Stevens speaks out on proposed amendment

JUNEAU — The chairman of the Senate Education Committee announced plans Tuesday for hearings on school vouchers — just days after a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow public money to be used for private schools was pulled from his committee.

Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, opened his floor speech, joking that he had learned his lesson about missing a floor session. But he quickly turned serious, saying that while he personally disagrees with the measure, he has never held a bill because he didn’t like it, and he vowed a thorough review of vouchers — with or without SJR9 in front of him.

“By the time we get to a vote, I trust that members of the Senate will clearly understand how vouchers affect Alaska,” he said. “We owe this to our children and to our grandchildren, to the children of our neighbors and our friends and to the children of Alaskans we don’t even yet know, because they’re all our sons and daughters and they deserve the best education we can provide.”

On Friday, while Stevens was out of town for a conference, the Senate, without a head’s up to Stevens, voted to pull SJR9 from its Education committee referral and, instead, have it heard by the Senate Judiciary and Finance committees. Senate President Charlie Huggins, R-Wasilla, said the measure involves a legal issue and that he made a mistake in initially referring it to the Education Committee. Senate leaders also insisted Alaskans would have an opportunity to debate the merits of the change if and when the issue came before voters.

Senate Democrats blasted the move, calling it “shenanigans” and ludicrous given the implications the measure could have on education in the state. Ron Fuhrer, president of NEA-Alaska, a major teachers union, called the decision stunning, saying: “This action holds Alaskans in very low regard.”

On Tuesday, the Senate majority announced that SJR9 could be heard by the Education committee if “significant education issues arise” during the legislative process.

“This is not yet a question of which schools will receive the funding,” Senate Majority Leader John Coghill, R-North Pole, said in the news release. “This is a question of whether we need to amend the constitution to allow for that possibility. Since we are talking about changing the law, that’s why the Judiciary committee is considering the question. It’s the same thing for Finance. This amendment changes how state funds can be spent. That is why it is inherently a finance question.”

A similar measure on the House side has referrals to the House Education, Judiciary and Finance committees.

Stevens said he could not personally believe Alaskans would allow anyone “to eviscerate” the principle of the separation of church and state that people have held dear in this country. He said he didn’t think anyone in the room would disagree that vouchers are a legitimate concern of the Education committee; he said he has not encountered a “more momentous education issue” during his 13 years in the legislature. He said he doesn’t know the answer, of whether vouchers would be good for Alaska’s children, bad for them or something in between. “But I do know we need more information,” he said.

During his speech, Stevens mentioned Coghill’s father, John B. Coghill, a former lieutenant governor and delegate to Alaska’s constitutional convention. He called the elder Coghill a patriot and founding father of the state.

“I know how distressing it can be to have a wayward son who does not appear to agree with you or with the wisdom of the ages,” Stevens said to scattered laughter.

The younger Coghill is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a co-sponsor of SJR9.

Follow Becky Bohrer on Twitter at http://twitter.com/beckybohrerap.

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