Students leave the Marie Drake Building, which houses local alternative education offerings including the HomeBRIDGE correspondence program, on April 4. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)

Students leave the Marie Drake Building, which houses local alternative education offerings including the HomeBRIDGE correspondence program, on April 4. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)

Educators and lawmakers trying to determine impacts, next steps of ruling denying state funds for homeschoolers

“Everybody wants to make sure there’s a way to continue supporting homeschool families,” Kiehl says.

This story has been updated with additional information. Also, Faith Community School’s policy about students dually enrolled in correspondence programs has been clarified.

Local education leaders and lawmakers say they, along with plenty of families, are trying to figure out the impacts and possible next steps following a court ruling Friday declaring cash payments by the state to parents of homeschooled students violate the state’s constitution.

However, there was widely expressed agreement Monday about ensuring support exists for correspondence programs that don’t violate constitutional provisions related to funding religious or private schools.

The ruling has immediate — but uncertain — implications for more than 20,000 students statewide, including hundreds of Juneau students in the HomeBRIDGE program administered by the Juneau School District and the Raven Homeschool program administered by the Yukon-Koyukuk School District.

“I’m kind of flying blind on it,” said HomeBRIDGE Principal Corey Weiss on Monday morning.

In an email sent Monday evening by Weiss to families in the program that currently has 192 students enrolled, he stated the district “is seeking clarification about this significant change and also about its impacts on HomeBRIDGE families.”

“JSD and the HomeBRIDGE program remain committed to continuing to provide excellence in home-based learning opportunities for students and families,” he wrote. “We are closely monitoring the situation and are in contact with other Alaska school districts. We will share additional information about this ruling and what it may mean for families as soon as it becomes available.”

Raven Homeschool officials referred questions to the Yukon-Koyukuk School District superintendent’s office, which did not respond to messages Monday.

A letter sent to school districts Monday by Deena Bishop, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development, advises them to continue existing correspondence programs and funding for the current school year as the Alaska Department of Law seeks a stay and appeals the decision in the lawsuit. The case filed in January of 2023 against the state and the state’s education commissioner at that time, Heidi Teshner.

“At this time the court order is not a final judgment, which means it does not have any immediate impact to school districts with correspondence study programs,” Bishop wrote, adding “therefore, your school district may continue to administer its correspondence study program, including paying outstanding invoices and other administrative duties at the present.”

The Alaska Legislature is also expected to consider action related to the ruling during the last month of the session.

“I think the fundamental thing there’s broad agreement on is everybody wants to make sure there’s a way to continue supporting homeschool families in Alaska,” Sen. Jesse Kiehl, a Juneau Democrat who’s a member of both the education and finance committees in the Senate, said in an interview Monday. “Nobody objects to helping a family pay for a laptop or buy a math curriculum. But I read the judge’s ruling and he’s absolutely right: that 2014 law that said you can spend public money on private schools is unconstitutional. It was then, it is now.”

The lawsuit is challenging a 2014 law by then-Sen. Mike Dunleavy, now the state’s governor, allowing parents of correspondence students to spend their share of state education money on “nonsectarian services and materials from a public, private, or religious organization.” Correspondence programs allow students to be homeschooled under the authority of local school districts.

However, a clause in the Alaska Constitution states “no money shall be paid from public funds for the direct benefit of any religious or other private educational institution.” An attempt by Dunleavy to amend that section of the constitution failed, but the correspondence funding has continued for the past decade regardless.

Kiehl said key questions for the immediate future are whether a stay will be granted while the case is appealed, allowing people involved in homeschooling to continue programs as they exist at least for the short term, and what kind of scrutiny lawmakers might apply to what is a permissible use of state funds in any legislation considered during the final weeks of the session.

A statement following the ruling by the Coalition for Education Equity of Alaska, a nonprofit that states it unequivocally supports homeschooling and correspondence programs, asserts that of at least $500 million in state funds provided to homeschool and correspondence students during the past 11 years, a small — but concerning — amount has been used for seemingly illegal or improper purposes.

“It is believed that no less than $25 million has gone directly to private schools and/or private sectarian school tuition, in addition to purchasing items that clearly benefit family lifestyles, such as bread makers, beehives, backpacking gear, woodshop equipment, greenhouses, sewing items and costly PE trips/memberships,” the statement notes.

Sen. Andi Story, a Juneau Democrat and member of the House Education Committee, said while she believes “some tightening up” of distribution of homeschool funds is necessary, she is not aware of any abuses involving the Juneau School District’s HomeBRIDGE program.

