Legislators, governor wait for next court decision in lawsuit over correspondence funds

 

April 24, 2024



State legislators said they are unlikely to immediately act to address an Alaska Superior Court ruling that struck down key components of the state’s correspondence schools programs — and will wait for the Alaska Supreme Court to consider the issue.

Speaking to reporters on April 17, Gov. Mike Dunleavy said his administration is also waiting for the high court to take up the issue.

The ruling said the state’s cash payments to the parents of homeschooled students violates constitutional restrictions against spending state money on private and religious education services.

Attorneys on both sides of the case have requested that the courts put the ruling on hold, at least through the end of the school year.

Attorney General Treg Taylor told reporters on April 17 that the state will ask the Alaska Supreme Court for an expedited appeal, a request that could dramatically shorten the timeline for a final decision.

Soldotna Rep. Justin Ruffridge, co-chair of the House Education Committee, said lawmakers need more information before they take action, but that they should be considering solutions in the meantime.

Leaders of the Alaska Senate’s majority caucus said the state Department of Education could issue emergency regulations to give families immediate guidance, since the ruling could upturn their homeschooling process, particularly as parents make plans for the next school year.

State Education Commissioner Deena Bishop said school districts that run correspondence programs can continue to operate as they have.

Anchorage Sen. Bill Wielechowski said lawmakers are going to make sure homeschooling is still an option for parents, but they may make some changes to statute or regulation to prevent public money from going to private or religious groups.

“For those Alaskans who are homeschooling their kids and using public funds to purchase curriculum and books and maybe computers, I don’t think this is going to have a big impact at all when it all shakes out,” he said.

Dunleavy said his administration has already begun considering a range of solutions that “can range from everything from a constitutional amendment to a potential educational dividend, to a postsecondary type of scholarship to — and if the Supreme Court rules in a manner so it’s just a statute change or regulatory change — we can deal with it. But we won’t know until that happens, so we’re prepared to move quickly.”

As a result of the ruling, Fairbanks correspondence mother Chloe Peterson is so strongly considering putting both her daughters back in public school that she doesn’t have plans to buy homeschooling curriculum for next year.

“I’ll kind of see what happens because that’s the most expensive chunk. It would be a hard thing to swallow if my girls do want to try the public school system,” she said.

The state sends about $5,300 per student to school districts that operate correspondence programs. The districts, in turn, share the money with parents, called an allotment, ranging between a couple thousand dollars per school year to as much as $4,500.

More than 22,000 students across Alaska, about one in six of school-age students, are enrolled in correspondence programs offered by almost 30 school districts.

Parents can spend their allotment on education-related programs and materials of their choosing. The fact that some of that money is spent with private and religious organizations violates the state constitution, the court ruled.

Peterson said the learning plans and cash allotments make homeschooling possible for families. “I don’t think homeschoolers will be as successful without those resources.”

Her allotment money usually goes to curriculum and extracurricular resources she said she can’t get from her neighborhood school options. She said she is among a number of families that have pulled away from the public education system because of cuts to those options. “Elementary schools no longer have music and their art is really limited and their PE is limited.”

Legislators will have a chance to reconsider state law and even changes to the constitution after higher courts reach a final decision.

The two components of correspondence learning at stake are the cash allotments to families and individualized learning programs that districts help families develop to make sure their children are reaching educational benchmarks, like high school diplomas.

A constitutional amendment, which could allow public money to go to private and religious schools directly, would require a two-thirds majority — 13 votes in the Senate and 27 in the House — plus a successful statewide vote this fall.

Members of the Senate majority, speaking April 16, said they would not support a constitutional amendment, making that approach unlikely.

The Alaska Beacon is an independent, donor-funded news organization. Alaskabeacon.com.

 

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