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Ruling on use of public funds for private, religious education expenses leads to mixed reviews by lawmakers

JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) – The Senate and House majorities had mixed responses Tuesday on a ruling by an Anchorage Superior Court judge striking down an Alaska law that allows parents of homeschooled students to use public dollars for private education purposes, ruling it is unconstitutional.

Senate Majority members echoed the case judge, saying the Alaska Constitution clearly states that public funds cannot be used for private or religious purposes, and a legislative fix may be needed to make sure homeschooled students enrolled in a correspondence program are using their reimbursements for education expenses correctly.

“There may have to be some either statutory or regulatory changes that are made to tighten up how we do allotments and to put some more sideboards on the whole process of how correspondence schools are used, but I think for the vast majority of Alaskans who homeschool their kids, there will probably be a small impact,” Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, said.

But some House Majority members referred to the judge’s decision as an “overreach,” saying individuals should have a say on how their education dollars are spent.

Some lawmakers believe that families are already being reimbursed for money they choose to spend at religious and private institutions.

“Would I be open to saying, ‘Okay, that the dollars can follow the child and be used in a faith-based school, but maybe not pay for that bible study class?’ I think that’s a good compromise,” Rep. Jamie Allard, R-Eagle River, said. “But I’m someone that believes that the taxpayer dollars should follow the child, and the parent of that child should be able to use that money as they want to educate their child.”

House Speaker Cathy Tilton, R-Wasilla, said the Alaska House Majority is working with Gov. Mike Dunleavy and developing a legislative response to the “very concerning situation.”

“The ongoing education of these 22,000 Alaska students is of paramount importance,” she wrote in a social media post.

In a letter sent out to school districts, State Education Commissioner Deena Bishop said she does not believe this school year will be impacted by the court’s decision and advised districts to continue their correspondence programs.

Dunleavy’s Administration is seeking a stay of the court’s decision, and review by the state Supreme Court.

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