If the court’s decision stands and the state reverts to the system used before the 2014 law went into effect it should still be possible to support a viable correspondence program, Story said.

“We will all be working to make this work if we have to go back to our statutes that were before 2014 because we were working within those guidelines just fine,” she said. “And so I want to reassure people that we’re really trying to make this work out so parents can continue with their homeschool program, just knowing there’s going to be some guidelines and parameters.”

Education is already the highest-profile issue of this year’s legislative session due to back-and-forth battles between the Legislature and Dunleavy about increasing the per-student funding formula known as the Base Student Allocation. Dunleavy has stated he wants lawmakers to approve other education policy goals of his, including increased support for charter and homeschool students, in exchange for an increase in per-student funding.

“It’s a new element of chaos in what has been a very chaotic session for education,” Kiehl said. “The primary focus for my office is raising the BSA (permanently), or at least providing that (one-time) funding, and making sure that we still support families who homeschool as well.”

It does not appear the ruling will impact at least two private Christian schools in Juneau.

The ruling will not directly affect Juneau Adventist Christian School, which is planning to resume operations this fall after suspending them for the current school year due to lack of enrollment, since the school does not accept state funds, said Nickie Linder, principal of Juneau Adventist Christian School. About 200 students are enrolled statewide in six communities, according to the Alaska Conference of Seventh-day Adventists’ website, which distributes funds received via the entities’ North American Division.

However, some individual students at the Juneau school, like other students at private Christian schools around the state, have received correspondence funding, Linder said.

“From time to time our students are dually enrolled,” she said. “We have kids who want to take some classes that our curriculum does not offer. So they will enroll in Raven or in IDEA (Homeschool) and they will take the classes that we don’t have to offer.”

Faith Community School, located in Auke Bay Bible Church with about 125 students, doesn’t receive state or federal funds, said Kate File, the school’s office administrator, in an interview Monday. Also, the school doesn’t accept any allotment money from dual-enrollment students in correspondence programs.

”It’s because we use a Christian curriculum and we teach a biblical worldview,” she said. “And we understand that by accepting state or federal funding we would not be able to teach that way.”

• Contact Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com or (907) 957-2306.

More in News

Jasmine Chavez, a crew member aboard the Quantum of the Seas cruise ship, waves to her family during a cell phone conversation after disembarking from the ship at Marine Park on May 10. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)
Ships in port for the week of May 25

Here’s what to expect this week.

Wreath bearers present wreaths for fallen comrades, brothers and sisters in arms during a Memorial Day ceremony at Alaskan Memorial Park on Monday. Laying wreaths on the graves of fallen heroes is a way to honor and remember the sacrifices made. (Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)
Traditional Memorial Day ceremonies offer new ways to ‘never forget’ those who served

New installations at memorial sites, fresh words of reminder shared by hundreds gathering in Juneau.

Thunder Mountain High School graduates celebrate after moving their tassels to the left, their newly received diplomas in hand, at the end of Sunday’s commencement ceremony. (Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)
‘Forever a Falcon’: Thunder Mountain High School celebrates final graduating class

147 seniors get soaring sendoff during 16th annual commencement full of heightened emotions.

Seniors at Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé enter the gymnasium for their commencement ceremony on Sunday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
JDHS graduates celebrate journey from virtual ‘pajama class’ freshmen to virtuous camaraderie

Resolve in overcoming struggles a lifelong lesson for future, seniors told at commencement ceremony.

Sierra Guerro-Flores (right) listens to her advisor Electra Gardinier after being presented with her diploma at Yaaḵoosgé Daakahídi High School’s graduation ceremony Sunday in the Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé auditorium. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
Alternatives are vast for Yaaḵoosgé Daakahídi High School’s graduating class

31 students take center stage during ceremony revisiting their paths at the school and what’s next.

The LeConte state ferry in 2023. (Lex Treinen / Chilkat Valley News)
Stranded Beerfest travelers scramble to rebook after LeConte ferry breakdown

Loss of 225-passenger ferry leaves many Juneau-bound revelers looking for other ways home.

A photo taken from the terminal roof shows the extent of the first phase of paving to accommodate large aircraft. (Mike Greene / City and Borough of Juneau)
Large-scale repaving project plants itself at Juneau International Airport

Work may take two to three years, schedule seeks to limit impact on operations.

Capital Transit buses wait to depart from the downtown transit center on Thursday. Route number 8 was adjusted this spring. (Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)
More service, visitor information helping Capital Transit to keep up with extra cruise passenger traffic

Remedies made after residents unable to board full buses last year seem to be working, officials say

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire file photo)
Police calls for Thursday, May 23, 2024

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

Most Read