The Seward Phoenix Log - News of the Eastern Kenai Peninsula since 1966

By Heidi Zemach
For The LOG 

Parents, teachers weigh in on education bill

 


Concerned residents filled the Seward Legislative Information Office on Feb. 3, hoping to speak at a statewide hearing before the Senate Finance Committee about the state instituting school vouchers for private and religious schools. Many of the committee members failed to show up for the four-hour hearing in Juneau, and it wasn’t being heard in the most logical place, the Education Committee, chaired by Sen. Gary Stevens, a moderate Republican, retired teacher and previous Seward area senator. Sen. Cathy Giessel who represents the Seward, Moose Pass, Hope, Girdwood and Anchorage hillside area co-sponsored the proposed constitutional amendment allowing state funding for private schools, thus paving the way for vouchers. She has strongly argued that the public education system is not doing a good job, and that vouchers would allow parents to choose the education that is best for their children.

Those attending the hearing from Seward waited, listening to impassioned testimony by a diverse Alaska public, the majority of who opposed a constitutional amendment. But the hearing ended without getting to the Seward office.

The voices coming across speakers sounded like the garbled teacher voices in the Charlie Brown specials due to the poor quality of the equipment, said parent Dave Paperman later. He, and several other locals submitted their testimony in written form later, or placed them in letters to the editor.

“The chief problem facing our public schools is the slow financial starvation they have been suffering for the past several years,” writes Dave and Dana Paperman. “A constitutional amendment designed only to siphon off even more resources from our public schools would only increase the harms currently occurring to children from Ketchikan to Barrow. If we can agree on anything-it should be that the one potential solution guaranteed to make everything worse would be decreasing funding even further than what inflation has done to the past several years of ‘flat funding’ of public education in Alaska.”

“I live in a community where there is no choice of schools. My concern is that the money leaving the system would leave our public schools with fewer resources needed to educate all the children of Alaska,” writes S. Hillary Bean, a mother, in testimony that she emailed to the lawmakers. “To siphon money from the public schools would undermine and destroy the education system.”

Robert and MaryLynn Barnwell, both Seward Elementary School teachers, said they and their three daughters spent three years in Venezuela, while teaching at an expensive private school. They’re back in Alaska now, impressed by the dedication of their fellow public schoolteachers.

“I watch well educated, modestly paid teachers work an average of 50-60 hours a week, constantly tweaking their instruction, and taking classes to better themselves. And they’re not doing it to compete with the school next door. They deeply care about our greatest resource day in and day out,” Bob Barnwell writes in a Compass opinion piece in the Feb 13th edition of the Anchorage Daily News. “In the last decade, our schools have been under attack. The public is constantly bombarded with data that undermines their credibility. Teachers, stressed to the breaking point, have little time or energy to defend their craft.” Learning about educational systems abroad has reaffirmed his belief that the wrong tools are being used to measure our education system, Barnwell said.

“The voucher system is a dark path of problems that ultimately will unravel our public education. Our biggest problem is dealing with poverty. Student performance is directly linked to family income. Vouchers would fragment our population. The public schools, tasked with providing for all students, would be underrepresented and underfunded. We would all lose, just like my privileged students in Venezuela who inherited a dysfunctional society.”

“Some say, ‘Oh just pass it, and then we’ll see,’” said Sen. Gary Stevens, referring to Senate President Charlie Huggins’ decision to keep the question of a constitutional amendment about school funding out of the Senate Education Committee until after it is voted on and approved by Alaska voters.

“My point is that it has not been fully vetted, analyzed or discussed. It’s just a pig in the poke. I don’t know the implications that it has on education, so if you ask people to vote on it right now, they’ll also be in the dark and have no idea of the full implications. The public has the right to know what it means to have a constitutional change and I don’t think we’re anywhere near there.”

Stevens would like to have explored details concerning what the implications of opening the state treasury (perhaps by as much as $6,000 per student) to religious and private schools would mean financially for those remaining in the public school system, and also about what amending the Alaska Constitution would mean to the separation of church and state, a fundamental ideal outlined in both the Alaska and U.S. Constitutions.

There are many other practical questions that need to be addressed, he said. “Would there be any strings attached? We have lot of strings that we give to public schools, very basic things like we require every teacher to have a background check. We don’t require that for private schools. Would we require that teachers in those schools get background checks? Would they be educated and trained to our standards? Would they teach to the Common Core, and Alaska Education standards?”

SR 9 now sits in the Rules Committee awaiting a decision on whether it should go to the floor of the Senate for a vote. Proposed constitutional changes require a two-third vote of the senate for approval, and Stevens assumes it won’t go there unless there are enough votes. The resolution was rushed through the Senate, he said, but progress on a related bill in the House has barely begun, although the Alaska governor supports it, and would do sign it if it came to his desk.

 

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