By Lisa Phu
Alaska Beacon 

Lawsuit challenges use of state funds at private or religious schools

 

February 8, 2023



The question is resurfacing, but this time in a lawsuit: Can families enrolled in a state-funded correspondence program use their allotment to pay for private school classes?

Last June, the Alaska Department of Education didn’t know the answer, so they asked the state’s attorney general’s office, which offered a response that drew some lines but left room for interpretation. Now, some Alaska families are suing the state with the hope of getting a definitive answer.

“It’s a constitutional issue,” said Tom Klaameyer, president of NEA-Alaska, a teachers union, which is supporting the lawsuit financially.

The Alaska Constitution says, “No money shall be paid from public funds for the direct benefit of any religious or other private educational institution.”

“We want to make sure all of the public money that is rightfully allocated to the public school system stays within the public school system in order to give our students the best chance to succeed possible,” Klaameyer said.

The complaint was filed last month in Superior Court in Anchorage. The four plaintiffs are parents or teachers from Anchorage, Craig and Fairbanks.

The lawsuit challenges state law, which allows families to purchase nonsectarian services and materials from a public, private or religious organization with what’s known as a correspondence student allotment.

The complaint said the statute “is being used to reimburse parents for thousands of dollars in private educational institution services using public funds thereby indirectly funding private education in violation … of the Alaska Constitution.”

School districts in Alaska can establish state-funded public correspondence schools for families who choose to homeschool their children. The terms correspondence school and homeschool are often synonymous and used interchangeably in Alaska.

The state funds correspondence program students at 90% of $5,930, the base amount the state pays per student to local school districts. Correspondence programs can offer a student funding allotment, which can be spent on educational-related needs of the student, like books, classes, school supplies, technology support, tutoring, music or activity lessons. Allotment rates vary from program to program.

Alaska has about 36 correspondence school programs in the state, according to the correspondence school directory on the Alaska Department of Education website.

Last June, the Alaska Beacon found at least one Alaska correspondence program that has been reimbursing families for non-religious private school classes for more than three years, and another that was planning to start doing so this current school year. The schools cited the statute as allowing for the practice.

The statute language was part of legislation which then-Sen. Mike Dunleavy sponsored in 2013. That same year, Dunleavy also sponsored Senate Joint Resolution 9, which aimed to amend the constitution by deleting the line: “No money shall be paid from public funds for the direct benefit of any religious or other private educational institution.”

“This statute collides with our constitution in a real substantive way that can’t really be mitigated,” said Scott Kendall, attorney at Anchorage law firm Cashion Gilmore & Lindemuth, who is representing the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

The lawsuit asks the court to declare the statute unconstitutional and to prohibit any current or future use of public funds to reimburse payments to private educational institutions in accordance with the statute.

It’s unclear how widespread the practice of correspondence schools reimbursing families for private school classes is. The Department of Education did not reply to questions on the issue.

Anchorage Christian Schools, which has a mission to “develop Christ-centered world changers,” encourages families to offset the rising costs of private education by enrolling in a state-funded correspondence program.

Anchorage Christian Schools Vice President of Education Calvin Hoffman said in a recent YouTube video that “the baseline tuition rate will increase by 5% for the 2023-2024 academic year.” The private school’s website lists 2023-2024 tuition rates for kindergarten through fifth grade as $8,395 and for sixth through 12th grades as $9,275.

“If you enroll in one of the approved correspondence programs — Family Partnership, Mat-Su Central, Denali Peak or Raven — you will be eligible for reimbursement from your correspondence program for courses” taken at Anchorage Christian, Hoffman said in the video. “This opportunity could help reduce the out-of-pocket costs to you by almost 50%.”

Kenai Classical, another private school, promotes the same thing on its website’s tuition page. If a family self-pays, the 2022-2023 tuition is $8,800. If a family co-enrolls with the Alaska correspondence programs Connections or Interior Distance Education of Alaska (IDEA), tuition could go down to about $6,200, according to its website.

Last July, the attorney general’s office offered a written opinion on the issue, saying that public money can be spent for homeschool students to attend one or two classes in a private school, but can’t be used for most of a student’s private school tuition.

The 19-page opinion said that it’s sometimes legal to use public funds for private school classes through the state’s correspondence allotment program.

“But the more it looks like you’re just trying to send your kid to private school and get subsidized by the state, I think that’s when you start getting into unconstitutional territory,” the legal opinion said.

 

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