Lawmakers to wait on Alaska Supreme Court as families reel in wake of correspondence ruling

By: Claire Stremple and James Brooks, Alaska Beacon

Danielle Brubaker shops for homeschool materials at the IDEA Homeschool Curriculum Fair in Anchorage on April 18, 2024. A court ruling struck down the part of Alaska law that allows correspondence school families to receive money for such purchases. (Photo by Claire Stremple/Alaska Beacon)

Over the last 26 years, Penelope Gold has used the state’s correspondence school program to homeschool six of her seven children. Most have graduated, but her youngest daughter is in fifth grade.

For all that time, Gold said she has gotten cash from the state to round out her kids’ education with things like sports, language classes and piano lessons.

“They’ve done all kinds of things that we wouldn’t have been able to afford without the allotment,” she said.

Through the district’s program in Fairbanks, Gold receives $2,700 per student per year for that kind of discretionary spending. This year, however, after a court ruling struck down key components of the state’s correspondence schools programs, including allotments and individualized learning plans, she is uncertain if her youngest daughter will be able to continue with the swim team.

She said she will stick with homeschool no matter what, but she is relieved she already purchased a used 6th grade curriculum for next year — it cost $1,000. The years to come will be harder.

“It will affect every aspect of our homeschooling. From what curriculum we use to how we’re able to do extracurriculars to whether or not we’re able to do outings and things like that, just because our budget would be that much tighter,” Gold said.

Alaska lawmakers said they are unlikely to immediately act to address an Anchorage Superior Court ruling that struck down key components of the state’s correspondence schools programs and will first wait for the Alaska Supreme Court to consider the issue.

Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Gov. Mike Dunleavy said his administration is also waiting for the high court to take up the issue.

The ruling said the state’s cash payments to the parents of homeschooled students violates constitutional restrictions against spending state money on private education.

A law that requires correspondence programs to create individual learning plans for students was also ruled unconstitutional.

Attorneys on both sides of the case have requested that the courts put the ruling on hold. Such holds, called stays, can take weeks to be granted.

Attorney General Treg Taylor told reporters on Wednesday that the state will ask the Alaska Supreme Court for an expedited appeal, a request that could dramatically shorten the timeline for a final decision.

Rep. Justin Ruffridge, R-Soldotna and co-chair of the House Education Committee, said lawmakers need more information before they take action, but that they should be considering solutions in the meantime.

“Before you make any decisions about whether or not you move forward legislatively, you really need to know the timeframe that you’re having to work in,” he said, adding that there is the potential for a long enough stay that lawmakers could revisit the issue during the next legislative session.

House Majority Leader Dan Saddler, R-Eagle River, said House lawmakers would wait to act until they know more about how that could affect the state’s court case.

“We don’t want to weigh in prematurely with any kind of legislative solution before we understand what may or may not protect the state’s interest here and the interest of the students and families,” he said.

Leaders of the Alaska Senate’s majority caucus said the state’s Department of Education and Early Development could issue emergency regulations to give families immediate guidance, since the ruling could upturn their homeschooling process.

DEED Commissioner Deena Bishop said emergency regulations are not coming until after a higher court ruling.

“Districts can continue on,” she said on Wednesday, adding that the department will address a final decision when it comes.

“We will be ready, but the issue is with the state and districts are not mentioned,” she said.

Changes to statute are more lasting than regulation changes and take time to develop and enact.

Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, said lawmakers are going to make sure homeschooling is still an option for parents, but they may make some changes to statute or regulation to prevent public money from going to private or religious groups.

“For those Alaskans who are homeschooling their kids and using public funds to purchase curriculum and books and maybe computers, I don’t think this is going to have a big impact at all when it all shakes out,” he said.

Talking to reporters on Wednesday, Dunleavy offered comments on the timeline for any state action.

“We are going to wait for the final decision, and then once that happens, we will have discussions and approach this in a manner that we think is conducive, that helps kids,” he said.

Though he’s not sure what the Supreme Court’s final decision will look like, “we think it’s going to look like the one we have now — the decision we have now,” he said.

With that in mind, Dunleavy said his administration has already begun considering a range of solutions that “can range from everything from a constitutional amendment to a potential educational dividend, to a postsecondary type of scholarship to — and if the Supreme Court rules in a manner so it’s just a statute change or regulatory change — we can deal with it. But we won’t know until that happens, so we’re prepared to move quickly.”

While the Supreme Court usually takes time to resolve cases, it can move quickly when warranted. In 2023, after a lawsuit challenged the eligibility of Rep.-elect Jennie Armstrong, D-Anchorage, the high court ruled on Armstrong’s qualifications less than a week after an Anchorage Superior Court judge gave a verdict.

In that case, as in other quick decisions, the high court issued a brief order at first, then a longer technical explanation weeks later.

But in the meantime, Rep. Jamie Allard, R-Eagle River and co-chair of the House Education Committee, said lawmakers should consider the families that use the program: “There is absolutely no doubt that families are stressed.

And so depending on how long the stay is, is where I believe our body as a majority will come forward and see what we can do and when we can do it.”

‘Make or break’ for some families

As a result of the ruling, Fairbanks correspondence mother Chloe Peterson is so strongly considering putting both her daughters back in public school that she doesn’t have plans to buy curriculum for next year.

“I’ll kind of see what happens because that’s the most expensive chunk. It would be a hard thing to swallow if my girls do want to try the public school system,” she said.

