JUNEAU — 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.”
During a news conference, Begich acknowledged that his son attends a private school but said he said he didn’t think that put him in an odd spot with his opposition to the proposed constitutional amendment in Alaska. He said his son attended public school in Alaska, but when the family moved a private school was what was available in their neighborhood. Begich said he’s a huge supporter of public education and the difference is he isn’t asking for public money to pay for his son’s education.
Dunleavy — who has also called himself a huge public education supporter — said Begich “seems to want to be focused on the internal workings of Alaska. What we really need is less oversight from our own (U.S.) senators.” Dunleavy said the state needs people in Washington fighting for Alaska on national and federal issues.
Alaska’s U.S. senators annually address state lawmakers on the goings on in Washington, their work and any concerns they may have. Republican U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski addressed lawmakers last month and railed against what she saw as examples of federal overreach.
Begich, a Democrat seeking re-election this year, also spoke about efforts to improve the Coast Guard presence with new cutters, speed permitting and expansion for several Alaska mine projects and to try to control federal spending. He said he has signed onto a proposed U.S. constitutional amendment for a balanced federal budget.
He said he commended the Legislature and Parnell administration for progress toward commercializing Alaska’s natural gas resources. Lawmakers are mulling a proposed equity stake by the state in a mega-liquefied natural gas project that would be capable of overseas exports. Begich said he would work to make sure any necessary federal permits are streamlined.
He told reporters he supported a federal loan guarantee for the liquefied natural gas project. Congress in 2004 approved an $18 billion loan guarantee whose value was linked to inflation but the federal coordinator for Alaska natural gas pipeline projects has said that guarantee applied to a project that would serve North America markets — which is not being pursued at this time.
Begich did not answer directly questions on whether he supported an effort to repeal the state’s oil tax structure, an issue that voters will decide in August. But he said he believes there is a need to have some certainty on a tax structure.