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Judge rules state’s correspondence homeschooling reimbursements unconstitutional

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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) – Calling the state’s practice of using public money to reimburse families who send their children to private or religious schools under the state’s correspondence homeschooling program unconstitutional, a Superior Court judge’s ruling Friday appeared likely to to impact thousands of Alaska students.

The 33-page ruling points to Article VII, Section 1 of the Alaska State Constitution which states:

“The legislature shall by general law establish and maintain a system of public schools open to all children of the State, and may provide for other public educational institutions. Schools and institutions so established shall be free from sectarian control. No money shall be paid from public funds for the direct benefit of any religious or other private educational institution.”

Those in favor of the decision say it’s clear that public money shouldn’t be used for private resources. Those against the decision are concerned it could take away education options and negatively impact homeschooling and correspondence schools.

State Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, said HB 278 — which he voted against in 2014 — created the foundation for current correspondence schools and their programs.

“That bill dramatically changed the way correspondent schools worked and how they can fund people who are homeschooling their children,” Sen. Wielechowski said.

HB 278 authorized school districts to provide an annual allotment to parents or guardians of a correspondence student for instructional expenses. Those allotments were used to purchase services or materials within the school for the course of study, aligned with state standards and other requirements. Families could receive as much as $4,500 per year per student with the allotment money outlined in HB 278.

“It’s a major decision,” Wielechowski said. “I think the court is a very well reasoned decision, but it’s a major major decision, probably the most significant education decision to come down in a couple decades and it will have ramifications for people within the state.”

Wielechowski said Alaskans have become used to the rules laid out in HB 278, and that he wants parents to have the right to homeschool their kids. He also said he hopes legislation will be crafted to allow that without overstepping the bounds of Alaska’s constitution.

Homeschool teacher and parent Brandy Pennington, who’s an intervenor in the case the ruling was issued in Friday, said she’s concerned for the many families who could be impacted by the ruling.

“I see this as just a temporary setback on the path to ensuring educational freedom,” Pennington said. “I think it’s important to restore choice and accountability to the parent as the primary educator as their children and I know how important these programs are to a lot of families.”

Pennington said it will cost some families thousands of dollars more to educate their children while taking away educational opportunities from some. She emphasized that the main benefits from private and religious schools by the ruling are reading, writing and math.

“The bottom line is this isn’t really what people think it is,” Pennington said. “It’s about your personal liberties being stripped away without people knowing it. It’s like thinly disguised.”

Pennington said she appreciates the arguments from the opposing council and said this isn’t a landmark decision and said she’s hopeful the Alaska Supreme Court will overturn the decision. She maintains her opinions are personal and are not representative of any board or commission she sits on.

Wielechowski said the state can ask the Superior Court to stay their decision which would cause nothing to change until the state Supreme Court looks at the case.

It’s unclear what the decision’s immediate impacts will be, which Wielechowski said could involve emergency legislation or state school action, especially if changes happen before the end of the current school year.



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