Whether public school funds can go to private education is currently under review by the Alaska Department of Law. Specifically, this question: Can families enrolled in a publicly funded correspondence program use their stipend to pay for tuition at a private school?
A state law paves the way for this, there are families in Alaska thrilled with this option, and at least one correspondence school in the state already allows it. But the state Department of Education and Early Childhood Development doesn’t know if it’s allowed, and opponents of the practice say it violates a provision of the Alaska Constitution.
Spokespersons for the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Law could not answer the question and said the matter was currently under review. “The Department of Justice will weigh in on this. But once I have an answer, we will be responsible for disseminating this information,” Don Enoch said. Enoch is the Director of Special Education for the State of Alaska and also works in correspondence, charter, early childhood, and Head Start programs.
School districts in Alaska can create state-funded public correspondence schools for families who choose to homeschool their children. In Alaska, Enoch said the terms correspondence school and homeschooling are synonymous and are used interchangeably.
“There’s a really big interest in homeschooling your own kids with your own curriculum and things like that here in Alaska and (the correspondence program) helps fulfill that need a bit,” Enoch said. .
Enoch says correspondence programs can offer a funding stipend to students, which can be spent on the student’s educational needs, such as books, tuition, school supplies, technology support, tutoring, music, or activity lessons. Correspondence program students are funded at 90% of $5,930, or 90% of the base amount the state pays per student. Alaska has about 34 correspondence school programs in the state.
“To my knowledge, there is no program that pays for private school programs,” Enoch said.
Mat-Su homeschooling program paves the way for private school classes
Mat-Su Central is a home-schooling program within the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District. Principal Stacey McIntosh said her school is currently reimbursing families for secular tuition at private schools. She said a state law allowed it.
According to Alaska Law 14.03.310, families may purchase non-sectarian services and materials from a public, private, or religious organization with a Correspondence Student Allowance provided.
McIntosh said its homeschooling program had been reimbursing families for tuition at non-religious private schools for three years, just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
“We have a verification process that we do with private schools,” McIntosh said. Certified teacher carefully scans private school curriculum ‘to make sure it’s not religious, makes sure it’s a secular curriculum’ and provides course list for each school private that Mat-Su Central can reimburse, she said.
Mat-Su Central offers tuition reimbursement at 12 private schools; most are within the Matanuska-Susitna borough and a few are outside. For the amount of the stipend, the school offered $2,200 for grades K-12. If the student is on track in terms of skills and the private school classes have passed the verification process, McIntosh said a family could use their entire private school class allowance.
“We don’t directly pay any private schools; we reimburse the parents. Parents must submit these (lay) receipts for us to reimburse,” McIntosh said.
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Anchorage charter school plans to reimburse private school lessons in the fall
Family Partnership Charter School, part of the Anchorage School District, provides a stipend of $4,000 for elementary school, $4,250 for middle school, and $4,500 for high school. The school plans to offer its families the option of using this stipend as reimbursement for private school tuition starting next school year.
The Anchorage School District in December renewed the school’s charter, which prohibits the use of public funds for tuition at private schools but allows individual tuition from private providers. According to Family Partnership Charter School, this gives the option for a parent to prepay for lessons at a private school and – as long as they meet the requirements – Family Partnership will reimburse families for the lessons.
Theresa Brooks, who lives in Eagle River, is thrilled with this option. She entered a lottery to get her granddaughter into Family Partnership Charter School this fall. Her granddaughter, whom Brooks adopted, is 11 and entering sixth grade. She has been going to St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, a private school in Anchorage, since first grade after Brooks noticed she was falling behind in public school kindergarten.
“I couldn’t really let that happen to him, so I needed a lower student-teacher ratio. So I was willing to sacrifice my early retirement money, anything to make sure she had a good education,” Brooks said over the phone Thursday. She said the trip to St. Elizabeth Ann Seton can take up to 45 minutes each way. She paid $6,000 for the last school year and will pay $6,400 next year.
She is excited about the possibility of being partially reimbursed for her granddaughter’s private education.
“I think it’s a great opportunity to get a better education, a better student-teacher ratio. 100% homeschooling is something I can’t do. I work too much for that,” Brooks said.
She said she learned about the option of getting private school tuition reimbursed at a St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Zoom meeting that Jodi Taylor presented to. Taylor is a mom and chair of the board of the Alaska Policy Forum. Taylor wrote an op-ed last month that was posted on various news websites and blogs. She describes step by step how families can use a correspondence school allowance for lessons in private schools.
“I wrote it because I felt like parents and families would want to understand and know this information,” Taylor said. “Many post-COVID parents are very worried about learning loss and really want to take the bull by the horns in raising their children, and this gives them the opportunity to do so.”
Taylor learned of the state law that states the Correspondence Student Award can be used to purchase nonsectarian private school services and materials from Alaska Policy Forum CEO Bethany Marcum, who worked as a legislative staffer for Governor Mike Dunleavy when he was a state senator. The wording of the law was originally part of Senate Bill 100, which Dunleavy sponsored in 2014. The bill went through a few committee hearings, but the wording eventually passed into the under House Bill 278.
what the constitution says
Article VII, Section 1 of the Alaska Constitution states, “No money shall be paid out of public funds for the direct benefit of any religious or other private educational institution.”
On whether the mail-order allowance can be used for private school classes, NEA-Alaska President Tom Klaameyer thinks the Alaska Constitution is “incredibly clear.” NEA-Alaska is affiliated with the National Education Association, a union of public education employees.
“As the largest public education organization in the state, NEA-Alaska supports the constitution and we believe that any effort to divert public funds to private schools is a patently unconstitutional act that must be addressed,” said wrote Klaameyer in an email.
Enoch said the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development had no clarity on the matter and was awaiting advice from the Department of Law. “We just need to have the right answer before we start answering it,” he said. “And I would like it to be spelled out very neatly and very clearly, so that there is no confusion.”
Originally published by the Alaska Beacon. an independent, nonpartisan news organization that covers the Alaska state government.