House and Senate aim to provide certainty for home-school families after judge's ruling

Apr. 29—JUNEAU — Alaska House and Senate committees on Friday introduced bills intended to allow home-school and correspondence programs to continue operating constitutionally.

Anchorage Superior Court Judge Adolf Zeman earlier in the month struck down as unconstitutional two statutes enacted in 2014 that allowed public funds to be spent at private and religious schools in Alaska. Those statutes explicitly prevented the state Board of Education from enacting regulations restricting how home-school allotments are used. The Legislature's attorneys suggested earlier in the week that a relatively simple change of state law could resolve the court's concerns.

The Senate Education Committee, chaired by Sen. Löki Tobin, D-Anchorage, introduced a bill Friday that explicitly prohibits state funds from being used at private schools. It also requires stricter oversight and reporting on how home-school funds are spent.

"The stipulations in the legislation provide those guardrails so that there will not be, and should not be, unconstitutional expenditures," she said.

The two home-school statutes the court struck down were proposed by then-Sen. Mike Dunleavy and adopted in 2014. They have been increasingly used by parents to pay for tuition at private and religious schools. But the extent of the practice is not fully known.

The Senate bill mentions that some private tutoring could be allowed. But it does prohibit public funds being used to pay for one or two classes at a private or religious school, which had been seen as a gray area after the court's decision.

The state Board of Education, which regulates education in Alaska, would be directed to create "a more rigid approval program" for course materials to ensure they're constitutional, Tobin said. The board is next scheduled to meet in Kotzebue in June.

Under the Senate bill, parents of public school students would be prevented from opting their children out of statewide assessments. According to the state Department of Education and Early Development, 93.6% of students at neighborhood schools took recent statewide tests. Around 19% of correspondence students took the same assessments.

"It is our obligation to ensure that our public education programs are being held accountable. This is one of the strongest accountability tools that we have in our toolkit," Tobin said about statewide testing.

The House Education Committee introduced a similar bill Friday, with prohibitions on public funds being used at private schools. But it would allow parents to opt out of state assessments.

Soldotna Republican Rep. Justin Ruffridge, co-chair of the House Education Committee, said he was concerned about children in remote areas needing to travel for testing. But he acknowledged that could potentially be done online.

"I think that'll be a good discussion going forward," he said.

The House and Senate bills would both require parents to return unused home-school funds at the end of the school year. Parents are currently allowed to keep those funds, and with little oversight, critics have said it could be ripe for abuse.

Ruffridge said he heard from "a ton of folks" who save up their allotments for more expensive purchases, including to pay for college classes during high school. The House bill would allow unspent funds to be used through 2030.

One unknown factor is whether the court's decision will be stayed, and for how long. The state of Alaska on April 22 requested that Zeman's decision be stayed until the Alaska Supreme Court potentially issues its own verdict, which could take months or even years. The plaintiffs — several parents and teachers — asked for a stay until the end of June to avoid disruptions in the current school year. But they opposed an indefinite pause in the court's decision, saying that would essentially allow unconstitutional spending to continue.

The House on Wednesday narrowly approved a non-binding resolution that called for a stay until the end of June 2025. With less than three weeks left in the legislative session, multiple lawmakers said they doubted whether they could pass a home-school bill in time.

Tobin said she was "very optimistic" that a majority of lawmakers want to provide certainty for home-school students before the start of the next school year. Ruffridge said he was optimistic that the House bill could be part of a broader education package.

"I'm just less optimistic that it would pass by itself," he said.

Alaska Attorney General Treg Taylor said in mid-April that Zeman's decision was "broad" and that it would be "a shot in the dark" for the Dunleavy administration to propose a statutory fix. Attorneys for the plaintiffs have disagreed, saying the decision was narrowly focused on prohibiting state funds from being used at private schools.

In response to Zeman's decision, Republican House members proposed an amendment to the state constitution that would eliminate the prohibition on public funds being used at private and religious schools.

The constitutional amendment, which is identical to one proposed by Gov. Dunleavy when he was serving in the Senate in 2013, had its first hearing this past Wednesday. Homer Republican Rep. Sarah Vance said Tuesday that she introduced the constitutional amendment to start a longer-term conversation about how education should be funded in Alaska.

"I do not want to have an expectation that the Legislature would pass this in the next month," she said Tuesday.

The Senate's education bill has been scheduled for its first committee hearing Monday. The House bill is set to first be heard Wednesday. The legislative session must end by midnight on May 15.