The Anti-Public Education Agenda Comes to Alaska…
…And Hardly Anybody Knows It
Many of us have heard the stories: new Republican Governors and Tea Party majorities in state legislatures across the country have been targeting public employees and their salaries, pensions, health benefits, etc… Along with this, there has been a major push at another budget-cut target — public school systems.
Public Education faces massive cuts in Texas ($4 bil), huge cuts in Wisconsin ($900 mil), more cuts in North Carolina, budget cuts and a removal of the school districts’ tax authority in Pennsylvania (inhibiting individual districts from raising property taxes), and a governor-declared “financial emergency” in Detroit, MI which means the Detroit School Board and parents are not entitled to see the draft 2010-11 budget.
These are just the stories making the top of the news. Many other states are facing cuts to school services as well as other plans to seemingly undermine public education on many levels.
Take the first GOP debate between the 2012 presidential candidates (so far) held in South Carolina. The above photo is the sign stuck to the front of a booth located at the debate. The booth was sponsored by right-wing religious group Frontline Ministries Inc./Exodus Mandate Project, whose website sports the unnerving motto “Taking Every Thought Captive.”
This combination of influences at the GOP/Fox News sponsored debate shows the unholy Tea Party alliance of Koch Brothers money (as reflected in Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker) and the Religious Right, now superfueled with unlimited money thanks to the the Citizens United ruling. The result may make the push for policies to gut public schools more plausible in states that had previously rejected them.
For example, while the idea of school vouchers (now rebranded “school choice”) has never achieved widespread popularity with voters, the current political environment is making it more likely that Republican/Tea Party dominated states may push these bills through, public support or not. The US already has voucher programs in some states with specific criteria (usually for lower-income students) that has caused the US Supreme Court rulings in the last 10 years to allow them. However, Indiana’s Governor Mitch Daniels has signed into law the most expansive voucher program so far, allowing even the richest families to receive thousands of dollars in school vouchers. Also, more restrictive state constitutions (39 of them) have been a barrier to many voucher programs that provide funds to religious private schools. However, the massive influx of Conservative money and influence is giving hope to many religious right extremists that they can overcome even the most restrictive of state constitutions.
I was first made aware of this when I listened to one of the right-wing radio hosts talking about “school choice” and “scholarships” to go to private, religious schools. I happened to know that this particular host’s children were all homeschooled through a charter program until they reached middle-school age, when they then would attend private school. I remember thinking that his family demonstrated quite nicely the wide variety of choices already available in the Anchorage School District and it seemed he was exercising his choice quite effectively. However, he encouraged his listeners “not to worry about how” we would be able to achieve “school choice” (vouchers) in Alaska…that we should just “go for it.”
Now, it seemed to me that just “going for it” when it comes to a complete change in education strategy without any type of plan was like putting in a bid to build an office building without any kind of studies or blueprints. It wasn’t until much later that I discovered how little of an actual plan they had and they really were trying to “go for it” anyway…through HB 145 and companion bill, SB 106.
SPONSOR(s): REPRESENTATIVE(s) KELLER, Millett
TITLE: “An Act establishing the parental choice scholarship program to be administered by school districts for the purpose of paying the cost of attending grades kindergarten through 12 at public and private schools; and providing for an effective date.”
This bill never made it out of the House Education Committee, but one has to wonder how it made it there in the first place. Its presence sets an alarming precedent, even by Alaska standards.
1) The “scholarship program” is not based on need at all. It designates that the school districts’ student allotments be used to send a child to private school no matter what their income. Since those who support this bill claim to be fiscal conservatives, I’m trying to figure out how they can reconcile that.
2) It also doesn’t matter if that child never attended public school and was always in private school, that student would get counted in with the school where they are zoned and the district would still give them their allotment. So, that school would give up that chunk of money even though that student was never there.
Rep. Wilson (a Republican) voiced that concern the best during the April 6 meeting of the Education Committee. Her comment reflecting the members of the public actually pushing for this is also rather telling:
9:44:10 Representative Peggy Wilson (R-Wrangell):
“Almost, I would say, probabaly 95% of the comments we got when we had testimony came from people…their kids were already in private school. So those people don’t want to have to pay anymore, they want the State to pay and I can understand that. But, you’re asking the schools to do something that they never had anything to do with before.”
3) The bill infers that the State must dictate to those districts who also have local tax contributions that they must provide the student allotments out of those taxes to the private schools.
My understanding is that there are legal minds who believe that may not be feasible under the State Constitution.
However, there is one thing that is definite under the Alaska Constitution as it stands now…one thing that should have prohibited the introduction of this bill at all:
4) These bills themselves are, without question, unconstitutional.
Per Article VII, Section 1 of the Constitution of the State of Alaska:
Section 7.1 – Public Education.
The legislature shall by general law establish and maintain a system of public schools open to all children of the State, and may provide for other public educational institutions. Schools and institutions so established shall be free from sectarian control. No money shall be paid from public funds for the direct benefit of any religious or other private educational institution.
It doesn’t get any clearer than that. It’s so clear, in fact, that the most recent amended version of the bill has the most insane addition I’ve ever seen:
* Sec. 2. The uncodified law of the State of Alaska is amended by adding a new section to read:
CONTINGENCY. Section 1 of this Act takes effect only if an amendment to art. VII, sec. 1, Constitution of the State of Alaska, deleting the prohibition on the payment of public funds for the direct benefit of a private educational institution, is approved by the voters before July 1,2013.
* Sec. 3. If, under sec. 2 of this Act, sec. 1 of this Act takes effect, it takes effect on the effective date of the constitutional amendment described in sec. 2 of this Act.
So, this unconstitutional bill basically states that there will be an attempt to change the Alaska Constitution by July 2013. While this Legislative Session is thankfully done for the year, this bill will still be around next year for one more shot at passage. I believe they think they have a shot at accomplishing this.
Also, there are plenty of other things going on locally that could be a threat to our Anchorage School District, including something called “The Mayor’s Education Summit.” I’ll cover these issues in the next several posts.