Alaska Judge Says Correspondence School Reimbursements Are Unconstitutional

by State Brief

A correspondence school program in Alaska could be in jeopardy after a judge ruled its reimbursement benefits are unconstitutional.

The ruling reflects the growing tension between public education defenders and school choice advocates. 

The program reimburses parents of enrolled children for education-related expenses. Approximately 20,000 students will be impacted by Superior Court Judge Adolf Zeman’s ruling. 

The correspondence program allows students to homeschool through their local public school district and was championed as an alternative to traditional school.

In January 2023, four parents and teachers sued the state over the reimbursement program. The plaintiffs argued permitting parents to buy “nonsectarian services and materials from a public, private, or religious organization” with the allotment equates to indirectly funding private education.  

The complaint argued that the Alaska Consitution states that “no money shall be paid from public funds for the direct benefit of any religious or other private educational institution.”

“It’s a constitutional issue,” Tom Klaameyer, the president of the National Education Association-Alaska which helped cover the cost of the lawsuit, told the Alaska Beacon. “We want to make sure all of the public money that is rightfully allocated to the public school system stays within the public school system in order to give our students the best chance to succeed possible.”

The reimbursement program is part of Alaska Statute 14. Districts and departments that offer a correspondence option must provide an “individual learning plan” with grade-appropriate standards for each enrolled student that this created through collaboration between their parents and a certified teacher. Annual allotments can be offered through the district or department “for the purpose of meeting instructional expenses for the student.” The allotment cannot be used to “pay for services provided to a student by a family member” such as a parent, grandparent, guardian, stepsibling, aunt or uncle. 

Correspondence students are funded at 90% of the $5,930 base amount allotted per student by the state. Exact allotments vary by district. In total, there are 36 correspondence programs offered in the state. 

“This Court echoes the State’s concerns regarding how organizations are characterized and the ‘gray area spending,’ and finds that it is not possible to sever certain provisions [that] create a reasonable narrowing construction,” wrote Judge Zeman in his ruling. “As a result, this Court finds that there is no workable way to construe the statutes to allow only constitutional spending and AS.14.03.300-.310 must be struck down as unconstitutional in their entirety.”

Accommodation programs offered through a state’s public school system have become school choice battlegrounds in recent years.

Advocates for parental involvement and educational freedom celebrated in June of 2022 when the United States Supreme Court ruled Maine could not exclude religious schools from its tuition assistance program. The program was created to solve a problem created by Maine’s rural terrain – mainly, that more than half of its school districts did not have a public high school. Families of an impacted student could be given the cost of public school tuition, $11,000, to send their high school student to a private school.

The nation’s highest court found that by denying families the right to use the money to enroll their children in religious schools, Maine was infringing on religious freedom. The court also suggested that Maine could opt to set up a state-run boarding school, build more high schools, or offer a remote learning option.

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