Families enrolled in state-funded homeschool programs in Alaska can use their student funding allotments to pay for some private school classes, according to an opinion released Monday by the state Department of Law.
That public money, however, cannot be used to pay full-time tuition at a private or religious school, says the 19-page opinion written by Deputy Attorney General Cori Mills.
“The more it looks like you’re just trying to send your kid to private school and get subsidized by the state, I think, I think that’s when you start getting into unconstitutional territory,” Mills said at a news conference Monday.
There are more than two dozen public, state-funded correspondence schools for homeschool families in Alaska. The state Legislature first allowed the programs to give allotments of public money to enrolled families in 2014. Families can spend the money on books, school supplies, tutoring and classes.
Mills said the goal of student funding allotments is to supplement public education, not to replace it with private school. For example, a homeschool student whose district doesn’t offer Latin might take it at a private school.
Her opinion outlines what’s likely constitutional and likely unconstitutional.
“Things like private tutoring, public or private college courses, extracurricular classes or sports, certain educational materials that meet the requirements of the allotment program, are all very likely constitutional, even if they may provide an incidental benefit to private school,” she said.
Mills also emphasized that there’s a lot of gray area when it comes to the constitutionality of allotment spending. She said it’s up to individual school districts to work with the state Department of Education and Early Development when questions arise.
“Constitutional questions are often murky,” she said. “We’re trying to provide at least the absolute yeses and absolutely nos, and then what framework can you work within in those gray areas. Ultimately we just want to help school districts and the department best implement this program.”
Opponents have argued that the allotment program violates part of the state constitution that says public funds cannot directly benefit a religious or other private educational institution. But Mills said, on its face, the allotment program isn’t unconstitutional.
Mills said several factors prompted the law department to review the allotment program this summer. One was the Supreme Court’s review of two education funding cases, although she said the recent rulings don’t impact Alaska’s allotment program. Another was an op-ed written by Jodi Taylor, wife of Attorney General Treg Taylor, in support of using allotment funds for private school classes. Attorney General Taylor recused himself from reviewing the program.