The Dimond Courthouse building, which houses the Juneau offices of the Alaska Department of Justice, on Feb. 27, 2017. (Photo by Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)

The state Department of Justice is examining whether it is legal for Alaskan families to use public education funds they receive in the form of homeschooling allowances to pay for school. private school.

It depends reporting by Alaska Beaconwhich found that some correspondence schools were already reimbursing families for private school tuition under a law enacted in 2014.

But, as the Beacon also points out, the Alaska Constitution says the state cannot provide public funds to a religious or otherwise private educational institution.

So there is, at the very least, some confusion. And while the legal department is looking into the matter, the attorney general has recused himself because his wife is a strong supporter of the practice.

Alaska Beacon reporter Lisa Phu followed this, and she says her reporting started with what she thought was a simple question.

Listen:


The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Lisa Phu: So I started looking into this question: Can families enrolled in a publicly funded correspondence program use their allowance to pay for tuition at a private school? Is it legal? I thought the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development would be able to answer that. But they couldn’t. A spokesperson said the matter is currently being reviewed by the Law Department. And because of that, no one in the Ministry of Education could talk about it. So I contacted the law department. I asked the same question, “Is this legal?” And I got the same answer. I was told it was under review so no one could comment on it. Right now in our state, there are families with students enrolled in state-funded correspondence programs, or home schools, who use their allowance to pay for tuition at private schools. Thus, families prepay for private school and then apply for a correspondence program for reimbursement.

Casey’s Grove: And I guess we’re using “correspondence school” and “home schooling” interchangeably here, right? But can you explain in more detail how correspondence schools work in Alaska? What does this subdivision program look like?

Lisa Phu: Sure, yeah, you’re right, Casey. Thus, in Alaska, correspondence school and homeschooling are roughly synonymous and are used interchangeably. School districts in Alaska can create state-funded correspondence schools for families who choose to homeschool their children. They are under the school district, so they are public programs. Alaska has about 34 correspondence school programs. And here’s how the funding works: correspondence or home study students are funded at 90% of the base amount the state pays per student. It is also known as BSA. Currently, the BSA is $5,930. So 90% of that. A correspondence school can pass this on to families through an award program. The amount transmitted is different depending on the home schooling program. I spoke to a program that will offer $3,000 for high school students and $2,600 for (kindergarten) through 8th grade starting this fall. I spoke to another program that offers $4,000 per student. Thus, this allowance, whatever its amount, can be used on the needs related to the education of the student, such as books, lessons, school supplies, technological support, tutoring, music or d ‘other activites.

Casey’s Grove: Lisa, you said that there are students enrolled in state-funded home-schooling programs who use their allowance to pay for tuition at private schools? What is the spread of this practice?

Lisa Phu: So I don’t know the scope. In my reporting so far, I know that Mat-Su Central, which is a home schooling program, part of the Mat-Su Borough School District, has been doing this for three years. And the Family Partnership Charter School in Anchorage plans to begin licensing it in the fall. Since the story was published, I have heard of other pen pal programs that offer it.

Casey’s Grove: I got you. And it has to be secular, like not religious, right? Why is that?

Lisa Phu: There is a state law that correspondence schools point to, which they claim allows this practice. The law states that a family can purchase non-sectarian or non-religious services and materials from a public, private, or religious organization with the student allowance. So the principals I spoke to really emphasize the non-religious requirement and say they have a vetting process to determine which private school courses are eligible for reimbursement. This legislative language was originally part of Senate Bill 100, which then-Senator Mike Dunleavy — who is now the governor, of course — sponsored in 2014. a few committee hearings, but the language was finally adopted that year in the House. Bill 278. So it’s the law. But the Alaska Constitution also has something to say on the matter. It’s Article VII, Section 1 of the Alaska Constitution. It says, “No money shall be paid out of public funds for the direct benefit of any religious or other private educational institution.” So there seems to be confusion and an additional need for legal analysis. And the Department of Education adds no clarity to the confusion until it hears from the Department of Law.

Casey’s Grove: This legal analysis, or review, by the legal department seems to pose another problem, and it is a potential conflict of interest, isn’t it? Explain that to me.

Lisa Phu: Yeah, I made another story about it. Alaska Attorney General Treg Taylor is married to Jodi Taylor, chair of the Alaska Policy Forum board of directors. She is a leading proponent of using public funds for education in private schools. And last month, she wrote publicly about her plans to seek up to $8,000 in reimbursement for their two children attending private school in Anchorage. And, you know, in this Op Ed, she also offers instructions on how families can use state-funded correspondence school stipends for tuition at private schools. So Jodi Taylor is married to Alaska Attorney General Treg Taylor, so there was concern that because her family might benefit financially, he might have a conflict. Turns out the legal department thought the same thing. So, after his wife’s Op Ed was published on several websites and blogs, the Attorney General recused himself from all questions regarding the mail-order school allowances, and then he delegated the review to the deputy. Attorney General Cori Mills.

Casey’s Grove: Do we have any idea when this review will be completed?

Lisa Phu: Mills was unable to provide further details on the review or a timeline for when a review might come out. She said whenever an advisory is ready, it will be up to the Department of Education to provide clarification to school districts.