By JOEL DAVIDSON
Parents are regularly described as the “first educators of their child.” With this responsibility comes the legally protected right to choose what they consider the very best educational setting for their child, whether it be public, private or home school.
In Alaska, the vast majority of children are enrolled in public schools. But it would be a mistake to think that all 132,000 of these students attend public school because their parents considered it the first and best educational option for their child.
In reality, most parents simply cannot afford to first pay federal and local taxes — a sizeable chunk of which goes to public education — and then pony up tuition to send their kids to a private school.
It’s not that Alaska’s private schools are these exorbitantly priced institutions geared for society’s upper crust. Rather, they are small schools, run on tight budgets with high parental involvement and teachers who have taken pay cuts to provide instruction in unique settings. These private schools put on endless raffles, spaghetti feeds, bake sales and auctions to raise funds, and still they find it difficult to stay financially afloat.
Now, a growing group of parents is trying to change Alaska law to allow a portion of public school funds to follow students to wherever they receive their education.
This is not the end of public education by a long shot. Most parents will likely continue to choose public school for their child — but many will not.
The way the program works is pretty straight forward:
Private schools that exist within the boundaries of the local school district could apply to join a district-wide scholarship program. If a private school met certain conditions, it would become an approved participant in the scholarship program. Families who live within the boundaries of the public school district could then choose to send their child to a local public school or to a nearby private school. If they choose a private school that is an approved participant in the scholarship program, the public school district would then allot funds to follow the student, thereby allowing him or her to receive an education at the institution of the parents’ choosing.
The money for the scholarships would come from local and state education funds — money which would have otherwise gone to educate the child in a public school.
Two bills are pending before the Alaska State Legislature (House Bill 145 and Senate Bill 104). There is still a long way to go before these become the law of the land but they offer a sensible and fair alternative to parents who choose to send their child to a non-governmental school.
The way things stand today, most parents simply do not have the means to exercise their responsibility as “first educators of their child.” Families who choose private school options should not be required to pay federal and local taxes for public schools and then receive no educational benefit from these funds for their children who attend private schools.
All advocates of educational freedom and choice should read up on this innovative proposal — it is one which could revitalize and diversify Alaska’s educational system.
We’re a couple months away from the start of the next legislative session, where this legislation is expected to generate much discussion.
To get a jump on the conversation, visit the Alaskans for Educational Choice Website at akchoice.org and then prepare to weigh in.
The writer is editor of the Catholic Anchor, the newspaper and news Web site for the Archdiocese of Anchorage.