In reversal, Gov. Dunleavy signals support for correspondence school program legislation

May 4—JUNEAU — In a course reversal, Gov. Mike Dunleavy said Friday that he would support legislation to ensure correspondence schools can continue to operate, after an Anchorage Superior Court judge last month found some public spending on the programs violated the state constitution.

Judge Adolf Zeman in April struck down two statutes governing Alaska's correspondence programs, ruling that they contradicted a state constitutional prohibition on spending public funds at private institutions.

Correspondence programs allow homeschooled students to receive public funds of up to $4,500 per student per year to pay for educational materials approved by certified teachers. Families had been increasingly using the funds to cover the cost of tuition at private and religious schools — a practice that Zeman said was not allowed.

On Thursday, Zeman ordered for the April decision to be paused through the end of June, allowing the nearly 23,000 correspondence students across the state to finish the school year with minimal interruptions.

But he denied a request from Dunleavy's administration to extend the stay until the state Supreme Court hears the case, and criticized the governor's expansive interpretation of Zeman's order.

Dunleavy said after the April ruling that he thought it meant that Alaska's entire correspondence program — which long predates the statutes that were invalidated by the court decision — was struck down.

Zeman clarified in Thursday's order that correspondence programs remained intact, as long as new laws or regulations were put in place to replace those that were found to violate the constitution, prohibiting the use of public funds to pay tuition at private and religious institutions.

Before the stay was issued, Dunleavy said that given his expansive interpretation of the ruling, it would be imprudent for lawmakers to pass any legislation addressing correspondence programs before the state Supreme Court heard the case on appeal. Dunleavy indicated he favored calling lawmakers into a special session over the summer to address the ruling, once the Supreme Court weighed in.

His administration filed an appeal to the Alaska Supreme Court on Friday, asking for an expedited review.

But in a statement posted on social media Friday afternoon, Dunleavy appeared to endorse legislation proposed by Rep. Justin Ruffridge, a Soldotna Republican who co-chairs the House Education Committee.

"The House Education Committee is hearing a bill that could be a vehicle to ensure Alaska's public homeschooling through the correspondence program remains intact and functions in a manner conducive to the educational needs of its more than 22,000 students, thousands of parents and thousands of vendors that assist with the correspondence process," Dunleavy said.

He also said his administration would seek to extend the stay through a request submitted to the state Supreme Court.

Alaska Attorney General Treg Taylor said in a prepared statement that the longer stay would "give the most certainty" to correspondence students and vendors.

"I would caution putting into place anything permanent, but rather keeping the current statutes as they are (because the Alaska Supreme Court could uphold them, requiring no changes to our program). Any potential solution should be tailored to the interim only and cause the least disruption to existing programs, while recognizing the judge's decision. This is why a stay remains the best option for stability," Taylor wrote.

A stopgap bill

Taylor previously used correspondence allotments to cover the cost of his children's religious school tuition, but recently said he has ceased the practice and does not have a conflict of interest.

The bill advanced by the House Education Committee on Friday would empower the state board of education, whose members are appointed by Dunleavy and confirmed by the Legislature, to adopt new regulations governing correspondence programs.

Ruffridge appeared to take Taylor's advice, introducing an amendment to his bill Friday afternoon that would make it sunset in July 2025, meaning the now-invalidated statutes could be retained if the state Supreme Court overturns Zeman's decision.

The new version of the bill, endorsed by Education Commissioner Deena Bishop, was adopted by the committee over the objection of Rep. CJ McCormick, a Bethel Democrat, who took issue with the rushed legislative process, which included an unofficial committee meeting Friday in which the new version of the bill was disseminated to committee members.

"I just don't really like how we did this," McCormick said.

The bill will be heard next by the House Finance Committee.

Ruffridge is one of several lawmakers who enroll their children in Alaska's correspondence programs. His two children attend a private Christian school and use correspondence allotments to pay for additional activities, including music, dance and foreign language lessons, Ruffridge has said.

Zeman's order found that use of correspondence allotments to cover the cost of private school tuition violated the state constitution. But Ruffridge said he thought families could continue to enroll children both in correspondence programs and private schools, as long as they did not use their full allotment to cover private school tuition.

"Can you dual enroll — enroll them, pay your private school tuition, and then also teach them at home for areas that are not provided at the private school? I think the answer to that should be yes. But if you're enrolling at private school and then using your allotment to help pay for the classes at private school — it seems like the answer to that should be 'no,'" said Ruffridge.

The state education department doesn't collect data on the use of correspondence allotments, making it difficult to gauge the extent to which families used the funds to pay private school tuition. But from limited data shared Friday morning by correspondence school administrators with the House Education Committee, it appeared the practice was limited in scope.

Dean O'Dell, director of IDEA, which enrolls around 7,500 students, including Ruffridge's kids, said around 210 students used their allotments for private school tuition. Brian Rozell, principal of CyberLynx Homeschool, said that out of the program's roughly 2,000 students, around 100 use allotments at private schools.

Ruffridge said he opposed more prescriptive legislation, which could expressly prohibit the dual enrollment practice, because there was insufficient time to study its impacts. He also said he favored making the legislation temporary — so it would only be in place for a single year — in case a decision by the state Supreme Court created the need for different legislation.

A competing bill from the Senate Education Committee would enact more restrictions in state statute on how allotments could be used. That legislation is opposed by several correspondence program administrators and parents, who say it will prevent families from using allotments as they currently do, including by disallowing saving allotments from year to year for larger purchases.

Sen. Löki Tobin, an Anchorage Democrat who chairs the Senate Education Committee, said Friday that her committee would work on amending the bill and introduce a new version next week.

A return to the BSA?

The prospect of advancing a bill through both the House and Senate in the final 10 days of the session to address correspondence programs has rekindled the possibility of a permanent increase to the per-student education funding formula that is used to calculate funding for every public school in the state, including correspondence and charter schools.

Educators and families have long said that the formula — which is not automatically updated to keep up with inflation — must be boosted to account for more than seven years of essentially flat funding. Lawmakers earlier this year approved an education package that included a $680 increase to the $5,960 Base Student Allocation, only for Dunleavy to veto it, citing the lack of inclusion of his priorities.

Lawmakers included equivalent funding, amounting to around $175 million, as a one-time allocation in the operating budget draft, but they could still pass legislation that would make the funding increase permanent.

If lawmakers succeed in advancing an education-related bill to a floor vote to address correspondence programs, it could be amended to include other education-related provisions.

"If we're going to put a bill on the floor to address education, we should be addressing education for all students. We shouldn't just single out correspondence students," said House Minority Leader Calvin Schrage, an Anchorage independent. "If there's an education bill on the floor, I'm going to be working to amend that to support all students."