Correspondence school families say recent Alaska court ruling left them panicked, shocked and angry

A boy in a black striped T-shirt practices cello in an auditorium. with his sister and teacher.
Isaac Ward (right) with his sister Primose (left) and mother Miriam (center) at the UAA Fine Arts Building in Anchorage on Thursday, May 9, 2024. (Matt Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

Sixteen-year-old Isaac Ward sat on stage on a recent afternoon in the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Fine Arts Building and energetically pulled a bow across his cello strings. Ward is a correspondence student who plays cello, piano and, occasionally, the bass guitar. His mother Miriam decided to homeschool him just before he was about to start kindergarten, when the family was living in Oregon in 2011.

“I had friends who were doing some homeschooling. So I thought, well, let’s try this for a year. I was actually a little bit biased against homeschooling at the time,” Miriam Ward said. “But as we got into it and started working through some of the academic things, we really kind of hit a stride and I found community among friends who were doing it and saw that a lot of them were doing that for academic reasons as well.”

The Wards have been homeschooling using allotment funds since the family moved back to Alaska in 2021. The law has allowed families to spend up to $4,500 per child on homeschool curriculum, classes and activities since 2014. The Wards are one of thousands of families impacted by the recent Anchorage Superior Court decision that found correspondence allotments unconstitutional. The ruling has been put on hold until June 30 to allow students to finish the school year.

Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy appealed the decision to the Alaska Supreme Court, who agreed to hear the case over the summer. Lawmakers from both parties say they support allotments and are trying to craft a solution, though they’ve clashed over the details.

In the meantime, families are in limbo, unable to plan for next school year, just a few months away.

A boy in a black striped T-shirt practices cello in an auditorium.
Isaac Ward practices cello at the UAA Fine Arts Building in Anchorage on Thursday, Nov. 9, 2024. (Matt Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

Alaska Public Media asked homeschool families to tell us how the court decision impacts their lives and received a flood of responses.

Some families said that if correspondence allotments end, they may not be able to afford to follow through with buying a house or may have to change jobs. Many said that without allotments, they would be in a difficult financial situation, but almost all remained committed to homeschooling their children, no matter what the courts decide.

Meghan Nelson lives in Juneau and homeschools three of her four children. She said she panicked when she heard about the ruling. Nelson fears the impacts to low- and middle-income families who homeschool their children. She said many homeschool families, especially those whose children have disabilities, feel that homeschooling allows them to give their kids the individual attention they can’t get at a brick and mortar school with large class sizes. Like many families, Nelson plans to homeschool her children independently even without allotments.

“It was very shocking,” Nelson said. “For my family, and so many, so many families in this community, we use that allotment to support our kids’ educational journey, and having that removed so quickly and unexpectedly felt like having your legs kicked out from underneath you.”

Nelson said that her family would not be able to afford to enroll two of her children with special needs in extracurricular programs without the allotments.

“My ability to afford the extracurricular things that my kids engage in, the curriculum that they currently use that’s working for them, it’s not going to be there,” Nelson said. “I’m going to have to go with what I can afford, which is a vastly different set of things than what I get now.”

Arianna Martinez, who lives with her husband and five children in Sterling, said her family decided to leave their home in New Mexico five years ago and move to Alaska, in part because of the options for homeschool.

“One of the reasons is because of the freedom of homeschool we have here,” Martinez said. “Ever since we have moved here I’ve been able to pivot my lessons and spend more time on subjects that were harder for my son to grasp due to his disabilities.”

Martinez said that a brick and mortar school would not be feasible for her son with special needs, because he needs therapy during the school day.

Meghan Orona, a former homeschool student who now homeschools her six children in Delta Junction, doubts that the ruling will stand, and said it created more questions than answers.

“I am growing more concerned every day with how it’s playing out, but my initial [reaction] was not a huge amount of concern, but a little bit of anger,” Orona said. “It was kind of, to me, throw the baby out with the bathwater situation.”

Orona said she’s confident that the state will not jeopardize all of Alaska’s homeschool students, which make up about one in every six public school students.

Miriam Ward’s three children use correspondence allotments for music classes, math tutors and exercise at a rock climbing gym. They have never attended public school, and Ward said they were drawn back to Alaska from Oregon partially because of the way Alaska’s correspondence system works. Ward homeschools through the Interior Distance Education of Alaska correspondence school, run through the Galena City School District. Ward said she prefers spending money for her children’s schooling at local education institutions such as IDEA and UAA, because she feels it helps the public school system as a whole.

A boy in a black striped T-shirt practices cello in an auditorium.
Isaac Ward practices cello at the UAA Fine Arts Building in Anchorage on Thursday, Nov. 9, 2024. (Matt Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

“This thing is benefiting everybody, because it brings something directly into the economy immediately,” Ward said. “I get that allotments smell like vouchers, but I think it’s a little different. The way that it works out, it’s not enough money to pay for an entire program, and I don’t think it’s intended to be used that way. I think that the way that it generally works out for most people is enrichment and support.”

Ward will continue to homeschool her children even without allotments, but said she worries about families whose curriculum offerings would be significantly diminished without the extra funding. Even in the face of uncertainty, Ward is hopeful that lawmakers and the courts will find a solution in time for next school year.

a portrait of a man outside

Tim Rockey is the producer of Alaska News Nightly and covers education for Alaska Public Media. Reach him attrockey@alaskapublic.orgor 907-550-8487. Read more about Timhere

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