In Alaska’s legal confusion over public funds for private schooling, Law Department says it’s under review

The Dimond Courthouse in Juneau on Feb. 27, 2017. (Photo by Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)
The Dimond Courthouse building, home to the Juneau offices of the Alaska Department of Law, on Feb. 27, 2017. (Photo by Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)

The state Department of Law is reviewing whether it’s legal for Alaska families to use public education funds they receive in the form of homeschooling allotments to pay for private school.

That’s according to reporting by the Alaska Beacon, which found that some correspondence schools have already been reimbursing families for private school classes under a law enacted in 2014.

But, as the Beacon also points out, the Alaska Constitution says the state can’t pay public funds to any religious or otherwise private educational institution.

So there is, at the very least, some confusion. And as the Law Department looks into the issue, the attorney general has recused himself because his wife is an outspoken proponent of the practice.

Alaska Beacon reporter Lisa Phu has been following this, and she says her reporting started with what she thought would be a simple question.

Listen:

The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Lisa Phu: So I started looking into this one question: Can families enrolled in a state funded correspondence program use their allotment to pay for private school classes? Is that legal? I figured the Department of Education and Early Development would be able to answer it. But they couldn’t. A spokesperson said the question was currently being reviewed by the Department of Law. And because of that, no one at the Department of Education could speak to it. So then I reached out to the Department of Law. I asked the same question, “Is this legal?” And I got the same reply. I was told it was under review, so no one could speak to it. Right now in our state, there are families with students enrolled in state-funded correspondence programs, or homeschools, who are using their allotment to pay for private school classes. So families are paying upfront for private school and then asking for a correspondence program for reimbursement.

Casey Grove: And I guess we use “correspondence school” and “homeschooling” kind of interchangeably here, right? But can you explain more about how correspondence schools work in Alaska? What does this allotment program look like?

Lisa Phu: Sure, yeah, you’re right, Casey. So in Alaska, correspondence school and homeschool are pretty much synonymous and are used interchangeably. School districts in Alaska can establish state-funded correspondence schools for families who choose to homeschool their children. They’re under the school district, so they’re public programs. Alaska has about 34 correspondence school programs. And here’s how the funding works: Correspondence or homeschool students are funded at 90% of the base amount the state pays per student. That’s also known as the BSA. Currently, the BSA is $5,930. So 90% of that. A correspondence school can pass that along to families through an allotment program. How much is passed along is different depending on the homeschool program. I talked to one program that will offer $3,000 for high schoolers and $2,600 for (kindergarten) through 8th grade starting this fall. I talked to another program that offers $4,000 per student. So this allotment, whatever the amount, can be used on the educational-related needs of the student, like books, classes, school supplies, technology support, tutoring, music or other activities.

Casey Grove: Lisa, you said there are students enrolled in state-funded homeschool programs who are using their allotment to pay for private school classes? How widespread is this practice?

Lisa Phu: So I don’t know the scope of it. In my reporting so far, I know Mat-Su Central, which is a homeschool program, part of the Mat-Su Borough School District, has been doing it for three years. And Family Partnership Charter School in Anchorage plans to start allowing it in the fall. Since the story ran, I’ve heard and read about other correspondence programs offering it.

Casey Grove: Gotcha. And that has to be secular, as in not religious, right? Why is that?

Lisa Phu: There’s a state statute that the correspondence schools point to, which they say allows this practice. The statute says a family may purchase nonsectarian or nonreligious services and materials from a public, private or religious organization with the student allotment. So the principals I talked to really emphasize the nonreligious requirement and say they have a vetting process to determine what private school courses are eligible for reimbursement. That statute language was originally part of Senate Bill 100, which then-Senator Mike Dunleavy — who’s now the governor, of course — sponsored in 2014. The bill went through a few committee hearings, but the language eventually passed that year as part of House Bill 278. So that’s the statute. But the Alaska Constitution has something to say on the issue as well. That’s Article VII, Section 1 of the Alaska Constitution. It says, “No money shall be paid from public funds for the direct benefit of any religious or other private educational institution.” So there appears to be confusion and further need for legal analysis. And the Department of Education isn’t adding any clarity to the confusion until it hears from the Department of Law.

Casey Grove: That legal analysis, or review, by the Law Department seems to be posing another issue, and that’s a potential conflict of interest, right? Explain that to me.

Lisa Phu: Yeah, I did another story about that. Alaska’s Attorney General Treg Taylor is married to Jodi Taylor, who’s board president of the Alaska Policy Forum. She is a major proponent of using public funds for private school education. And last month, she wrote publicly about her plan to seek up to $8,000 in reimbursements for their two kids attending an Anchorage private school. And, you know, in this Op Ed she also offers instructions for how families can use state-funded correspondence school allotments for classes at private schools. So Jodi Taylor is married to Alaska Attorney General Treg Taylor, so there was a concern that because his family may financially benefit, that he may have a conflict. Turns out, the Law Department thought the same thing. So after his wife’s Op Ed was published on multiple websites and blogs, the Attorney General recused himself from all matters involving correspondence school allotments, and then he delegated the review to Deputy Attorney General Cori Mills.

Casey Grove: Do we have any idea when this review will be completed?

Lisa Phu: Mills wasn’t able to give any more details of the review or a timeline of when an opinion could come out. She did say whenever an opinion is ready, it would be up to the Department of Education to provide any clarification to school districts.

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