Judge grants deferment until June 30 based on remote school ruling, says state is “misrepresenting” order.

JUNEAU – State laws allowing some Alaska students to use public funds at private and religious schools will remain in effect through the end of June, but not after, an Anchorage Superior Court judge ordered Thursday.

Judge Adolf Zeman last month struck down two laws regulating Alaska's correspondence programs, finding they violated the state's constitutional ban on giving public money to private institutions.

The decision affects nearly 23,000 distance learning students across the state. Following the decision, the plaintiffs in the case – a group of parents and teachers – requested that the decision be stayed until the end of the school year so that these students can complete the year with minimal disruption.

Zeman granted that request Thursday, but rejected a request from Gov. Mike Dunleavy's administration to stay the decision for an extended period until the Alaska Supreme Court can hear the case on appeal, which could take months. Zeman wrote in Thursday's order that the state “has demonstrated no likelihood of prevailing on appeal.”

Zeman disagreed with Dunleavy's broad interpretation of the original order repealing statutes that allowed public money to be spent on private school tuition.

Dunleavy said Zeman's decision means no public funds can be spent on private providers — including textbook and transportation companies. That interpretation contradicted legal analysis by nonpartisan legislative advocates, who said correspondence programs could continue with small legal or regulatory changes.

Spokespeople for Dunleavy did not immediately respond to requests for comment Thursday evening.

“That’s pretty much what we’ve been saying all along,” Sen. Bill Wielechowski, an Anchorage Democrat, said Thursday of Zeman’s ruling. “The judge made the decision constitutionally correctly. The state misunderstood the statement in the decision. The correspondence program has not been discontinued.”

Zeman wrote that Dunleavy's administration “misrepresented and misinterpreted” the court's April decision. The judge further reiterated that his decision only affects two state laws that expanded correspondence programs when they went into effect in 2014. These laws were originally proposed by Dunleavy in 2013, when he was still a state senator.

Correspondence programs, which generally allow home-schooled students to receive public money to fund instructional materials under the direction of certified teachers, existed long before Dunleavy's proposal. This proposal limited the guardrails that the state and counties could put in place for the use of correspondence quotas.

“This Court has not found that distance learning programs are unconstitutional,” Zeman wrote, adding that “distance learning programs continue to exist following this Court’s order.”

“This court concludes that a limited stay is the best solution to ensure that students, families, and school districts are protected from undue disruption and that all parties are protected from unnecessary uncertainty and related harm,” Zeman wrote.

Dunleavy said Wednesday — before the temporary stay was granted — that he believes the Legislature should not pass legislation on correspondence programs until the state Supreme Court hears the case.

Lawmakers in the House and Senate have dueling proposals related to correspondence programs, but there is limited time to act before the May 15 deadline to end the legislative session.

Wielechowski said the limited suspension “reinforces the urgency for the Legislature to pass legislation before the end of the session.”

“If the court had granted a stay until next year, the urgency of taking action would have been lost as we could deal with it in the next session. Now that we know this is expiring on June 30, I think it would be irresponsible for us not to pass something or issue emergency regulations before we leave,” Wielechowski said.

The alternative to passing a law would be for the state Department of Education to issue new regulations directing school districts on how to manage distance programs. The process of drafting new regulations can be lengthy – to allow time for public testimony and input – but can be expedited in an emergency. Education-related regulations are typically overseen by the state Board of Education, whose members are appointed by Dunleavy.

Wielechowski said he would “prefer the Legislature to pass laws consistent with the judge’s order.”

Rep. Justin Ruffridge, a Soldotna Republican and co-chair of the House Education Committee, said Thursday evening that legislation addressing correspondence programs must be passed by the end of the session.

“For me, the stay confirms what I was already thinking: 'We should probably start working on this,'” Ruffridge said.

Sen. Loki Tobin, an Anchorage Democrat and chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said the legislation will ultimately provide “some balance” between the dueling proposals in the House and Senate, whose hearings are scheduled for Friday.

The Senate proposal would implement legal regulations that existed before 2014. These regulations included specific restrictions on the use of the funds, including a prohibition on using the funds for most out-of-state travel; a requirement that unspent funds be returned to the state at the end of each school year; and restrictions on the use of funds for gym memberships and other recreational activities.

The House proposal favored by Ruffridge is far less prescriptive. It would essentially give the state education agency the authority to issue regulations as it sees fit. This proposal is also favored by many homeschooling families and Dean O'Dell, director of IDEA, the largest distance program in the state. They raised concerns that the Senate's proposed changes would ban some common practices, including the practice of families saving money year after year to pay for major purchases.

Depending on the program, allotment sizes range from $2,700 to $4,500 per student per year.

Tobin said her goal with a more detailed bill is to “provide clear guidance to the State Board of Education so that the regulations they enact are consistent with our Constitution” and “include oversight that must also occur for effective use of public funds.” “.

Scott Kendall, the attorney representing the plaintiffs, said he was grateful for the limited stay, which would allow students to finish the school year with minimal disruption — but would not allow unconstitutional spending to continue indefinitely.

“The very good news here is that to the extent that the state thought this was an emergency, there is no emergency,” Kendall said.

Anna Harden

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