By Jenny Neyman
Of the several education-related bills working their way through the Legislature this session, the most divisive is one that would open the door to public funds going to private schools. Since its introduction, the debate surrounding House Joint Resolution 1 has been charged with provocative cries of quality in education, accountability, parental choice, separation of church and state, and free-market competition.
The measure has been stalled in the House Education Committee. If passed by the Legislature, HJR 1 would require a vote of the people, since it would amend the Alaska Constitution regarding state aid for education. The measure proposes eliminating language stating, “No money shall be paid from public funds for the direct benefit of any religious or other private educational institution.”
The change has generated a lot of debate. Much of it regards the lack of detail in the proposal. What would it mean, exactly? Vouchers? Would all private schools be eligible for state funding? Would the state increase funding to cover the expanded pool of eligible private students and schools? None of these questions are addressed in HJR 1.
“Does that mean we now eliminate the tax-exempt status of churches and church property? Seems only fair. Are private schools, if funded, now going to be required to be held to all the requirements of public schools? For example, standards testing, teacher evaluations and accreditations?” asked Neil Denny, a teacher in Ninilchik, addressing Rep. Kurt Olson and House Speaker Rep. Mike Chenault in a town hall meeting the legislators held in Soldotna on March 23.
The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District opposes the measure, in part because of the lack of specificity.
“We really encourage the two bodies to really vet the bill rather than just pass it to the people and let the people decide. Our concern is if they do pass it to the people that the people will approve it — because it sounds appealing on the surface — without thoroughly thinking it through,” said Dr. Steve Atwater, KPBSD superintendent.
Public funds going to private schools could have many ramifications of concern to the district. One is of funding. Would the state pony up a bigger budget for education to cover the expansion of students funded, or spread thin the current level of funding?
“The idea is you incentivize public schools to do better by creating competition, but you basically water everything down and nothing works,” said LaDawn Druce, president of the Kenai Peninsula Education Association, addressing Reps. Olson and Chenault in the March 23 meeting.
Given that talk in the Legislature these days is of cutting the budget, substantially boosting education funding seems unlikely. Slicing the existing pie into smaller pieces would hurt schools, said Liz Downing, of Homer, KPBSD Board of Education member.
“One of the concerns would also be in medium-sized schools where we’ve been fighting for funds to make sure there’s more opportunities for those students. If we dilute the population, there’s going to be fewer opportunities,” she said.
Another issue is one of accountability. The measure doesn’t stipulate that private schools receiving funding would be held to any sort of standards of educational achievement.
“The concern is that ‘mom and pop’ could open up shop and begin to take the voucher money to provide an educational system, without any kind of quality control,” Atwater said.
Further, public and private schools are held to different requirements, enrollment being one. Public schools must take all students, whereas private schools have selective enrollment.
“That could, in turn, cause a kid with a disability to be turned away and come back to us,” Atwater said. That would mean public schools would continue to shoulder the higher financial burden of students who are more expensive to educate, yet potentially with less state funding.
Curriculum is another difference. While public school districts do have some leeway in developing their own curriculums, they must conform to governmental directives. And those directives can change. For instance, there’s a bill in the Legislature now — House Bill 31 — that would require districts to teach a “history of American constitutionalism.” And public-school students are subject to state and federal standardized testing in certain subjects. HJR 1 doesn’t address whether any of those requirements would extend to private schools receiving funding.
“The big thing is quality control, and then, philosophically, the use of public funds for religious instruction, too,” Atwater said.
But there’s another side to that philosophical coin, and that is parental choice.
“I think that it puts the power of choosing a child’s education back into the parents’ hands, and that is who is primarily responsible for their child’s education,” said Mary Rowley, administrator of Cook Inlet Academy, a Christian, preschool- through 12-grade private school in Soldotna.
Rowley didn’t speak to HJR 1 specifically, or for other schools. But in her opinion, public funding can responsibly go to private schools. First off, there are standards of quality for private schools, through accreditation. Cook Inlet Academy, for instance, is double-accredited, through the Northwest Accreditation Commission and the Association of Christian Schools International. Additionally, all CIA’s teachers are certified with the state of Alaska and ACSI.
If the Legislature — and, then, voters — were to allow public money to be spent on private schools, Rowley said that she’d support a stipulation that any educational institution receiving funds must be accredited.
“I definitely think that accredited schools should be the only ones that are included in the school choicing. Parents deserve the very best that they can get for their money, whether it’s through the taxes that they’re paying or through something like this where they would be empowered to take a school voucher to a school of their choice,” she said.
Rowley would also not be averse to a stipulation that private schools receiving state funding be expected to comply with the curriculum requirements posed to public schools, so long as the requirement is for introducing subjects, not necessarily forcing conclusions upon students.
The school’s approach to curriculum is about critical thinking, she said.
“We have that freedom (to determine curriculum) and with that freedom comes a large responsibility, and part of that responsibility is to teach our kids to be critical thinkers. It’s not like we don’t teach evolution — it’s a theory that’s introduced but we show why, from a Biblical world view, that it is not a viable means of explaining how the world got here and how it will continue on. We’re not going to stray from our Biblical worldview. If they want to introduce a controversial subject into the curriculum and say it’s mandatory, I don’t have a problem with that as long as, along with that, we’re allowed to teach our kids to critically think through these things and to make sure that they are aligned with their family’s faith and values system.”
That approach is already utilized, Rowley said, noting that the school represents more than 50 different churches, which sometimes differ in matters of doctrine.
“Any time doctrinal issues come up that vary from church to church, students are encouraged to take those issues home and talk to their parents about them and find out why they believe what they believe, and to own their faith. That’s education, right?” she said. “It’s not saying, ‘You have to believe that.’ That’s indoctrination. Education is allowing them to look at what’s out there and, ‘Why do some things work and some things don’t?’”
Rowley said she acknowledges the concern that public schools would serve a disproportionately high amount of special-needs students. Public schools do a good job of that, she said. And there is additional funding to help serve special-needs kids.
“We are limited in the amount of special needs that we can service at our school. Clearly it takes more to educate those kinds of students, and the public schools have the finances and they do a great job at that,” Rowley said.
As for the concern of spreading thin available state funding by widening the pool of eligible schools to include private institutions, Rowley said her interest in public funding for private schools isn’t about competition, it’s about allowing parents more options in where and how their kids are educated.
“Schools are going to have to recognize that parents will have the option to withdraw their children if their expectations aren’t being met, and that will call for all schools to be very up front and transparent about who they are, what they can provide, and to be able to say when they can’t provide it anymore,” Rowley said.
“I’m not here to compete with the public schools. We can’t offer some of the services they can and they can’t offer some of the services we can. I don’t want to undermine anything they’re doing but I do believe in school choice,” she said.