Alaska Supreme Court proposes expedited consideration of correspondence school dispute

JUNEAU — The Alaska Supreme Court indicated Wednesday that it could weigh in this summer on a case challenging rules surrounding the state’s correspondence schools.

Meanwhile, state lawmakers continued to work on legislation that would ensure the continuation of the public homeschooling programs in the event that the Supreme Court upholds a lower court decision that invalidated two state statutes governing the programs.

Anchorage Superior Court Judge Adolf Zeman ruled last month that the statutes violated the state constitution’s prohibition on spending public funds on private schools. Gov. Mike Dunleavy, a Republican who authored the statutes in question when he served in the state Senate, immediately signaled he would appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court.

Alaska’s correspondence programs — which enrolled almost 23,000 students this year — allow the families of homeschooled children to receive allotments of up to $4,500 per student per year to pay for curriculum and other materials. But the funds were increasingly being used to pay tuition at private and religious schools.

Zeman said the correspondence programs could continue to operate, but that the practice of spending the funds at private schools must stop. The implementation of the decision was paused through June 30 to allow students to complete the school year with minimal interruptions.

The Dunleavy administration asked the Alaska Supreme Court to hear the case on an expedited basis and extend the pause beyond June, until the court has issued its final ruling.

The Supreme Court proposed on Wednesday an expedited hearing schedule that would allow oral arguments to be heard June 25. The parties to the case have until the end of the week to respond to the proposed schedule.


In a statement, Alaska Department of Law spokeswoman Patty Sullivan said the department is “glad the Alaska Supreme Court sees the urgency of this matter and is willing to act quickly.”

“It is really in the Court’s hands as to how quickly this needs to occur,” said Sullivan, adding that if the court granted a longer stay, “they could give themselves a little more time to deal with these very important matters impacting tens of thousands of students and vendors.”

“The state is considering what, if any, response it wants to provide to the schedule,” Sullivan said.

Alaska’s attorney general, Treg Taylor, has used correspondence allotments to pay for his children’s education at private religious schools in Anchorage. But he has said he does not have a conflict of interest because his family no longer uses correspondence allotments.

Scott Kendall, an attorney representing the parents and teachers who challenged the statutes, said that his clients generally support the expedited hearing schedule and that it could allow the Supreme Court to issue a decision by the time the stay expires. The plaintiffs have opposed the longer stay requested by the state, arguing it would allow unconstitutional spending to continue unnecessarily.

Meanwhile, state lawmakers are racing to pass legislation to ensure correspondence programs continue with minimal interruptions. The legislative session must end by May 15, meaning legislation could be adopted before the Supreme Court issues its ruling.

The House Education Committee earlier this week adopted a bill that would instruct the state board of education — whose members are appointed by Dunleavy — to implement regulations allowing correspondence programs to continue in the short term. But under the proposed bill, the regulations would sunset next year, compelling lawmakers to take up the issue again in the next legislative session. The bill, which has received an initial nod of support from Dunleavy, would also keep on the books the two statutes deemed by Zeman to violate the state constitution, in case the Alaska Supreme Court overturns Zeman’s decision.

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The Senate Education Committee on Wednesday adopted a competing bill that would rewrite the statutes deemed faulty by Zeman, and instruct the board of education to implement permanent regulations to ensure correspondence programs could continue with some guardrails, including limits on the use of the funds for out-of-state travel, and a cap on the amount of funds that can be used for private art, music and physical education instruction.

Sen. Löki Tobin, an Anchorage Democrat who chairs the Senate Education Committee, said that her proposal would provide more stability and predictability to correspondence students.

“I recognize and understand the attorney general’s and the governor’s want to keep the status quo while they continue forward in litigation. I do not believe that will produce the best education outcomes. My focus is on the policy, not the politics,” said Tobin.

Rep. Justin Ruffridge, a Soldotna Republican who co-chairs the House Education Committee and who has used correspondence allotments to pay for his kids’ private music and dance lessons, said Wednesday that he had not yet looked at the bill adopted in the Senate Education Committee, but he believed that lawmakers should leave the statutes at the heart of the lawsuit unchanged, in case the Supreme Court overturns the Superior Court decision.

“There is a subset of our House, it seems clear, that wants to see the court process continue and have an end result, whatever that may be. And I think you have to be at least somewhat cognizant of that with saying, ‘Well, in order to do that, you have to keep the statutes on the books.’ But you also have an obligation to find a solution so you don’t leave people hanging out, thinking their whole program is going to dry up and go away in the next year,” said Ruffridge.

Ruffridge’s bill is scheduled for a hearing in the House Finance Committee on Thursday. The Senate bill has yet to be scheduled for a hearing in the Senate Finance Committee.

Dunleavy has hinted that if the state Supreme Court does not overturn Zeman’s ruling, the case could be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but Ruffridge said his support for such a move would depend on how the state Supreme Court would interpret the gray area created by Zeman’s ruling — and whether it would leave latitude for families to use their allotments in a limited way at private institutions.

“I think this being brought to the state Supreme Court is important just to have clarity. I’m not certain if it would be a good use of resources to go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court,” said Ruffridge.

Iris Samuels

Iris Samuels is a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News focusing on state politics. She previously covered Montana for The AP and Report for America and wrote for the Kodiak Daily Mirror. Contact her at isamuels@adn.com.