In one of the boldest moves of his time in office, Gov. Sean Parnell said in the annual State of the State address on Wednesday night that he would increase funding for education if the Legislature passed his education reform agenda, which includes a bill that would open up the option of using public money for religious and private schools.
“Real change comes only with real reform. If you are willing to join me in passing real education reform, I will work with you to authorize an increase in the base student allocation (BSA),” Parnell said.
The offer comes at a particularly tense time. School teachers across the state are being cut because of what they say is the lack of funding, or increases in the base student allocation.
In his speech, Parnell also spoke about the natural gas pipeline, about the budget and other state financials, all of which he said were paving the way for “the great Alaska comeback.” Specifically, he called on legislators to put $3 billion of savings into the state retirement account, and an initial investment of between $70 to $90 million on the natural gas pipeline.
But to the extent that Parnell is passionate in any of his speeches, it was on education in this one. He called for those on both sides of the aisle, including himself, to climb out of their various trenches and to declare that 2014 be “the education session.”
In addition to the school choice issue, Parnell also proposed expanding boarding schools, reforming laws governing charter schools, increased funding for career technical training and digital teaching.
But the choice issue is the most controversial. Currently, the Alaska state Constitution prohibits public dollars to go to religious institutions. To amend the Constitution would require a vote of two-thirds of the House and the Senate. Then it would go to a vote of the public, hence the refrain heard around the halls of the Capitol building on Wednesday night: “Let the people vote.”
Many Democrats will fight hard against the proposal. In the Democratic response to the speech tonight, Senate Minority Leader Hollis French said he was “disappointed he’s going in this direction.”
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