The past couple of weeks in Alaska have played host to numerous rallies, hours of testimony, more hours of legislative deliberation, and a marathon House floor session this past Monday night that finished with the passage of the education bill, HB278.
One of the central themes of Governor Parnell’s “State of the State” speech, which unofficially kicked off the legislative session, was a call to amend our state constitution to allow public monies to fund private and religious schools. That call failed to muster the two-thirds threshold vote needed to pass either body of the house, and has quickly been replaced by very real legislation to extend tax credits to those same non-public entities. Those tax credits were part of the bill that passed the House on Monday with a clear majority, though no one seemed all too pleased about the full bill.
Especially not in the valley, where three rallies — in Palmer, Wasilla, and Talkeetna — took place, asking both the legislature and the Parnell administration to support fully funding Alaska’s public schools.
What does “fully fund” mean? That varies. But when I headed to the valley to attend Tuesday’s rallies, people were quick to fill the gaps. My first stop was Wasilla, where a few dozen protesters lined the sidewalk where the Parks and Palmer-Wasilla Highways intersected.
“I just don’t want to see any more cuts,” Wendy Ahnupkana told me. Wendy teaches in the Mat-Su, and her daughter starts school next year. “It’s really important for me to make sure that she’s getting everything she needs in school.”
Catherine Inman, owner of Mat-Su Conservation Services, agreed. “Public education’s extremely important. We need to keep up funding, we need to increase funding and not cut it. Public education is the backbone of our nation. I’m out here in support of our community’s kids and our community’s growth and health.”
When I asked Inman what scared her the most about the legislation in front of lawmakers in Juneau, she said it was the push for privatization. “The vouchers really concern me. Public money should be for public education and not for private interests.”
The story was much the same in Palmer, where thirty to forty valley residents gathered in the old Carr’s parking lot, waving signs at drivers on the Glenn Highway.
“We do this dance every spring,” Pat Chesbro told me. She’s taught in Alaska for three decades and is tired of the uncertainty that plagues school district budgets annually. She told me that educators are used to getting less than what they need and make do with it. But the latest round of “reform” was absurd. “How many person-hours do you think it’s taking for all this rallying, districts to make decisions, cutting people — it’s a hugely expensive process that we are asking to do yearly.”
The House passed HB278 on Monday night, just as midnight struck. The usual victory lap, enjoyed by whichever party happens to be celebrating whichever bill they just passed, was more of a cautious, guarded slow-walk, as closing statements avoided the usual hi-fives and handshakes.
The general consensus, which had lawmakers of all political stripes staring at their boots while speaking, went like this:
Republicans in the majority are frustrated that Alaska is spending too much money.
“We spend $22,245 per student in this state, all in. That would buy you a pretty fine college education,” Craig Johnson (R-Anchorage) told his colleagues ten minutes before midnight on Monday. (He’s wrong, that nets the average college student attending an in-state public college, less than one school year.) “We are not paying for a middle road education, we’re paying for a very good education and being happy with the middle of the road?”
Compared to his “conservative caucus” peer, Rep. Laura Reinbold (R-Wasilla), Johnson sounded optimistic.
For Democrats in the minority, the problem was that the funding increases, both in the base student allocation and the one-time $30 million in funding added by Rep. Bryce Edgmon (D-Dillingham), weren’t enough.
Rep. Harriet Drummond (D-Anchorage) might have summed up yesterday’s rallies perfectly, though they hadn’t happened yet. She took the rare speaking opportunity to encapsulate the frustration and fear that I heard (like a flipping Time Lord) from so many valley residents:
I appreciate all the hours that have gone into this bill. I also appreciate the public that is watching us very carefully and that knows what it wants. I appreciate the good things that are in this bill… but there are a number of pieces of this bill that are still in there that I know that ‘my’ public doesn’t want.
Remaining in this bill, for an example, is an onerous extension of tenure acquisition that I didn’t have anybody ask me for. There’s a school grading system that didn’t even make it out of committee last year. There are tax credits for private and religious non-profit schools that open the door to vouchers. There is a statewide salary and benefit schedule proposal that removes local control from our duly elected school boards. Charter schools will suffer even more under the funding aspects of this bill than our neighborhood schools will.
We’re being positively schizophrenic about our state education standards… [and] we’re looking at three more years of school cuts. These BSA numbers don’t even keep our schools even… I can’t support it.