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Alaska parents and legislators scramble for answers after judge rules homeschool allotments are unconstitutional

By Iris Samuels and Sean Maguire, Iris Samuels and Sean Maguire, Anchorage Daily News
Published: April 22, 2024, 6:00am

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Thousands of Alaska students face uncertainty about their education after a court decision issued late Friday upended the state’s long-standing correspondence schools.

Correspondence programs — which allow Alaska students to be homeschooled under the supervision of public school teachers and using public funds — have been a part of Alaska’s education system for decades.

But Anchorage Superior Court Judge Adolf Zeman ruled Friday that key statutes governing the correspondence programs violate a constitutional prohibition on the use of public funds for private or religious institutions.

Zeman, who was appointed to the bench in 2020 by Gov. Mike Dunleavy, struck down as unconstitutional two statutes that were originally proposed by Dunleavy when he was a state senator in 2013.

Enacted a decade ago, the statutes allowed parents to receive thousands of dollars per year and use that funding for their children’s education with few limitations, including paying private and religious vendors. Increasingly, the money — up to $4,500 per student — has been used directly to cover tuition at private schools.

Zeman struck down those statues in their entirety, leaving lawmakers, school administrators, parents and students to wonder: what is the future of Alaska’s correspondence programs?

In a social media post on Saturday, Dunleavy said Zeman’s ruling could mean “much if not all the correspondence homeschool education that we do in Alaska may be unconstitutional.” He said his administration planned to request a stay — meaning a temporary pause in the implementation of the decision — and file an appeal to the Alaska Supreme Court. However, the Department of Law did not indicate that the court filings had been submitted on Monday, nor supply a copy of them.

“To say this would be disruptive would be an understatement. This disruption, coupled with the fact that we and many Alaskans believe this ruling is flawed, leads us to ask for a stay and quick resolution with our Supreme Court,” Dunleavy wrote.

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The ruling came in a case filed by Alaska parents and teachers, and funded by NEA-Alaska, the largest teacher union in the state. On Monday, the plaintiffs asked the court to stay the effects of the judge’s order until the end of June, giving students time to finish the school year as planned and giving lawmakers time to consider whether to implement new legislation that would allow correspondence programs to continue operating in some capacity.

Tom Klaameyer, president of NEA-Alaska, said Monday that the union supported the short-term stay, adding he was “surprised at how broad the ruling was” but pleased by the court striking down what he called “a backdoor voucher program.”

“It is unconventional for prevailing parties to seek a stay of ruling in which they prevailed,” wrote attorney Scott Kendall, representing the plaintiffs, in a court filing. “However, plaintiffs do not wish to cause any undue hardship or disruption resulting from the timing of the order.”

The plaintiffs said they would oppose an attempt to delay the implementation of the decision beyond the end of the current fiscal year, which could be requested by the state or by a group of parents who intervened in the case.

“Now that these statutes are known to be defective, allowing additional unconstitutional spending to occur under them beyond June 30, 2024 would compound those violations and continue unlawful expenditures of public funds in amounts in the millions,” Kendall wrote in the filing.

Education Commissioner Deena Bishop wrote in a letter to district superintendents on Monday that the department intends “to take every action possible to protect this public school option for all correspondence students currently enrolled in the state.”

Under existing state law, districts are allotted 90% of the Base Student Allocation, or around $5,360, for every student enrolled in a correspondence program. A certain percentage of that determined by the program — typically 50% or more — is then allotted for students directly to spend on educational expenses as they see fit. The remainder is used to cover the operational costs of the program, including paying teachers and staff.

Families immediately wondered not only whether they could continue to spend their cash allotments, but whether their programs could continue to operate as they had known them. The statutes struck down by the court also included a framework known as Individual Learning Plans, or ILPs, used by every correspondence program to define a student’s course of study.

Bishop said the state would seek to maintain the status quo “until the Alaska Supreme Court has had a full opportunity to review this case.” If the case is appealed to the Supreme Court, the court could issue an expedited decision within weeks. But a full decision timeline could take months or longer.

“It is possible the Superior Court order could become effective before the Alaska Supreme Court fully reviews the case,” Bishop wrote to superintendents, adding that districts should consult with their attorneys.

In the Matansuka-Susitna Borough School District, where about 18% of students are enrolled in correspondence programs, Assistant Superintendent Katherine Gardner said the district is working with an attorney and the state to learn how the decision impacts its operations.

Jason Johnson, superintendent of the Galena City School District, which houses IDEA, a correspondence program with more than 7,000 students statewide, said in a letter on Monday to the families of students that “IDEA remains confident in Alaska’s support for the homeschooling model.”

“Expect to continue to rely on our team to support you as we continue partnering in the education of your child,” Johnson wrote to parents.

