in our public schools in order to lower class sizes, improve school safety, provide educational opportunities and invest in classroom resources.

Unlike private/religious schools, our public schools and elected school boards are accountable to the public and are required to meet state and federal mandates, uphold educational standards, and follow public information laws.

The question that needs to be asked is, who benefits from this change in the state constitution? While proponents for this change may argue it benefits students, the research suggests differently.

Studies in Wisconsin, Ohio, and the District of Columbia show no noticeable difference in student achievement between choice schools and public schools. Graduation rates, which are often reported as higher in choice schools, under closer scrutiny are not apple-to-apple comparisons.

Alaska Constitutional Convention delegates in 1955-56 were concerned with the dual system of education at that time: One run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and one by the Territory of Alaska. The delegates wished to create a unified school system free from sectarianism and partisanship.

HJR 1 would have devastating impacts on our public education system. It would increase the cost of education since the state would now be responsible for the cost of students in public and religious/private schools. With fewer resources, the quality of public schools would be at risk as class sizes increased, offerings of electives and extra-curricular activities declined, and support services were eliminated.

Alaska has great educational choices for students. We need to build on our success and we can do that with the support of the legislature to better fund our schools enabling the expansion of our charter school programs and educational opportunities in our traditional public schools.

Ron Fuhrer is president of NEA-Alaska, an affiliate of the National Education Association with more than 12,000 members who work in Alaska's public schools.

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.