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OPINION: School choice: maybe, or maybe not

March 1st 1:28 pm | Bob Heron Print this article   Email this article   Create a Shortlink for this article

The discussion on school choice or education vouchers has me wondering if, maybe, I should embrace this idea.

So as I understand, historically, a school choice or education voucher system meant that children of low-income environments in under-performing schools should have the opportunity to receive an higher-performing education in another school of their parents' choice.

This really sounds good to me, but currently, most of my constituents will have a very limited chance at this possibility.

Or is it now a debate about the opportunity for any family regardless of income to accept a publicly-funded K-12 scholarship without restriction toward tuition to send their child to a school of their choice that is, remarkably and maybe, not accredited or accountable for performance or standards imposed on traditional public education systems.

I do understand that HJR1 is not an indictment of our public school education structure and the teachers, who serve economically disadvantaged students, because they are nearly all dedicated professionals. But are we, the Alaska Legislature, maybe already poorly serving both the disadvantaged and advantaged students and schools?

The recipe of issues of teacher performance, parental involvement, school funding and poverty are complicated and do not offer quick, easy answers.

Are we trading one education system that some argue is rife as a horrible administrative nightmare with regulations, audits and demeaning politics for another of a slightly different color but yet of the same flavor? Young people who are eager to learn in an atmosphere of high expectations are the equal that I want for my children and grandchildren.

How do we get there? That is a very tough question that we must continue to ask. Is school choice a panacea, or in other words, that long sought cure-all remedy?

Unfortunately, current public dialogues are full of concave sound bites surrounded in bounded rationality in response to critical and necessary questions to the potential outcome of HJR1.

As chronicled, in part, in recent news reports:

"This resolution has absolutely nothing with funding...a discussion down the road."

"There needs to be a grand discussion about the ramifications...and should this get passed...then we're definitely going...really have those hard conversations on what this may mean to our state...we're way ahead of ourselves asking those questions."

"Critics are leaping ahead to critique a voucher system that isn't yet proposed or designed...people are getting the cart way before the horse."

After considering these comments, I thought if I wanted to travel toward a desired destination that I would prepare carefully. Inflate the tires, lube the chassis, check the oil, change out the air filters, pack a first aid kit, bring food and extra supplies, fill the gas tank and get a good night's sleep.

The education voucher amendment vehicle needs rims and tires, a steering wheel and a driveline so the voters can test-drive it before the purchase.

But just for the sake of argument, let us set aside for the moment the questions and just vote to delete one sentence in Article 7, Section 1, Public Education section ("No money shall be paid from public funds for the direct benefit of any religious or other private educational institution") and add one sentence in Article 9, Section 6, Public Purpose section ("however, nothing in this section shall prevent payment from public funds for the direct educational benefit of students as provided by law") in the Alaska Constitution without a vigorous and thorough debate on its hypothetical consequences.

For a moment, let us accept the HJR1 proponents' case that waiting until after the school choice amendment passage to work out the details will be ok for all Alaskans. For a moment, let us accept the fact that there would be a very important education policy vacuum for a while if the voters positively affirm the amendment.

MAYBE NOT... Let us not treat any proposed amendment so lightly.

Is this a satisfactory manner for Alaskans to handle proposed constitutional amendments?

I have been mentioning moments of pause, but now, do you think for even for a nano-second that we would submit for a vote on a proposed amendment without vigorous debate on the removal of a sentence in another section of our constitution? Without vetting its possible ramifications, would we even consider allowing a vote on the removal of the second sentence of the 19th section of Article 1, ("right to keep and bear arms")? MAYBE absolutely NOT!

 


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