Court strikes down state money for homeschooled students

 

April 17, 2024



An Anchorage Superior Court judge has struck down an Alaska law that allows the state to allocate cash payments to parents of homeschooled students, ruling that it violates constitutional prohibitions against spending state money on religious or private education.

“This court finds that there is no workable way to construe the statutes to allow only constitutional spending,” wrote Judge Adolf Zeman, concluding that the entire law must be struck down.

The April 12 decision has major and immediate implications for the more than 22,000 students enrolled in state-approved correspondence programs used by homeschooled students.

For the past decade, state law has allowed families to receive thousands of dollars per year in reimbursements — paid for with public money — for education-related expenses of their choosing.

There are almost three dozen such programs in the state, many operated by local school districts. The Wrangell School District does not operate a correspondence program, but Wrangell homeschooled students may enroll in programs outside the district.

Scott Kendall, the attorney who represented plaintiffs suing the state, said he believes the changes will not disrupt correspondence programs, just the money.

“What is prevented here is this purchasing from outside vendors that have essentially contorted the correspondence school program into a shadow school voucher program,” he said.

“That shadow school voucher program that was in violation of the constitution, as of today, with the stroke of a pen, is dead,” Kendall said.

“This is going to become a hot-button legislative item,” said Soldotna Rep. Justin Ruffridge, co-chair of the House Education Committee. “I would imagine that would quickly become a No. 1 legislative priority.”

Anchorage Sen. Bill Wielechowski also expressed concern, adding, “It couldn’t have come in some ways at a worse time.” The Legislature has four weeks left before adjournment, with the state budget still unresolved.

“My hope is there is a stay (in the court ruling) until the school year’s out so that parents can get through the school year,” he said, adding he expects an appeal of the ruling. “Then we’ll see what the (Alaska) Supreme Court says and hopefully the Supreme Court takes it up quickly … and gives us some final guidance on this.”

The stakes for correspondence programs and public schools in general are high. Since a 2014 law, roughly 10% of Alaska school enrollment has shifted from school buildings to correspondence programs, with the pace of the shift accelerating over the past four years.

Alaska has operated correspondence programs for homeschooled students since before statehood, but only in the past decade have those programs started giving state cash allocations to families.

In 2013, then-Sen. Mike Dunleavy sponsored legislative language that allowed parents of correspondence program students to spend their share of state education money, labeled an allotment, on “nonsectarian services and materials from a public, private, or religious organization.”

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

As a state senator, Dunleavy attempted to amend that section of the constitution but failed, though his spending proposal became law the following year.

While the state began allowing parents to spend correspondence program money on nonreligious materials, those materials also could be purchased from public, private or religious organizations.

After Dunleavy became governor in 2018, the state expanded the ways those allotments could be used.

In 2022, several state-licensed homeschool programs began allowing participants to use their allotments to pay for classes at private and religious schools.

Jodi Taylor, the spouse of Attorney General Treg Taylor, wrote publicly that year about her plans to use correspondence allotments for private school tuition and wrote instructions to help other parents follow suit.

Two months later, Deputy Attorney General Cori Mills issued a legal opinion concluding that the practice did not violate the Alaska Constitution to pay for one or two classes, while saying that the money could not pay for most of a student’s private school tuition.

A group of teachers and parents filed suit against the state in January 2023, alleging that the state’s system of correspondence program allotments “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.”

Judge Zeman, examining the legislative history of the program, concluded that “the statutes were drafted with the express purpose of allowing purchases of private educational services with the public correspondence student allotments.”

“Parents have the right to determine how their children are educated,” Zeman wrote. “However, the framers of our constitution and the subsequent case law clearly indicate that public funds are not to be spent on private educations.”

Kendall stressed that the ruling does not affect parents retroactively.

“Really what was going on here was the reimbursement of state funds to pay for tuition at private schools. That was really, in a nutshell, what this case was all about,” he said.

Kendall hopes the Legislature acts quickly to ensure that correspondence programs can continue to operate, while prohibiting families from using funds to go toward private or religious organizations.

The state has yet to say whether it will appeal the April 12 court decision.

The Alaska Beacon is an independent, donor-funded news organization. Alaskabeacon.com. The Anchorage Daily News and Wrangell Sentinel contributed to this report.

 

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