She said the learning plans and cash allotments make homeschooling possible for families.

“I don’t think homeschoolers will be as successful without those resources,” she said.

Her allotment money usually goes to curriculum and extracurricular resources she said she can’t get from her neighborhood school options. She said she is among a number of families that have pulled away from the public education system because of cuts to those options. “Elementary schools no longer have music and their art is really limited and their PE is limited.”

The ruling came just days before the largest homeschool event of the year, a curriculum fair put on by IDEA Homeschool, the state’s largest and longest-running homeschool program.

One of the event’s organizers, IDEA Homeschool administrator Carol Simpson said that left everybody scrambling for a few days.

“The timing was poor for us, of course,” she said, but added that the event had a record number of participants on its opening day regardless. “Everybody’s trying to figure out what to do. We’re trying to figure out, families are trying to figure out, the companies are trying to figure out.”

The companies sell curriculum, books and other learning materials. And the specter of a financial shortfall for families has affected them, too.

Eagle River business owner and artist Georgia McKenzie sells hand-drawn teaching materials for her company, Tiny Nest Studio.

“I spent a lot of money on printing, and that news really came out just days before the fair. So now I’m waiting until July and not giving out the product,” she said. Usually, she sends parents home with their new materials, but she said if state money doesn’t come through IDEA Homeschool to pay her, she could be left hanging.

Uncertainty didn’t stop Danielle Brubaker from looking at materials for her daughter. Without the allotment, she said they may not be able to pay for weekly horseback-riding lessons.

“She’s only in seventh grade, but still it has opened a lot of doors for her. It’s really sad that it could potentially take so many opportunities away,” she said.

Dave Hoffman sells materials for Brigham Young University, a private religious college at the IDEA Homeschool Curriculum Fair in Anchorage on April 18, 2024. (Photo by Claire Stremple/Alaska Beacon)

In a booth for Brigham Young University, the largest private religious university in the nation, Dave Hoffman said parents are still buying his materials — even if it means paying out of their own pockets, instead of with state money.

“The sense I’m getting is they’re not going to put their kids in public school, even if they shut that down,” he said, noting that many states have voucher systems or educational savings accounts that allow parents to spend state money on private or religious materials.

For some parents, the allotment isn’t the biggest loss. In Anchorage, Jen Griffis is grappling with the potential loss of an individualized learning plan — especially for her son, who is a high school junior that is on track to graduate with a public school diploma through the correspondence system next year.

“And now there is a question as to whether his credits from this year will count,” she said.

The judge did not suggest in his opinion that current classes would not count.

Now she has to plan for next year without knowing if she will have support for building a high school plan for her other child — and what could be more than $5,000 from the state to cover the cost of curriculum, music lessons and computer upgrades.

She likened the uncertainty correspondence families now face to the funding uncertainty that brick-and mortar-schools have described.

“We want brick-and-mortar students and teachers to have stability, and an understanding of what they can anticipate in the coming school year,” she said. “That same stability and understanding and commitment is needed for those families that are in the public correspondence school program.”

Lizzy Donnelly, a Fairbanks mother, said she has used her cash allotment to offset the cost of a Montessori private school in the past, but even with a boost from the state she said the monthly tuition was too much. Now she has one daughter in a public correspondence program and another at a local charter school.

She planned to homeschool them both next year — until the court ruling canceled allotments.

“That makes me kind of second guess bringing my second daughter home,” she said. “I don’t know that I can afford to do it the way that I want to do it.”

She said her family can figure the finances out, or she can keep one of her daughters in her public charter school. But she said she worries about families that don’t have that flexibility or who live in rural areas with fewer options than Fairanks.

“Taking away the allotment is a make or break for some families,” she said.

Potential changes

Lawmakers will have a chance to reconsider state law and even changes to the constitution after higher courts reach a final decision.

The two components of correspondence learning at stake are the cash allotments to families and individualized learning programs that districts help families develop to make sure their children are reaching educational benchmarks, like high school diplomas.

Ruffridge said the ruling raises a valid constitutional question, but he sees value in those learning programs.

“I think you have to have that individualized learning plan to really prioritize the child’s education that’s being schooled at home. And I would be in support of bringing back almost that entire section in its entirety.”

Allard is looking at how to preserve allotments. She said state money should follow the state’s children — even into faith-based schools. “If you’re a taxpayer in the state of Alaska, you should be able to put your dollars where you want your child to go,” she said, and added that she would consider an amendment to the state’s constitution to get there.

A constitutional amendment, which could allow public money to go to private and religious schools directly, would require 13 votes in the Senate and 27 in the House, plus a successful statewide vote this fall.

Members of the Senate majority, speaking Tuesday afternoon, said they would not support a change, making that approach unlikely.

Speaking to reporters, Dunleavy said that an expansive interpretation of last week’s verdict could require changes to the state’s existing performance scholarship program for high school students.

He said a new postsecondary program could be warranted, and that the state might consider an approach for education similar to the one used for the annual Permanent Fund dividend.

A “supplemental dividend” could address the problem in the coming year, Dunleavy said.

Timing may pose a problem. The Legislature’s regular session ends in mid-May, and a decision after the end date could require legislative action.

If the Alaska Supreme Court requires a statutory change, Dunleavy said, “we’d have to have discussions with the Legislature — probably in a special session — quickly.”