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Public money spent on private schools will not improve education in Alaska

Posted: January 23, 2014 - 9:43am

In his Jan. 9 Point of View article part-time resident Joe Balyeat wrote that Alaskans should amend Article 7 of the State Constitution in order to eliminate the sentence “No money shall be paid from public funds for the direct benefit of any religious or other private educational institution.” 

Balyeat claimed that healthy competition among public and private schools would improve educational services to children. He blames “powerful government unions” and “educratic (sic) special interests” for the poor showing in some Alaska school districts.

How well a school performs depends on many factors including good administrators, trained teachers and economic and social conditions in the area served. Free public schools are one of America’s greatest creations. Even the best public school can’t solve all of the nation’s social problems, of course, or succeed with every child. Good schools work with parents as well as children because community commitment is vital to the success of a local school.

To this end, our Alaska statutes provide for a wonderful variety of options for parents. The competition among educational opportunities that Balyeat claims to want is already available under AS 14.30.010. Children are required to attend school between the ages of seven and sixteen, but parents may provide that education through a public school, a secular or religious private school, or a private certified teacher.

Parents can enroll their children in a correspondence school or even act as teachers themselves in their own home.

Private school students, whether secular or religious, are allowed to attend free public school part-time if parents so desire. So are home-schooled and correspondence school students.

Alaska allows groups of parents to form their own charter schools, exempt from the local district’s textbook, program, curriculum and scheduling requirements, though subject to secondary school competency testing (AS 14.03.250).

Local school districts across the state offer bilingual/bicultural programs as diverse as Alaska Native languages, Japanese, Spanish and Russian. There are extensive provisions for physically and mentally challenged students, including special programs, aides and sign language interpreters. School schedules can be adjusted to the needs of a local community.

With all this competition already existing in Alaska education, it seems as if the real purpose of Balyeat’s point of view article is, in fact, to obtain public funds for religious schools. A fight is being waged across the United States to eliminate from state constitutions the so-called Blaine Amendments which prohibit spending state money on religious schools. Alaska is just one of 38 states with such restrictions.

Balyeat states that such restrictions have been deemed unconstitutional in federal courts. This is untrue. Court cases have dealt only with specific applications of state constitutional prohibitions on giving money to religious schools. Issues raised have included loans of equipment and material to private schools, reimbursements to parents for transportation spent sending children to private schools, direct payment to parents vs. subsidies to private schools and the especially thorny issue of school vouchers.

Legal decisions have been many and varied depending on the particular court and justices. But underlying most of them is debate over interpretation of the “Establishment Clause” of the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution. What may federal, state and local governments do in favor of religion in a secular nation such as ours?

Balyeat would have us believe that restrictions on state money for religious schools are rooted in religious bigotry because they came into being in a period of anti-Catholic, anti-Irish sentiment. In reality, federal separation of church and state goes back to the very beginning of our nation. 

Finally, Balyeat argues that refusal to give state money to private schools falls into the category of “anti-religious prohibitions.” Article 1 of Alaska’s Constitution specifically defends the free exercise of religion. However, “free exercise” doesn’t mean financial support by the state. Alaska statutes offer parents the right to choose a religious school for their children in preference to a free public secular education, but the state does not subsidize such a choice. 

Public money should not be spent for sectarian purposes. There’s only so much government money to go around in Alaska, as can be seen during each year’s budget debate. Taking money from public school districts for private schools will not improve education in this state.    

Diana Conway is a retired college professor and published author of children’s fiction. Her two sons were raised in Anchorage and graduated from public alternative schools. She lives across Kachemak Bay  in Halibut Cove, where several of her neighbors have homeschooled their children.

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kearbear 01/23/14 - 01:57 pm
You are on the wrong side of

You are on the wrong side of history. Once public schools were infiltrated by Public Sector Unions, the success of public schools were doomed. As we see by the problems faced by the Anchorage School District, 88% of revenue raised is passed through and redistributed to the Union salaries and benefits payments. Very little left for the students. Public schools have become the most inefficient monopoly in America. Children are forced into substandard programs with high drop out rates. It's time to set the students free and allow student allotment money to follow the student. Parent's and students make choices that are right for their family. Choice and competition for the best students by offering curriculum that challenges students. Unions have created a system of bondage and coerced funding of government schools. Equalizing outcomes by lowering expectations has been a complete failure. The best and the brightest deserve a chance to shine.

akgrngrl 01/23/14 - 12:45 pm

Thank you Diana for a very reasoned and well-informed argument. I was the product of a Catholic religious upbringing from kindergarden through college that my parents felt privileged to pay for. My daughter attended public school here in Alaska. We both received an extremely good education that included a rigorous academic schedule with Honors and AP classes as well as art, music and afterschool activities and clubs. My daughter's religious education took place away from school. My daughter now teaches in public high school and may lose her job because of the funding deficit. I believe in the separation of church and state and that applies to school funding as well. Let parents who wish to send their children to private schools do so - and let them pay for it, as is their privilege.

kearbear 01/23/14 - 02:43 pm
Attending the school of

Attending the school of choice, that the parent and student determine is best, is hardly a privilege. A solid education is a right. Public Union workers have devoured 88% of the revenue by demanding more and more of the available pie. At this point, the monopoly held by Unions will result in school districts that resemble Detroit. It's time to put the student's needs first. Allotment money should follow the student and allow students to achieve their dreams, not be a bargaining chip for Unions to parlay into more and more demands.

It is amazing to read how strong and blinding to reality ideology can be. The previous commentator, who states her daughter is losing her position at a public school, defends Union demands that ultimately resulted in the loss of her daughter's job. Salaries and benefits including healthcare mandates and Union cadillac plans that Unions will not negotiate or agree to concede greater employee contributions have crushed school districts and resulted in lay offs across America. Unions would rather see jobs cut, then make any concessions to reality. The only source of revenue is raising property taxes, that result in the death spiral of the middle class as taxes consume more and more of their ability to maintain a middle class lifestyle.

Just think how many kids were condemned to a government school back in the day, when your parents were "privileged" to send you to private school. The other kids were locked out due to parental lack of ability to pay. If they had a chance at allotment money so they could attend your excellent school, how different their opportunity for success could have been.

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