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How private, religious schools continued receiving state reimbursement money for years

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) – Monday morning, parents and school district leaders across Alaska scrambled to understand the impact of an Anchorage Superior Court judge’s ruling last week calling the state’s practice of using public money to reimburse parents and guardians who send their children to private or religious schools under the state’s correspondence homeschooling program unconstitutional.

The urgency of what this will immediately mean comes as The Alaska Department of Education and Early Development reports during the 2023-2024 school year that there are more than 23,000 home-schooled students, roughly a 46% increase from the number reported for the 2018-2019 school year.

“In light of the recent court decision ruling unconstitutional Alaska’s statutes governing the correspondence school allotment program, the Anchorage School District is working to minimize impact on our correspondence families,” Anchorage School District Spokesperson Cory Allen Young wrote in a statement. “ASD was not a party to that case and had no forewarning of the ruling but intends to do whatever it can to protect our families who incurred costs under the now-invalidated statutes. ASD remains focused on our students and their educational needs.”

There are around 2,000 homeschooled children within the Anchorage School District.

Each district gets Base Student Allocation money based on the number of students in correspondence programs. The districts — or schools — determine how much of that goes to allotments. That amount varies by school.

The judge sided with plaintiffs who argued the money “is being used to reimburse parents for thousands of dollars in private educational institution services” in violation of the state constitution.

Last year, Alaska’s News Source began asking the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development what rules parents must follow to use the money from the state for their student.

“Homeschool allotments are provided by the school district; as such, the district sets the parameters for what can be spent by homeschool families,” Caroline Hamp wrote in an email in December of last year when Alaska’s News Source began questioning how the state keeps track of how home school students perform on statewide tests and how families are reimbursed.

Alaska’s News Source’s investigative team followed up by asking what kind of audits are done, if any, to check those expenditures of per pupil monies.

“Each year, districts are required to have an independent audit of their finances completed and send it to the department,” Hamp wrote at that time.

In a follow-up question, Alaska’s News Source asked if the audits indicate how those districts spend their BSA money, and would they include categories of parental reimbursements for education-related costs?

“Audits are a high-level summary that would not show the level of detail to identify parental reimbursements. Funding provided through the BSA is also commingled with other funding in the General Fund and expenditures would not be separately identifiable by funding source,” Hamp wrote.

The reimbursement debate began when, as a state senator, Gov. Mike Dunleavy proposed Senate Bill 100 in 2014.

“Focus on student proficiency is at the center of SB 100,” Dunleavy testified in March 2014 to the Senate Education Committee. “Most programs provide a student allotment to purchase education services or material to meet the student individual learning plan, ILP, under SB100 a parent may purchase services and material from private or religious organizations with the student allotment to meet the student ILP.”

He went on to testify, “We do not want to use public funds to be purchasing religion, we do want to be able to allow folks, school districts to, have on their vendor list organizations, again, many folks have heard me use the group Brigham Young or other like organizations Alaska Pacific University, etc. We would just like to include these educational institutions that have a religious background for the purpose of providing vendor courses to home school correspondents students.”

While in the legislature, Dunleavy also favored changing the state’s constitution.

Article VII, Section 1, of the Alaska Constitution states, “No money shall be paid from public funds for the direct benefit of any religious or other private educational institution.”

In 2013, Dunleavy wanted to amend the constitution by deleting that line.

In May 2022, Jodi Taylor, the Alaska Policy Forum Board Chair and the wife of Attorney General Treg Taylor, wrote on the Alaska Policy Forum website that she uses state money for her children to attend St. Elizabeth Ann Seton School, a private school in South Anchorage.

“They attend full time and are also enrolled in the Anchorage School District’s Family Partnership Charter School (FPCS),” Taylor wrote. “Next year, I will request that FPCS use funds in our correspondence study program annual student allotment to reimburse our family up to $4,000 for each of our children. Although annual tuition at SEAS is $6,000 for each of my children, because SEAS is an approved FPCS vendor, I will only personally have to pay the remaining balance of $2,000 per child, which I can pay in monthly installments of $222.22 for nine months or $166.67 per month over the full calendar year or all at once.

“SEAS is the best fit for my two younger children, my middle school child attends full-time public school while my high school child attends hybrid — both private and public; and there are other options that could be the best fit for any child in Alaska.”

In his ruling last week, Judge Adolf Zeman wrote that “parents have the right to determine how their children are educated.”

“However, the framers of our constitution and the subsequent case law clearly indicate that public funds are not to be spent on private educations,” Zeman wrote.

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