Legislature(2011 - 2012)CAPITOL 120
04/11/2011 01:00 PM JUDICIARY
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HJR 16 - CONST. AM: EDUCATION FUNDING [Contains mention of HB 145, which would provide the necessary statutory changes for the establishment of a "parental choice scholarship program", but which first requires voter approval of HJR 16's proposed changes to the Alaska State Constitution.] 2:29:59 PM CHAIR GATTO announced that the final order of business would be HOUSE JOINT RESOLUTION NO. 16, Proposing amendments to the Constitution of the State of Alaska relating to state aid for education. 2:30:17 PM REPRESENTATIVE KELLER, speaking as the sponsor, explained that if passed by the legislature, HJR 16 would place before the voters proposed amendments to the Alaska State Constitution [that would then allow for statutory changes to be made via HB 145, which is proposing to establish a "parental choice scholarship program", thereby enabling public funds to be spent on private schools; without prior voter approval of HJR 16, the changes proposed via HB 145 would be unconstitutional]. Specifically, Section 1 of HJR 16 is proposing to amend Article VII, Section 1, of the Alaska State Constitution by deleting the sentence, "No money shall be paid from public funds for the direct benefit of any religious or other private educational institution."; and Section 2 is proposing to amend Article IX, Section 6, by adding the words, "; however, nothing in this section shall prevent payment from public funds for the direct educational benefit of students as provided by law". Although the proposed "parental choice scholarship program" would be limited to providing public funding for private K-12 schools, the constitutional changes proposed by HJR 16 address the issue of public funding as it relates to all private schools. In conclusion, he asked the committee to pass HJR 16 so that Alaskans will have an opportunity vote on its proposed changes to the Alaska State Constitution. 2:35:37 PM JOHN ALCANTRA, Director, Government Relations, NEA-Alaska (National Education Association, Alaska Affiliate), relayed that the members of the NEA-Alaska strongly oppose HJR 16. The resolution doesn't ensure that religious or other private schools will accept every child, or that the teachers in those schools are certified, or that those schools will have the same testing requirements as public schools. Public schools make a commitment to all children - regardless of a child's religious background or learning capabilities - whereas private schools don't. He opined that because over 90 percent of Alaska's children attend public school, education-reform efforts should instead focus on the schools that benefit the majority of Alaska's children - public schools. He then provided some suggestions regarding what those efforts ought to entail. In conclusion, he opined that the Alaska State Constitution should be left as is, and reiterated that the members of the NEA-Alaska oppose HJR 16. MR. ALCANTRA, in response to questions, offered his belief that passage of HJR 16 would result in significantly less funding being available for public schools; relayed that the NEA-Alaska would oppose any resolution that would funnel public funds towards private or religious schools; and opined that because HJR 16's proposed constitutional amendment references law that doesn't yet exist, HJR 16 shouldn't move forward without being accompanied by HB 145, which would establish that as-yet- nonexistent law. 2:46:55 PM TOM FINK said he endorses HJR 16, and hopes that the committee will pass it out soon. Characterizing the existing prohibition against public funding for private schools as discriminatory, he relayed that he is in support of HB 145, which requires the passage of HJR 16. He opined that the problem with the current education system, which he characterized as an un-improvable monopoly, is that it continues to receive funding. The proposed legislation could provide an alternative, he ventured, in that once the aforementioned "parental choice scholarship program" is in place, parents could pick the private school of their choice and public funding for that school would be forthcoming but without any new governmental restrictions. Currently, only 10 percent of parents nationally can afford to send their children to private school. This is wrong and ought to be changed, he opined, because although all parents pay taxes, only those who don't send their children to public school have to then pay extra for their children's education. 2:50:13 PM DAVID BOYLE expressed disfavor with the existing prohibition against public funding for private schools, and provided his understanding of how that prohibition came to be; of how different courts over time have ruled in cases involving that prohibition; and that in some states, parents can receive public funds for the private schools of their choice, schools which they could not otherwise afford. In conclusion, he asked the committee to pass HJR 16 so that the public could vote on the issue. 2:55:19 PM BOB FLINT indicated that he views the legislation's proposal as a help to parents and students, enabling them obtain the education that best fits them, not as an attack on the public school system - the normal and dominant way people are educated. The constitutional duty is to educate students, not maintain a particular educational institution. In conclusion, he indicated a belief that HJR 16's proposed constitutional amendments were worthy of going before the voters. 2:57:32 PM KATHLEEN TODD said she opposes both HB 145 and HJR 16, offering her belief that the legislation would create chaos in the school system and be a detriment to a lot of children. Specifically, HJR 16 would allow for a draw on public funds for private purposes but without also providing any guidelines regarding what is actually taught or requiring verification that the teaching methods are successful. She predicted that people would not be in favor of such legislation if they knew that it would result in their public funds being provided to private schools that teach their students [to engage in military] jihad, or to private schools that teach their male students more than their female students, or to private schools that refuse to teach students with disabilities. Furthermore, even if such private schools could be required to teach only "the main subjects" with public funding being restricted to just those subjects, there is no guarantee that students would be taught together and be allowed to interact with each other, rather than being segregated because of ideology, gender, or religion. On the question of why not simply let the proposed constitutional amendment go before the voters so that they can decide the issue, she characterized that as an abdication of legislature's responsibility to make decisions regarding appropriations after having first analyzed all the ramifications. In conclusion, she urged the committee to vote "No" on HJR 16. CHAIR GATTO, after ascertaining that no one else wished to testify, closed public testimony on HJR 16. REPRESENTATIVE KELLER clarified that although HJR 16 and HB 145 are supplemental to each other, they not the same; furthermore, the policies, standards, and guidelines associated with HB 145 - which he characterized as being about school choice - are still to be decided upon. He shared his belief that if [both pieces of legislation pass and] parents choose to send their child to an Islamic school - for example - as long as that school meets state and federal education standards, that would be completely consistent with the values of the United States and with the intent of the legislation. REPRESENTATIVE HOLMES - expressing favor with the concept of school choice - said her concern, however, is that passage of HJR 16 would result in education funding being diverted away from public schools, and thus she would be voting against it. REPRESENTATIVE KELLER, in response to questions and comments, relayed that there is a significant fiscal note attached to HB 145, and offered his understanding that there is information available documenting that [passage of legislation pertaining to school choice] does not harm the public school system and instead improves it. 3:08:09 PM REPRESENTATIVE THOMPSON moved to report HJR 16 out of committee with individual recommendations and [the accompanying fiscal notes]. REPRESENTATIVE HOLMES objected. A roll call vote was taken. Representatives Pruitt, Thompson, Lynn, Keller, and Gatto voted in favor of reporting HJR 16 from committee. Representatives Gruenberg and Holmes voted against it. Therefore, HJR 16 was reported out of the House Judiciary Standing Committee by a vote of 5-2.