Dunleavy says correspondence school decision will have broad impacts. But will it?

Gov. Mike Dunleavy speaks at a news conference in the Atwood Building in Anchorage alongside Alaska Attorney General Treg Taylor on April 18, 2024. (Eric Stone/Alaska Public Media)

In a 17th-floor conference room with a dominating view of downtown Anchorage, Alaska Attorney General Treg Taylor laid out what he sees as the impact of a recent court ruling that threw out two laws underpinning the state’s homeschool system.

“In light of the vague broad nature of the court’s reasoning, it is very difficult to determine what type of program would actually be permitted under this decision,” Taylor told reporters on Wednesday. “In fact, it draws into question spending that has taken place in public schools for decades,” including public schools’ textbook purchases, cafeteria contracts and music lessons, he said.

One of the laws Anchorage Superior Court judge Adolf Zeman found unconstitutional creates the framework for homeschool curriculum called individual learning plans. The other statute provides cash payments known as “allotments” to homeschool parents, who use them for things like textbooks and materials. 

Plaintiffs told the judge that parents were using their allotments on private school classes. They argued that’s a violation of the Alaska Constitution, which forbids using public money “for the direct benefit of any religious or other private educational institution.”

Taylor and Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy say they’re planning to appeal the ruling on an expedited basis to the Alaska Supreme Court. 

And Dunleavy said the ruling, if it stands, will have far-reaching consequences.

“Part of the interpretation of the ruling that just occurred is that the homeschooling correspondence laws are thrown out. In other words, the programs are gone, potentially,” Dunleavy said.

Others say it’s not so clear.

“That is one million percent false,” said Scott Kendall, an attorney representing the four plaintiffs who challenged the correspondence school allotment program after noting an uptick in private schools advertising that parents could pay tuition with the state-funded allotments.

Kendall said he was frustrated watching the governor’s news conference.

“They kept repeating, ‘The judge said correspondence schools are unconstitutional. We can’t have this anymore.’ And that is fundamentally incorrect,” Kendall said. “The judge said, ‘You have constructed the correspondence school statute in a way that’s blatantly unconstitutional. I can’t fix it. I’m not a legislator. I’m the court. The Legislature can fix it.'”

And that’s basically what the judge said in the final words of his ruling: “If the legislature believes these expenditures are necessary—then it is up to them to craft constitutional legislation to serve that purpose—that is not this Court’s role.”

Sen. Löki Tobin, D-Anchorage and chair of the Senate Education Committee, said correspondence schools existed before the 2014 law that Judge Zeman’s ruling invalidates. 

“The rest of the authorizing regulation continues to exist even without those particular statutes,” Tobin said in a video on social media. “There may need to be some propagation of emergency regulation or there may need to be some tweaks to some of our regulation, but we still have the ability to continue to operate correspondence programs for our homeschool parents.”

Dunleavy, on the other hand, argues a favorable court decision or constitutional amendment is necessary to make sure the correspondence program continues.

The House Judiciary Committee chaired by Republican Rep.  Sarah Vance of Homer came out with their own proposed solution on Thursday: a constitutional amendment that would remove the language about private and religious schools. 

The measure would need a two-thirds majority in the House and Senate to advance to a public vote, though it’s not clear that even a simple majority of the House would support it. And Senate leaders say they don’t support spending on private or religious school classes.

The judge’s decision is likely to be put on hold at least through the end of June, and perhaps longer. An appeal could take months or years to resolve.

Eric Stone covers state government, tracking the Alaska Legislature, state policy and its impact on all Alaskans. Reach him at estone@alaskapublic.org.

Previous articleMurkowski and Sullivan rail at federal moves to block Ambler Road and preserve parts of NPR-A
Next articleAlaska News Nightly: Thursday, April 18, 2024