‘Use of public funds’

Jenn Griffis, a parent of three children enrolled in IDEA, said she has questions about the ruling’s impact on correspondence programs “beyond just the allotment.”

Griffis’ children’s allotments go to purchasing things like math curricula, writing courses, literature courses, piano lessons and field trips, she said. All the curricula her children use are on a list approved by IDEA.

“The idea of utilizing these funds to pay for private school tuition did not even cross my mind,” said Griffis. “I always viewed this as a use of public funds.”

She said she was not considering sending her children to a brick-and-mortar public school as an alternative. “But I have a strong sense that there are families that are definitely looking at weighing those options,” she said.

Dean O’Dell, Director of IDEA, said by email that around 2.9% of IDEA’s students take one or more private school classes, “all of which meet the criteria of being fully non-sectarian in both materials and instruction.”

Rep. Justin Ruffridge, a Soldotna Republican who co-chairs the House Education Committee, is one of many lawmakers who have enrolled their children in correspondence programs.

His two kids currently attend a private Christian school in Kenai. They are also enrolled in a correspondence program. Ruffridge said he does not use the allotment to cover tuition costs, but he uses it to pay for his son’s music lessons and his daughter’s dance lessons.

Rep. Will Stapp, a Fairbanks Republican, also said he uses an allotment through IDEA to cover the cost of dance lessons for his 6-year-old daughter. Rep. Sarah Vance, a Homer Republican, said she also has used correspondence allotments to cover the cost of dance and music lessons for her children — three of whom are currently enrolled in correspondence programs.

“I think the majority of correspondence programs use those allotments well and constitutionally for things that are not religious or private institutions,” said Ruffridge. He added there were “some concerning components” that “probably should be addressed.”

“If you’re using your homeschool allotment to pay for private tuition, that’s not the intent of that allotment money,” he said.

House Speaker Cathy Tilton, a Wasilla Republican, said that addressing the uncertainty created by the court ruling would be “a top priority” for the House Majority. Fewer than five weeks remain in the current legislative session.

The Alaska Policy Forum, a conservative group formerly directed by Bethany Marcum — who previously worked as Dunleavy’s legislative aide — has published a list of correspondence programs that can be used to get tuition reimbursement at private schools. In 2022, the list included seven correspondence programs that collectively partnered with 11 private schools.

This year, the list numbers 10 correspondence programs. The Raven Homeschool program can be used to get $2,700 in tuition covered at “all private schools,” according to the webpage. The Anchorage Family Partnership school can be used to get up to $4,500 reimbursed at eight listed private schools.

Marcum, who is now state director of Americans for Prosperity Alaska, said in an interview Monday that she was disappointed by the court decision. She hoped that the Legislature would consider a constitutional amendment that clarifies the prohibition on “direct benefits” to private and religious educational institutions. She also wanted clarity around the meaning of “private educational institution” as it appears in the constitution, and pointed to instances where private education institutions were getting public funds prior to the 2014 law change.

Anchorage School District spokesman Corey Young declined to respond to questions on the amount of district funds that have been used to subsidize private school tuition. Under the state statute that was struck down by the judge, the district was required to record all expenditures of state funds by correspondence students within the district, and audit those expenses regularly.

In a note to families of the roughly 2,000 correspondence students in Anchorage, the district wrote it “will work to make sure there is no disruption to students’ educational needs.”

Sen. Jesse Kiehl, a Juneau Democrat who also enrolled his children in correspondence programs, said that before the 2014 change in law that incorporated the now-unconstitutional statutes, correspondence programs still provided students an annual allotment that could be used for things like a laptop or curriculum, but there was greater oversight from the district, and many more limitations on the kinds of permissible expenses.

“There were limits. And the 2014 law struck down — forbid — the limits,” said Kiehl. However, he said the court decision did not spell the end of correspondence programs, even without new legislative action.

“Worst case scenario, they could go back to the way it was done before the 2014 law,” said Kiehl. That would mean correspondence students could carry on purchasing curriculum from approved vendors, as long as they fall within the confines of the constitutional prohibition on the use of public funds at private or religious institutions.

Kiehl said that a legislative fix to correspondence school funding could also be packaged with other education-related priorities, including an increase for public education overall. Last month, Dunleavy vetoed an education funding package that included a $175 million funding boost for public schools, and lawmakers failed by one vote to override the veto.

Members of the House minority said Monday that the court decision should refocus lawmakers — whose attention has been on the budget and other issues — on education.

“In the wake of Friday’s decision and the many crises that continue to face our schools, the legislature must quickly act to provide adequate funding for our schools, reinstate a fair and competitive retirement for our educators, and provide certainty for students in correspondence programs,” said Minority Leader Rep. Calvin Schrage, an Anchorage independent.

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