By James Brooks
Alaska Beacon 

Senate wants to fix correspondence school funding dilemma; House divided

 


As the state Senate is launching a legislative push intended to quickly fix a looming problem with correspondence school programs in Alaska, the House of Representatives signaled that it is so split that it may need more than a year to act on the issue.

House lawmakers spent more than three hours on April 24 debating an informal declaration asking Anchorage Superior Court Judge Adolf Zeman to postpone until June 2025 the implementation of a court ruling that struck down two laws which govern programs used by more than 22,000 Alaska correspondence students.

The laws allowed parents of homeschooled children to spend some of their allotment of state money distributed through correspondence schools on programs and materials provided by private and religious organizations. The judge ruled that such spending violates the Alaska Constitution.

The House voted 20-18 to pass the “Sense of the House” declaration, which has no force of law or standing in court. All 20 yes votes came from Republicans.

“It’s clear it’s not a sense of the House. The House is fundamentally divided,” said Ketchikan Rep. Dan Ortiz.

This year’s regular legislative session is scheduled to end May 15, and members of the House said they don’t think they can address the state law governing correspondence school funding in that time.

“It should be clear to the judiciary that we are divided and we do not have our collective act together … and we need more time,” said Nikiski Rep. Ben Carpenter.

Members of the Senate’s majority caucus believe they can act quickly. Anchorage Sen. Löki Tobin said she has cleared the schedule of the Senate Education Committee to take up a bill that would allow the state’s correspondence programs to continue running without the law that was struck down.

“We anticipate holding as many hearings as we need to have that piece of legislation thoroughly vetted and moved along in the process,” Tobin said.

Since Alaska’s territorial days, Alaska has run correspondence programs that allow students in remote places to receive a public education. In recent decades, those programs — run by local school districts for either statewide or local use — have also become popular with parents who homeschool their children.

In 2016, following the enactment of a law written by then-Sen. Mike Dunleavy, the state revised the “allotment program” that distributes money to parents whose children are enrolled in correspondence programs. That money can be used for curriculum and equipment.

After Dunleavy became governor, the Alaska Department of Law issued a legal memo declaring that the Dunleavy-written law allows parents to use the state allotments for “one or two” classes at private and religious schools.

Jodi Taylor, the wife of Attorney General Treg Taylor, published a widely read column explaining how she used the program to pay for tuition at her children’s religious school.

It isn’t clear how many of the state’s estimated 5,000 private-school students followed suit, but the state spends almost $120 million per year on correspondence programs, including the allotment program. After the state’s legal opinion was published, the state’s largest teachers’ union backed a lawsuit alleging that the allotments represented an unconstitutional use of public education funds.

More than a year later, Zeman issued an order siding with plaintiffs and concluding that there was no constitutional way to implement the Dunleavy-written law from a decade ago.

The state is appealing Zeman’s decision to the Alaska Supreme Court and has asked that it be taken up under the court’s fast-track process. In the meantime, the state has asked Zeman to postpone the effective date of his ruling, fearing an instant stop to ongoing correspondence programs.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit have also asked Zeman to stay his ruling, but only until June 30, 2024, the end of this fiscal year. A longer stay, plaintiffs’ attorneys have said, runs the risk of the state continuing to spend money on an unconstitutional program.

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

 

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