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Tom Fink: Alaska should approve school choice legislation

Tom Fink

 

 

A recent survey of Alaskans’ opinions on K-12 education produced some interesting results.  For instance three out of every four people who participated say they pay “a lot of attention” to what’s happening in our school system.  It’s great to see that much public interest, but one has to wonder what they pay attention to.

The pollster, Braun Research Incorporated, interviewed 1,006 registered Alaska voters across the state.  One of the questions was “How much money do you think is currently spent on each student in Alaska’s public schools?”  About one fourth estimated the amount to be less than $4,000; another fourth guessed it’s under $8,000. Both are far too low.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that when asked if funding for education is too high, low or about right, a large number (40 percent) responded that the funding level is too low. After they were informed that government actually invests more than $15,000 per year per student, the “too-low” response dropped to 26 percent.

In addition to the funding questions, the survey measured the level of support for public schools. At first glance, that support appears to be ample.

Two-thirds of the people surveyed say they are at least “somewhat satisfied” with the public school system. About half of the participants rate public education as good or excellent. A slightly lower number say they are optimistic about the direction public education in Alaska is headed.

As the late radio broadcaster Paul Harvey used to say, here’s the rest of the story.  The key question: If you could select any type of school, what would you select to obtain the best education for your child?

Notwithstanding that a majority give public schools a good grade, many would choose something other than regular public schools for their child’s education. Only 39 percent answered that they would choose regular public schools.  Thirty percent favor non-government private schools, 15 percent pick government-associated charter schools and 11 percent say homeschool.

Compare this list of preferred school types to the reality of today where a majority of parents do not have the opportunity to select the school their child attends. Today most K-12 students are in regular public school or charter public schools; about 7 percent attend non-government private schools or are home schooled.

We can assume that the cost involved in enrolling a child in a non-government school accounts for the discrepancy between the 30 percent who would choose a private school and those who actually have children enrolled there.  The cost to the parents is $4,000 to $10,000 per child per year in a private school.  Also many charter schools have long waiting lists and a lottery system that leaves many students out.

This would explain why the survey found strong support for the concept of school vouchers.  Sixty-four percent of the Alaskans surveyed say they favor vouchers. Only 29 percent oppose.

Under a voucher or scholarship program, public funding for education allocated on a per student basis, accompanies each student to the school selected by the parent. This gives parents the option of sending a child to the government or non-government school of their choice.

Alaska is one of eight states surveyed over recent months.  The surveys are commissioned by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, an independent, nonpartisan research organization that studies attitudes toward K-12 education issues. The Foundation was established by the late Milton and Rose Friedman, who advocated school choice for all children.

Currently 18 states have school choice programs. Eight of them were enacted this year.  School choice legislation has been introduced in 32 states, including Alaska.  School choice has received bipartisan support in a number of states.  We’re hopeful that Alaska will be among them.

A coalition of volunteers calling ourselves Alaskans for Educational Choice has been working to secure choice for Alaska. On our website, you can also find copies of the legislation pending in Juneau to establish the parental choice scholarship program for the purpose of paying the cost of attending grades kindergarten through 12 at public and private schools.

Look it over, ask us your questions and if you agree with us that school choice will benefit Alaska's children, don’t be bashful about letting your representatives in Juneau know.  That’s what it will take to bring school choice to Alaska.

Former Anchorage Mayor Tom Fink is heading the coalition Alaskans for Educational Choice.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Alaska Dispatch welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.