JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — U.S. Sen. Mark Begich said Monday that Alaskans should never amend the state constitution as a "fix" for education.
Proposed constitutional amendments pending before state lawmakers would allow for public money to be used for private or religious schools. Supporters see this as a way to allow for more choice in where parents send their kids, but critics fear it could siphon needed money from public education. Republican Gov. Sean Parnell has called on state lawmakers to debate the proposal and send it to voters to decide.
The measures need two-thirds of the vote in each the state House and Senate to pass. The proposal on the Senate side, proposed by Sen. Mike Dunleavy, R-Wasilla, has yet to receive sufficient support for it to move to the Senate floor for a vote.
Begich, in an address to a joint session of the Alaska Legislature, said public dollars are for public schools, "period."
Begich said there is already plenty of school choice in Alaska's public system, including home schools, charter schools and alternative programs. He also said there are "examples of excellence" everywhere. He cited alternative schools that require parental involvement and accountability and a career technical high school in Wasilla that allows students to explore different career pathways, in addition to learning the basics.
But he also questioned whether the state was adequately funding schools, providing districts with enough money to do their jobs.
Some districts have warned of possible layoffs and other cuts without additional funds next year and have pushed for increases in the per-pupil funding formula known as the base student allocation. Lawmakers are considering possible increases. Begich told reporters he thought the $85 increase in the allocation proposed by Parnell for next year was too low. Parnell has proposed an increase of about $200 in the base student allocation over three years as part of his education package.
"The bottom line is, the decisions we make as elected officials also play a big role in student success," Begich told lawmakers. "It's our job to give school districts the resources and tools they need."
The Legislative Finance Division has said general fund appropriations for K-12 education have risen since fiscal year 2011. Those appropriations include foundation program and school busing funding, school construction and major maintenance and money toward public employee and teacher retirement systems.
House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, said the federal government "shorted" the Anchorage School District, which is among those facing cuts — not the Legislature. He said the state has funded schools well.
Begich said he is doing his part on education, including pushing to get rid of the education law No Child Left Behind, which he and others have argued takes a one-size-fits-all approach to education that doesn't fit Alaska's needs. He also said he has proposed bills to boost early childhood education programs. He told reporters that money approved at the federal level will make its way down to the state "but it will not supplant what some are arguing the state is not doing enough of."