Parnell Offers “Choice”-Friendly School Reform Package

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For most of Sean Parnell’s administration, oil taxes have gotten top billing in the Capitol. But with that legislative fight behind him, the Republican governor is changing his focus.

PARNELL: 2014 will be the Education Session.

During the State of the State address on Wednesday night, Parnell laid out an agenda that was friendly to the school choice movement. And he made a commitment to increase school funding if it passes. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez reports.

The deal he presented to state lawmakers is basically this: You give parents more options beyond traditional public schools, and I’ll give those public schools more money for the next three years.

“If we are successful at real reform and more new funding, our children will benefit,” said Parnell.

Parnell didn’t specify how much funding, but he did say it would come through the “base student allocation” — that’s the dollar amount a school gets for each child enrolled. That number has sat at around $5700 for the past four years, and school districts have been clamoring for an increase in the face of budget shortfalls.

Now for the strings attached. One:

PARNELL: I urge the House and Senate to vigorously debate the provisions of Senate Joint Resolution 9 and move it to the people for a vote.

That item would amend the Alaska Constitution so that the state could fund private institutions, including religious ones. The resolution doesn’t set up a school voucher system, but it would allow lawmakers to set one up if they wanted. For it to pass, it needs support from 2/3rds of the Legislature and then a majority vote of the people.

Number two:

PARNELL: I propose all local, state, and federal funding — except some capped district administrative expenses — travel with a student to a charter school.

Parnell also described this as “expanding choice.” He said too many students are being put on wait lists for the state’s public charter schools because of “restrictive” state laws. Parnell also encouraged the legislature to pass a law giving parents the right to appeal if a school board denies their application to start a charter school.

Condition three:

PARNELL: I propose repealing and replacing the obsolete High School Graduation Qualifying Exam.

The governor explained that the test became obsolete when the state implemented new education standards. In its place, Parnell would require students to take a nationally recognized college entrance exam or a job skills test within two years of graduating — specifically, the SAT, the ACT, or WorkKeys. He would also have the state foot the bill for the first test.

Bills that would get rid of the high school exit exam have already been introduced in both chambers of the Legislature, with Republicans and Democrats signing on as sponsors.

Number four:

PARNELL: We must continue to expand the number and type of regional residential schools.

Like Mt. Edgecumbe High School in Sitka. This was a nod to the state’s rural areas, where charter schools and private schools are in short supply and the only alternatives kids have to their local public school is home-schooling or boarding school.

And five:

PARNELL: We must recognize our students need 21st century classrooms to compete in a 21st century economy.

Parnell called for continued support of the Alaska Digital Teaching Initiative, which lets student take classes at other schools through a video link.

During his address, Parnell also spoke favorably of expanding vocational education, letting kids test out of classes for credit, and allowing for dual-credit options that could count toward high school graduation and career certification.

In all, Parnell spent nearly half of his annual speech on education. It got more time than his recommendations on fiscal policy, the proposed gasline, and the state’s pension liabilities combined. No mention was made of the state’s budget shortfall, which is expected to approach $2 billion this year.


Democrats may have clapped during Gov. Sean Parnell’s State of the State address when he suggested increasing the base student allocation, but they weren’t happy with his larger education package.

House Minority Leader Chris Tuck argued that after four years of keeping the per-student funding amount flat, there shouldn’t be conditions on an increase.

“What have we been doing? Short changing education and crippling it. And once crippled – no more funding until there is reform.”

His Senate counterpart Hollis French said he was disappointed that the governor supported a constitutional amendment that would allow state funds to be used at private schools, and he expressed concern that it could lead to vouchers.

“Diverting public money to private schools simply continues to deprive our public schools of the resources they need to do their job,” said French.

French suggested that Parnell could achieve better student outcomes by focusing on early education, which did not get a mention in the governor’s speech.

The Democrats also expressed some skepticism over the governor’s recent gasline deal, saying they didn’t trust the governor to negotiate with North Slope producers because of the controversial oil tax law he signed.

Meanwhile, Republicans expressed support for Parnell’s State of State speech. Lesil McGuire, a senator and candidate for lieutenant governor, called it “right on point” in a written statement, while House Majority Leader Lance Pruitt tweeted that it was “strong.”

agutierrez (at) alaskapublic (dot) org | 907.209.1799 | About Alexandra

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