JUNEAU — Gov. Sean Parnell used his State of the State address Wednesday to lay out plans to change Alaska’s education system, including improving access to charter schools and giving parents more choices in where they send their kids.
Parnell told lawmakers that if they are willing to work with him in passing “real education reform,” he would work with them to boost public school funding.
Parnell said as an act of good faith, he would propose increasing the base-student allocation, or per-pupil spending, for each of the next three years — something he has been loath to support in recent years, in part citing the need to see greater results.
The Republican dedicated much of his fifth State of the State address to education, an issue that critics have said he’s given short shrift in the past. He called for a digital initiative to give students in rural areas greater access to array of classes and for allowing high school students to “test out” of a class for credit. He said nothing is gained by keeping a student in a class whose subject matter he or she has mastered.
He also proposed scrapping the high school graduation exam, which he said is no longer a valid measure of student success given new education standards. In its place, he said he will propose that high school students take the ACT, SAT or WorkKeys skills test within two years of their expected graduation date, with the first test taken at state expense.
Parnell said he supports giving parents more choices in where to send their children to school. He called on lawmakers to debate and send to voters a proposed constitutional amendment that would strike a provision in Alaska’s Constitution that prohibits the state from using public funds for the direct benefit of private and religious schools.
Critics of the proposal, which has been pending before the Legislature, fear it could take money away from the public education system. Senate Minority Leader Hollis French, in his response to Parnell’s speech, said he was disappointed with Parnell’s position on that issue.
“Diverting public money to private schools simply continues to deprive our public schools of the resources they need to do their jobs,” French, D-Anchorage, said. He said minority Democrats would put forth education reforms of their own.
Parnell, in his speech, said the question of school choice “is not about private schools or religious schools; it is about whether parents should have the freedom to say what school best meets their child’s education needs with their child’s share of public money — their money.”
Parnell said wealthier Alaskans can send their kids to private or religious schools but others, under the constitution, currently cannot.
He said Alaska has one of the most restrictive charter school laws in the country and a local district can approve or deny charter school creation with no path to appeal. He said there needs to be a way to appeal such decisions to the state education commissioner. He said he also proposed that all state, local and federal funding, except some capped district administrative expenses, travel with a student who goes to a charter school.
He said the debate over education has generally proceeded from two fronts, with one side believing reform lies with increased funding and others focused on results. He included himself in the latter camp. He called for working together to offer more opportunity to more students and making 2014 the “education session.”
Parnell, who faces re-election this year, also used the speech, televised statewide, to make a pitch for a couple major initiatives. Those include moving $3 billion from savings to help address the state’s unfunded pension liability — a move he said would allow for future, flat annual payments rather than escalating ones and ease pressure on the state budget — and having Alaska take an equity stake in a proposed liquefied natural gas pipeline project that would be capable of overseas exports.
He said Alaska can best control its own destiny if it owns a stake or participates in the mega-project.
He said he would ask legislators to review commercial agreements and take up legislation that would move the project through a phase that would include preliminary engineering and help refine costs. Parnell said the state’s share in that phase would be between $70 million and $90 million.
He previously said that legislation would include asking lawmakers to switch to a flat gross tax and allow for certain leases to pay production taxes with gas.
He said this is all part of a phased legislative approval process that he said will make his approach to securing a long-hoped for gas line more open and transparent to the public than past efforts.
Parnell also made clear the state would continue pursuing a smaller, in-state gas line as a fall back for getting gas to Alaskans if the big line falters.