State scholarships would give Alaska parents greater choice in schools

Children board a familiar style school bus which has become an icon of public education in the U.S. Advocates for school choice in Alaska hope to expand educational options for families. — istockphoto

Program would allow education funding to follow students

By PATRICIA COLL FREEMAN

CatholicAnchor.org

This fall, more than 132,000 children headed back to Alaska’s public schools, but some parents are not happy. They want greater choice in their child’s education and yet the prospect of paying tuition outside the free public school system is an economic impossibility for most. Across the nation, however, a growing number of parents are petitioning legislators to pass laws granting better access to educational options beyond standard, government-run schools. As the new academic year begins, this effort is heating up in Alaska.

EVERY PARENT’S RIGHT

Advocates for educational choice believe all parents, whether wealthy or working class, should be able to choose where their child is educated.

But when the government will pay for children to attend only government-run schools, the educational options disappear into a “one size fits all,” Tom Fink told the Catholic Anchor.

Fink is the head of Alaskans for Educational Choice, a statewide advocacy group of parents who want a greater say in where and how their child is educated. Fink was once mayor of Anchorage and speaker of the House in the Alaska Legislature.

In addition to wanting a choice, he said, parents also are  concerned about the lack of discipline and academic performance found in some public schools, the results of which can haunt students for years. An increasing number of freshmen college students – including at University of Alaska, Anchorage – must take remedial English or math before even beginning college level courses.

Fink noted that parents “want change, and they want flexibility” when it comes to their child’s schooling.

A MATTER OF FAIRNESS

Since Alaska’s public funds belong to all its residents, school choice advocates say it’s only fair to share them with all families, including those who may choose private school for their child.

Public schools in Alaska are funded through a combination of local, state and federal tax dollars with a total expenditure of about $16,000 on each student for one year’s education. That is compared to the estimated $7,000 that the typical Alaska private school spends on one student. But even with lower student costs, most working class families still can’t afford private schooling.

To change that, Alaskans for Educational Choice has proposed that local school districts award tuition scholarships to those students whose parents choose to enroll them in non-governmental schools within the district’s boundaries.

The scholarship would consist of local and state aid that would have otherwise gone to educate the child in a public school. Under this proposal, the money would follow the student and give families a viable option to enroll their child in one of the more than 50 private schools across the state.

Following a long tradition of Catholic education, the three dioceses in Alaska contain a total of eight Catholic schools for children from Ketchikan to Fairbanks. These schools strive to keep tuition low by offering need-based scholarships when possible and by asking donors to pitch in the collection basket. Still, it’s a “persistent challenge” for parents to cover costs, explained Anchorage Archbishop Roger Schwietz.

“We don’t want to take anything away from our public school system,” he said. “Rather, what we are doing in our Catholic school system is to provide an education that promotes solid citizenship.”

He added: “The whole of society benefits from our Catholic schools, and because of that I think those children should not be excluded from the state support which other children receive.”

BENEFITS OF CHOICE

Helping fund parents’ school options could make financial sense for the state, localities and taxpayers, say school choice advocates.

This is because small private schools spend far less per student than their public school counterparts. At a school such as Lumen Christi High School, one of the archdiocese’s two Catholic high schools in Anchorage, the cost is less than $6,000.

It doesn’t have big sports facilities, but classes tend to be small and students of many different faith backgrounds receive personal attention from teachers.

Principal Tom Sorci said there’s an “emphasis on moral growth and spiritual development which you can’t get in public schools.”

But school choice advocates in Alaska believe that giving more parents access to private schools will have the effect of enhancing all schools. After Florida, Milwaukee and the District of Columbia created a little competition by giving poor parents the ability to send their children to private schools, public schools improved in student achievement.

Freeing funds also could spur the establishment of new schools and programs in Alaska – including for special needs students – as has been the case elsewhere, Fink said.

Many other sectarian and nonsectarian groups, like Alaska Natives, could form schools to meet the unique needs of their communities, he noted.

HURDLES IN ALASKA

Opponents of such programs often claim that funding a child’s education within a religious setting violates their concept of keeping church and state apart. But supporters of school choice dispute this characterization, and point out that the money is not given by the state to any particular religious school. Rather, the money goes to fund each child’s education in whichever institution parents choose, whether it be public or private.

Still, that poses a hurdle for advocates of parents’ rights in Alaska.

As with many other states, Alaska’s constitution contains an amendment – the Blaine Amendment – requiring the establishment of a system of public schools, but also prohibiting the use of public funds for the benefit of any private or religious educational institution.

In other words, according to Fink: the state supports and funds K-12 education, “but only if you go to a government school.”

So Alaskans for Educational Choice has a two-pronged strategy: Amend the Alaska Constitution and then pass a bill that requires tuition money to follow a student to the school the parents choose.

Last session, there were three hearings on the scholarship bill, House Bill 145, in the House Education Committee. Of the 50 people who testified, 46 supported the legislation and four opposed.

Still, it will be an uphill battle, said Fink. Lobbyists in Juneau are strong, he observed.

But as a former legislator, he knows that a “ground-swell” of constituents emailing and calling can have “more effect than the lobbyist.”

In recent years, legislatures around the country have been responding favorably to the school choice movement.

As of September, 18 states and the District of Columbia had enacted policies that allow for educational vouchers, scholarships and tax credits.

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