Alaska House Justice supports a constitutional amendment to publicly fund private schools

After an Alaska Superior Court decision struck down the state's distance education funding program, the state House of Representatives Judiciary Committee proposed a constitutional amendment to preserve it.

Last month, an Alaska Supreme Court judge struck down two laws related to the state's homeschool program, which enrolls about 22,000 students. The state has long reimbursed parents for the cost of home schooling, which can include religious or private school courses. The judge said this violated the state constitution, which prohibits spending public money on religious or private education.

On April 18, the state House of Representatives Judiciary Committee proposed House Joint Resolution 28, a constitutional amendment that would allow public funds to flow to private and religious educational institutions.

The amendment makes two changes to the state constitution. First, language that prevents public funds from flowing to private and religious education institutions would be removed.

Second, in the section that requires public funds and taxes to serve a public purpose, the amendment provides for public funds to flow to private institutions when law permits for the direct educational benefit of students.

Rep. Sarah Vance, a Homer Republican, is a co-sponsor of the amendment. She said this change would keep school options open for students.

“What I'm trying to do is promote student education and make sure that all options, charter schools, brick-and-mortar schools and distance learning schools, have the options they need to provide the best education for Alaska students,” she said.

Similar constitutional changes proposed by the House and Senate in 2013 failed in the legislature.

The allocation program in its current form was the result of legislation sponsored by then-Senator. Mike Dunleavy a decade ago.

Vance homeschools all of her children and receives funding through distance learning. The oldest of her four children also went through the program and has already graduated. She says she worked with Connections Homeschool — the local school district's homeschool program — to create learning plans for her children. It invests the allocation funds in various classes and materials from approved providers in the school district, including performing arts classes at a private facility.

“If there were certain books that would fit the courses, you could pay for them. Individual courses themselves would be paid for. And the music and dance of a private institution were also financed through this grant,” she said.

Vance said she also pays for faith-based curriculum for her younger children out of her own pocket.

Vance said in general she supports public money going to private and religious education institutions. She's also concerned that many programs that home-schooled students don't currently have access to will be blocked if the ruling is upheld.

“That means that taking an art class in the art gallery would be prohibited, or a dance class that doesn't take place directly on the school campus because it's a private institution, that would be prohibited,” she said, “and I believe not that this is the will of Alaskans.”

The amendment will continue to be debated in the Judiciary Committee before making its way through the Legislature. If approved by a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate, it will go to voters for a vote at the next general election.

Lawmakers are also considering a bill introduced by Sen. Löki Tobin, a Democrat from Anchorage. This bill would eliminate the unconstitutional aspects of the correspondence program and reinstate a system similar to the system in place prior to 2014.

Anna Harden

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