The Sitka School Board opposes legislation that would allow public funding to pay for private and religious schools.

The board also wants to retain local authority of charter schools, should any be established in Sitka.

Two bills currently in the Alaska State Legislature propose amending the state constitution to remove the language that prohibits spending public money on private education. The amendment is seen as a first step toward the creation of a public school voucher system in Alaska.

A third bill would turn over the control of charter schools to the state.
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School board president Lon Garrison drafted the language of the local resolutions.

“When the state constitutional convention composed Alaska’s constitution, the prohibition on using public tax dollars to finance private or parochial school vouchers was written into the document and approved by Alaska voters for several reasons, not the least of which was the protection for private and parochial schools against interference of the government.”

The Alaska Constitution is specific. Article 7 states “No money shall be paid from public funds for the direct benefit of any religious or other private educational institution.”

The two bills are known as House Joint Resolution 1 and Senate Joint Resolution 9. Wasilla Republican Wes Keller sponsored the House version. Freshman senator Mike Dunleavy, also a Republican from Wasilla, sponsored the Senate version.

Garrison said the House resolution is a much more straightforward attempt to divert public money into private schools in the name of “school choice.” He said Sen. Dunleavy’s bill would accomplish the same thing, but was cloaked in different language.

“He sees an inequity in what the state carries out in, for instance, helping college students with state loans and scholarships go to private institutions.”

Sen. Dunleavy’s bill would still require amending the constitution.
The board unanimously voted to oppose the proposed legislative bills. But board member Tim Fulton said he did not want the public to think that the vote represented opposition to charter schools. In fact, he said, he generally supported the idea of charter schools, and has participated in committee discussions about creating one in the Sitka District.

Current state law allows the creation of publicly-funded charter schools which operate under the authority of a local school board, and are subject to the same educational standards.

A third bill now before the legislature would change that. House Bill 93 is sponsored by first-time legislator Lynn Gattis, a Republican from Wasilla who was given the chairmanship of the House Education Committee. HB 93 would remove the authority of local school boards over charter schools, and hand it directly to the Department of Education.

Sitka School Board president Lon Garrison drafted a second resolution in opposition of this bill. He was critical of the increase in bureaucracy that might result from having the state directly involved in education.

“The duplication of administration and associated costs will continue to erode the dollars actually spent in the classroom, and not facilitate it. Furthermore, the continued reduction of funding to the state Department of Education and Early Development, and the dwindling pool of experienced staff that will be able to implement the new role of the department as it pertains to this bill makes the success of this law highly doubtful.”

The board vote opposing HB93 was also unanimous.

Sitka School board members will have an opportunity to register their objections in person. They’ll be attending a legislative fly-in to Juneau later this month.