Point of View: Hands off our constitution, Rep. Vance

Last month’s vote to override the governor’s veto of Senate Bill 140 lost by a single vote. If Sarah Vance had voted differently, the bill’s permanent increase to the basic student allocation would have passed. While the increase would have been insufficient even to keep up with inflation since the last adjustment, it would still have been a game changer for local school districts, and it had strong bipartisan support.

For my family, Rep. Vance’s vote against education funding felt like a punch in the gut. We moved to Homer when the kids were in elementary school, specifically because of the quality of the schools here, and because Homer seemed like a community that valued and supported public education more strongly even than Soldotna, where I grew up, and where we already owned property. We still have three kids in Homer’s public schools.

The morning after that vote, I asked myself how someone claiming to represent Homer could in good conscience cast a deciding vote against public education funding.

I recalled that Rep. Vance serves as a vice chair of the National Association of Christian Lawmakers, an organization best known for its goal of passing local, state and national legislation based on an evangelical Christian interpretation of the Bible, in order to “restore the Judeo-Christian foundation of our nation.” Vance is also the Alaska state chair of that organization.

Even though there didn’t seem to be a clear connection to biblical principles, I wondered whether the NACL might have taken a position on public education. Opening its online mission statement, I saw quickly that the answer was yes: NACL leaders and members are “committed … to promoting universal school choice,” an approach to education funding that involves diverting public funds from public schools into religious schools, typically by means of vouchers.

Two weeks after the veto override debacle I attended Rep. Vance’s “Sip with Sarah” event at Captain’s Coffee, and asked her several questions about her motivations in voting the way she did, including whether she, like the national organization she is vice chair of, favors government funding for religious schools. After a pause, she observed that we have some excellent Christian schools in Kenai and Soldotna, and said she guessed she would leave it up to them to decide for themselves whether or not to accept state funds.

I didn’t follow up on the comment because, as I mentioned to several people afterward, it seemed like a garble that made no logical sense.

Soldotna does indeed have excellent Christian schools — I know because I graduated from one, Cook Inlet Academy, which I attended for seven years. But my tuition was not paid for by the state; my parents worked hard to be able to send us there. State funding was not seen as an option, because the Alaska Constitution specifically prohibits it, stating in Article VII, Section 1 that “no money shall be paid from public funds for the direct benefit of any religious or other private educational institution.”

Two weeks after Vance’s seeming non sequitur, a judge in Anchorage suspended all cash payments to parents for home-school programs. The reason? Some parents, with encouragement from the Dunleavy administration, had been violating the Alaska Constitution by using those state funds to pay for their kids to attend religious schools. According to the ADN, parents who intervened in the case told the court that without the state funding, they wouldn’t be able to afford to continue sending their children to private schools.

The judge’s suspension of all cash payments for home-school programs, especially on such short notice, seems overly broad and unnecessarily disruptive, and I hope it will be stayed at least until the end of the school year so that state legislators can explore changes to the program, changes that would allow reimbursements for legitimate expenses while preventing the transfer of state funds to religious establishments.

It was surprising to learn that Rep. Vance’s comments about Christian schools deciding for themselves whether to accept state funds had been grounded in reality — but that surprise was mild compared to the dismay that many felt at her proposed remedy.

House Joint Resolution 28, already scheduled for hearing in the House Judiciary Committee chaired by Vance, proposes a constitutional amendment that would simply remove the prohibition against state funding of religious schools from Alaska’s Constitution, by deleting the words “no money shall be paid from public funds for the direct benefit of any religious or other private educational institution.”

This November there will be at least three alternatives to Sarah Vance on the ballot. I plan to cast a vote for all three of those alternative candidates, and I sincerely hope that a majority of voters in the district will do the same.

I say “all three” because, with ranked choice voting, it will be vital to rank the other two non-incumbent candidates, so that a vote against the incumbent does not go to waste if the voter’s preferred candidate ends up not being the top vote-getter.

By turning out in November and ranking their top three candidates, supporters of strong, steady, predictable funding for our public schools can almost certainly elect a state representative who will focus single-mindedly on what’s best for the district, without the distraction of filtering decisions through the lens of a sectarian agenda developed out of state.

Jason Davis is a Homer business owner and Homer city council member.