OPINION: Alaska’s Constitution provides constraints on education funding

There are two key provisions in the Alaska Constitution focused on education — first, the state must create and adequately fund public schools to educate Alaska’s youth, and second, public monies cannot be used for private education, whether religious or nonsectarian. These two basic concepts are related.

Alaska has had some version of correspondence schools since its territorial days. But when then-Sen. Mike Dunleavy sponsored the 2014 correspondence school legislation recently struck down by the court as unconstitutional, he inserted a “poison pill” that ensured that any constitutional challenge to his legislation would unravel the entire correspondence school system. Knowing his legislation violated the Constitution, he proposed at the same time a constitutional amendment that would remove the constitutional prohibition on using public monies for private schools. When it became clear that his constitutional amendment was dead on arrival, he included a provision in the statute that blocked the Department of Education from enacting regulations that would prohibit any unconstitutional use of these funds, undoing the strict regulations adopted during Gov. Frank Murkowski’s administration. So long as a teacher signed off on a student’s plan, there was no limit on how the funds could be spent. This poison pill inserted by Dunleavy made it entirely foreseeable that waste and unconstitutional spending would occur, and that the courts would eventually be forced to strike down these statutes as unconstitutional.

Although there are many parents who are truly interested in homeschooling their children and used the funds for that purpose, it is apparent that Dunleavy’s statutory amendment led to widespread abuse and unchecked unconstitutional spending. As the current attorney general’s wife explained in her 2022 commentary, it was easy for her family to receive more than $4,000 of public funds annually per child to fund their private school education. Private institutions advertised and assisted parents in accessing these public monies. And some unscrupulous parents further misused public education funds to pay for trips, power tools, home appliances, and more.

Gov. Dunleavy’s unconstitutional program has also undermined the state’s ability to adequately fund public education. As reported, this program has ballooned to more than $120 million annually. Not all of this spending is unlawful, but a good portion of this amount is essentially being stripped from our public school system to fund private schools under the label of “parent choice.”

As the legislature debates increasing the base student allocation to provide more monies for school districts, it should not only account for the effect inflation has had in eroding its “flat” funding for education since 2014 but also account for the leakage of funding since 2014 due to the unconstitutional spending under the correspondence program. Perversely, these funds are still counted as “public education” dollars directed to school districts in the state’s budget, but the statutes that were struck down as unconstitutional allowed significant funds to be diverted to private schools. This drain from our brick-and-mortar public schools amounts to hundreds of millions of dollars over the last decade.

I believe we are now in a situation where the state is breaching its constitutional duty to adequately fund public education for Alaska’s students. It is time to restructure our education system to comport with the vision our constitutional framers had. Unquestionably, as a start, the base student allocation for each student needs to dramatically increase, especially if the Legislature continues to incentivize many families to opt out of our public schools.

Jahna Lindemuth served as Alaska’s attorney general under Gov. Bill Walker from 2016 to 2018.

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