A classroom is seen at Kenai Middle School on Friday, Jan. 8, 2021, in Kenai, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

A classroom is seen at Kenai Middle School on Friday, Jan. 8, 2021, in Kenai, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Can public funds be used for private school classes? Education department isn’t sure

‘Any effort to divert public funds to private schools is a blatantly unconstitutional act’ says opponent to the practice

By Lisa Phu

Alaska Beacon

The issue of whether public school funds can go toward private education is currently being reviewed by the Alaska Department of Law. Specifically, this question: Can families enrolled in a state-funded correspondence program use their allotment to pay for private school classes? A state statute paves the way for it, there are families in Alaska excited about the option, and at least one correspondence school in the state already allows it. But the Department of Education and Early Development is unclear if it’s allowed and opponents of the practice say it violates a provision of the Alaska Constitution.

Spokespeople for both the Department of Education and the Department of Law couldn’t answer the question and say the issue is currently under review. “The Department of Law will weigh in on it. But once I get an answer, we’ll be responsible for putting that information out,” said Don Enoch. Enoch is special education director for the State of Alaska and also works in correspondence, charter, early childhood & Head Start programs.

School districts in Alaska can establish state-funded public correspondence schools for families who choose to home-school their children. In Alaska, Don Enoch said the terms correspondence school and home-school are synonymous and are used interchangeably.

“There’s a very big, big interest in home-schooling your own children with your own curriculum and things like that here in Alaska and [the correspondence program] helps meet that need a little bit,” said Enoch.

Enoch says correspondence programs can offer a student funding allotment, which can be spent on educational-related needs of the student, like books, classes, 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’s no program that’s paying for private school programs,” Enoch said.

Mat-Su home-school program lays path to private school classes

Mat-Su Central is a home-school program within the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District. Principal Stacey McIntosh said her school currently reimburses families for secular classes at private schools. She said a state statute allows it.

According to Alaska Statute 14.03.310, families may purchase nonsectarian services and materials from a public, private, or religious organization with a correspondence student allotment provided.

McIntosh said her home-school program has been reimbursing families for non-religious private school classes for three years, since right before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

“We have a vetting process that we do with private schools,” McIntosh said. A certified teacher carefully goes through the curriculum of a private school “to make sure that it’s not religious, makes sure it’s a secular curriculum” and provides a list of classes for each private school that Mat-Su Central can reimburse for, she said.

Mat-Su Central offers reimbursement for classes at 12 private schools; most are in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough and a few are outside. For the allotment amount, the school offered $2,200 for grades kindergarten to 12. “But next year, we’re increasing our allotment to $3,000 for 9 through 12 and $2,600 for K through 8,” she said. If the student is on track proficiency-wise and the private school classes have passed the vetting process, McIntosh said a family could use their full allotment for private school classes.

“We don’t direct pay any private schools; we reimburse parents. Parents have to submit those [secular] receipts for us to reimburse,” McIntosh said.

Anchorage charter school plans to reimburse for private school classes in fall

Family Partnership Charter School, part of the Anchorage School District, offers an allotment 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 to use that allotment as reimbursement for private school classes starting next school year.

The Anchorage School District in December renewed the school’s charter, which prohibits the use of public funds for private school tuition but allows individual courses from private vendors. According to Family Partnership Charter School, this gives the option for a parent to pay up front for private school classes and — as long as it meets the requirements — Family Partnership will reimburse the families for classes.

Theresa Brooks, who lives in Eagle River, is excited about this option. She’s enrolled in a lottery to get her granddaughter into Family Partnership Charter School this fall. Her granddaughter, who Brooks adopted, is 11 years old and is going into sixth grade. She’s 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 her, and so I needed the lower student-teacher ratio. So I was willing to sacrifice my early retirement money, everything to make sure that she had a good education,” Brooks said over the phone on Thursday. She said the drive to St. Elizabeth Ann Seton can take up to 45 minutes each way. She paid $6,000 for this past school year and will pay $6,400 next school year.

She’s excited about the possibility of getting partially reimbursed for her granddaughter’s private school education.

“I think it’s a great opportunity to get a better education, a better student-teacher ratio. A 100% home-school is something I can’t do. I work too much for that,” Brooks said.

She said she learned about the option to get reimbursed for private school classes from a St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Zoom meeting that Jodi Taylor presented at. Jodi Taylor is a mom and the board president of the Alaska Policy Forum. Taylor wrote an op-ed last month that was published on various news websites and blogs. In it, she gives a step-by-step description for how families can use a correspondence school allotment for classes at private schools.

“I wrote it because I felt like parents and families would want to understand and know that information,” Taylor said. “A lot of parents post-COVID are very worried about learning loss and really wanting to take the bull by the horns in their children’s education, and this gives them an opportunity to do that.”

Taylor learned of the state statute that says correspondence student allotment may be used to purchase nonsectarian private school services and materials from Alaska Policy Forum Chief Executive Office Bethany Marcum, who worked as a legislative staffer for Gov. Mike Dunleavy when Dunleavy was a state senator. The statute language was originally part of Senate Bill 100, which Dunleavy sponsored in 2014. The bill went through a few committee hearings, but the language eventually passed as part of House Bill 278.

What the constitution says

Article VII, Section 1 of the Alaska Constitution says, “No money shall be paid from public funds for the direct benefit of any religious or other private educational institution.”

On the question of whether correspondence allocation can be used for private school classes, NEA-Alaska President Tom Klaameyer thinks the Alaska Constitution is “incredibly clear.” NEA-Alaska is an affiliate of National Education Association, a public education employee union.

“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 blatantly unconstitutional act that must be addressed,” Klaameyer wrote in an email.

Enoch said the Department of Education and Early Development doesn’t have clarity on the issue and he’s awaiting an opinion 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 cleanly and very clear, so there’s no confusion.”

Lisa Phu covers justice, education, and culture for the Alaska Beacon. Previously, she spent eight years as an award-winning journalist, reporting for the Juneau Empire, KTOO Public Media, KSTK, and Wrangell Sentinel.

This article originally appeared online at alaskabeacon.com. Alaska Beacon, an affiliate of States Newsroom, is an independent, nonpartisan news organization focused on connecting Alaskans to their state government.

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