Compromise on Scholarship — or Special Session?

By Dave Donaldson

Governor Parnell’s Scholarship program was first pronounced dead several weeks ago.  But it has continued to come back – several time — each time with predictions of a quick demise.   The plan has kept moving.  It has adapted.  And  it is still alive.  Most recently it was given new life with the rumors that the governor would call a special session of the legislature if it doesn’t pass.   

Governor Parnell says he is leaving  alive the possibility of calling a special legislative session on a merit-based scholarship for Alaska students.   He and legislators are still working on coming up with a way to get his plan – or one very similar – into law.

I’m advocating for merit scholarships for our high school youth.   And you’ve seen people here who want to see more needs based opportunity.  And frankly I think the merit scholarship is for kids who need money as well as those who do not.  It’s for everybody that wants to earn it.  So we have time to work these issues,  to work a compromise in the regular legislative session – and I’m cautiously optimistic that we can get there.

The Senate this week passed a back-up bill that expands the Alaska scholars program the University system has already established and adds the needs-based Alaska Advantage program to it.  Now available to those in the top ten percent of high school graduating classes,  the bill would take it to the top fifteen percent of graduates – but would reduce the monetary value of the scholarship.  And it increases appropriations by about $20-million  to pay for the extra students it will cover.

Governor Parnell says that doesn’t improve graduation rates or achievement.   He’s joined in that opinion by  Kevin Meyer,   the chairman of the Senate’s  Education Committee.  Meyer voted against the plan that was sent to the House this week.  As an example,  he says fifty percent of the students that profit from the existing scholarship programs have to take remedial courses when they get to the college level.

If we know there’s a problem there, why are we putting more money towards it?  So I would rather use that twenty million for those programs that in my opinion don’t work an it towards something like the governor’s recommending here – and I hope we still are able to at least get the basics accomplished on it this year.

Governor Parnell has heard the legislature’s response to his original bill.  Setting up a four hundred million dollar endowment was too much for lawmakers to handle in one session.   He wants to separate the money from a promise the state can make to students – the goals the kids would have to meet.

I would be willing to pass the criteria portion of the bill this year.  To set it there and to look at the funding issues next year.  I wanted to save money aside and use the interest and earnings from it.  That, to me, is a prudent way to do it.  Legislators have balked at that.  They prefer to spend the money on other things. I prefer to save it for the future.   Those are just different approaches, and that’s something that I’m willing to work with them on during the interim.

The bill is in the House.  And that’s where talks for a compromise are going on.  Speaker Mike Chenault says there are several people involved in them,  along with the governor.  And,  although he won’t talk about where they are, he says they’re making progress – he says they’re aiming for the compromise the governor describes.  He says whatever is left off this year’s bill will be the subject of talks for a task force that would be set up to work on this summer.

I think if we put a task force together we may make this whole thing run a little bit smoother and people have the confidence in the program and we’re ready to bite off the size of the cost of the project.

As talks go on,  those on both sides of the table know that they can work now – but the governor has – at his side– the possibility of requiring them to stay in special session to finish.


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