Alaska correspondence students to ‘finish out the year’ while officials grapple with ruling

By: James Brooks and Claire Stremple, Alaska Beacon

Deena Bishop, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development, speaks at a news conference Friday, March 15, 2024, with Gov. Mike Dunleavy. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

The Alaska Department of Education and Early Development is advising state school districts to continue business as usual after a legal decision struck down the core of the state’s correspondence school programs

“I will be sending out a letter today to all school districts with some direction,” said Deena Bishop, the agency’s commissioner, on Monday afternoon. “At this point, we’d like them to continue to finish out the year as they’ve been working.”

The letter comes as attorneys on both sides of the legal decision petition an Anchorage Superior Court judge to put his decision on hold while the case is appealed.

Addressed to superintendents statewide, the letter says, “At this time the court order is not a final judgment, which means it does not have any immediate impact to school districts with correspondence study programs. … the Department of Law will be filing appropriate applications with the Superior Court and, if necessary, the Alaska Supreme Court to hopefully keep the status quo in place with no change in the correspondence study program until the Alaska Supreme Court has had a full opportunity to review this case.”

More than one in six of Alaska’s 131,264 K-12 students are in a correspondence program.

Those programs are typically used by homeschooled students, but since Gov. Mike Dunleavy became governor in 2018, they’ve also become popular among the families of private-school students because the state has ruled that a financial allotment distributed to correspondence students can be used for private-school tuition.

On Friday, Judge Adolf Zeman ruled that the allotment system violates a section of the state constitution that prohibits public money being spent “for the direct benefit of any religious or other private educational institution.”

Zeman struck down the allotment program and a connected law requiring correspondence programs to write individual education plans for their students.

The full implications of that decision remained unclear on Monday, but Dunleavy’s office said in an internal white paper shared with state legislators that “if this ruling were to stand, there would be no public correspondence school options in Alaska, and families currently in correspondence school would be forced to pay for what is otherwise public schooling out of their own pockets.”

Independently, some legislators reached the same conclusions as the governor’s office. 

“My understanding is the page is wiped and there’s not a state correspondence program at all,” said Rep. Rebecca Himschoot, I-Sitka, “so I’m very motivated to find a solution. … We have a lot of families in limbo.”

Scott Kendall is the attorney representing plaintiffs in the lawsuit that overturned the correspondence program. By text message, he said they are asking Zeman for a stay — a pause — in the decision through the end of the state fiscal year, June 30.

Institute for Justice, a libertarian public-interest law firm, represented parents who intervened in the case to support the state’s defense. 

Kirby West, an attorney with the firm, said it would appeal Friday’s decision to the Alaska Supreme Court and would request a stay of Zeman’s decision while the appeal proceeds. 

“We decided not to do an expedited appeal because we want to be sure the court has a full opportunity to consider our arguments,” he said.

The Alaska Department of Law said it also will appeal the ruling, but officials with the agency did not immediately provide details about the state’s action.