- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 5, 2014

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) - Members of the state House Education Committee raised concerns on Wednesday that Alaska could end up with more school districts if charter schools are authorized by entities other than local school boards.

The discussion came as the panel considered a bill sponsored by Rep. Lynn Gattis, R-Wasilla, that would grant chartering authority to government agencies, education-related nonprofits, and accredited post-secondary institutions. Currently, the authority rests with local school districts.

Gattis told the committee, which she chairs, that her intent was to debate aspects of the bill and identify elements that could be incorporated into Gov. Sean Parnell’s omnibus education bill, also before the committee.

Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, said Gattis‘ bill could create new school districts.

“We are at a fundamental stage of creating new school districts and new funding,” Seaton said.

If charter schools are authorized by entities other than local school boards, funding would have to be provided directly by the state, he said, meaning new school districts would be created.

Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, R-Anchorage, asked if a school district could authorize a charter school within a different school district under both bills. She said the Matanuska-Susitna School District currently operates a charter school at Eagle River within the Anchorage School District.

“There is no prohibition against this,” state education commissioner Mike Hanley said. It is also not prohibited in the two bills. But Hanley said it was unlikely for a district such as Fairbanks to authorize a charter school within the boundaries of a distant district such as Anchorage since Fairbanks students would be bused to it.

House Minority Leader Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage, testified on ways that he believed would strengthen charter schools, including converting neighborhood schools into charter schools.

“It would free up the list for entering charter schools and assist in the transportation needs of the schools,” Tuck said.

He told the committee that the state grant for charter school start-up and a law allowing charter schools to receive federal grant funds will expire in July 2015 and should be extended. Charter school start-up grants from the state amount to $500 per student.

“I am really glad there is someone on the other side of the aisle who is willing to join with us in helping with charter schools,” said Rep. Lora Reinbold, R-Eagle River.

Reinbold said several schools in Eagle River and the Muldoon section of Anchorage are only at 80 percent capacity.

Both bills remain in committee.

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