Rep. Sarah Vance, R-Homer, speaks on the floor of the Alaska House of Representatives on Wednesday, March 13. (James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

Rep. Sarah Vance, R-Homer, speaks on the floor of the Alaska House of Representatives on Wednesday, March 13. (James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

Alaska House members propose constitutional amendment to allow public money for private schools

After a court ruling that overturned a key part of Alaska’s education correspondence programs, members of the state Legislature have proposed a constitutional amendment that would allow public money to go to private and religious schools.

House Joint Resolution 28 is scheduled for hearings Wednesday and Friday next week in the House Judiciary Committee.

If approved by two-thirds of the House, two-thirds of the Senate and voters this fall, HJR 28 would remove the part of Article VII, Section 1, that says, “no money shall be paid from public funds for the direct benefit of any religious or other private educational institution.”

That clause was specifically flagged by Superior Court Judge Adolf Zeman when he struck down a law dealing with payments to the parents of children in the state’s correspondence programs.

Some parents had been using the money to pay for tuition at private schools, and Zeman concluded that the law had been deliberately written to allow the practice, making it unconstitutional.

HJR 28 also proposes to change Article IX, Section 6, which prohibits spending public money except for public purposes. The proposed amendment would add a clause saying that the section doesn’t prevent payments “for the direct educational benefit of students as provided by law.”

In a statement accompanying the release of the draft amendment, Rep. Sarah Vance, R-Homer and chair of the judiciary committee, said that “by allowing public funds to benefit all Alaskans seeking educational opportunities, this amendment promotes fairness and empowers choice in education.”

Rep. Jamie Allard, R-Eagle River and a member of the judiciary committee, said that a public vote — required of any constitutional amendment — would empower voters and “ensures that all Alaskans have a voice in shaping the future of education in Alaska.”

While large numbers of state legislators and Gov. Mike Dunleavy have expressed alarm about the legal decision on correspondence programs, many have said they intend to postpone action until after the Alaska Supreme Court addresses the topic.

Talking to reporters on Tuesday, several members of the supermajority caucus in charge of the Alaska Senate said they would be unlikely to support a constitutional amendment eliminating the prohibition on public funds for private schools.

• James Brooks is a longtime Alaska reporter, having previously worked at the Anchorage Daily News, Juneau Empire, Kodiak Mirror and Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. This article originally appeared online at Alaska Beacon, an affiliate of States Newsroom, is an independent, nonpartisan news organization focused on connecting Alaskans to their state government.

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