IJ Defends School Choice on the Last Frontier
Unique among the 50 states for many reasons, Alaska is also home to one of the nation’s most innovative educational choice programs. To educate students spread across the state’s far-reaching rural school districts, Alaska developed a popular correspondence school program. Public correspondence schools send lessons and assignments to students by mail—or even, in some instances, floatplane. Families then send completed assignments back to the schools’ teachers for grading.
Over time, the program has evolved to allow Alaska families freedom to creatively design their children’s educational experience. Starting in 1997, the Alaska Legislature amended its correspondence school program to authorize school districts to reimburse parents for a variety of education-related expenses. Then, in 2014, the Legislature expanded the array of providers for which families could receive this reimbursement, called an “allotment.” Among other things, the law clarified that private schools were eligible to provide services through the program.
The correspondence school program is invaluable to parents like IJ client Andrea Moceri, who uses the allotment she receives through the program to help send her son to Holy Rosary Academy, a private school in Anchorage. Without the program, Andrea couldn’t afford to keep her son enrolled in the school’s correspondence program, in which he is thriving.
But now that program is under attack. Which is why Andrea, along with a group of other families, is teaming up with IJ to defend the program against a lawsuit filed in January.
Before IJ’s victories at the U.S. Supreme Court in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue and Carson v. Makin established that states cannot exclude religious private schools from educational choice programs, most challenges to these programs arose out of “Blaine Amendments”—state constitutional provisions that required exlusion of religious schools. But Alaska, like a few other states, has a constitutional provision that prohibits the state from using public funds to “directly benefit” not only religious institutions, but any private educational institutions. Those challenging Alaska’s correspondence school program argue the program violates this provision because some families choose to use their allotments to purchase services from private schools.
But these allotments go to families—not private schools. And it is those families, working with the public school teachers in the program, who choose from an array of services that best suit their children’s educational needs. These can range from purchasing online courses through large universities to fulfilling a physical education requirement through private lessons in cross-country skiing (a useful skill for residents of Valdez, Alaska, which receives more than 300 inches of snow annually). In no instance does the state “directly benefit” private educational institutions or otherwise prioritize them over the other educational options available to Alaska families. Instead, any money that flows to private schools does so only because of the free and independent choices of Alaska families.
The attack on Alaska’s correspondence school program strains the Alaska Constitution to undo those choices. But nobody has a stronger interest in ensuring a child’s education than that child’s parents, and their choices deserve respect. IJ is standing with parents like Andrea to ensure that they get it—and to ensure that the Last Frontier continues to be a place of promise and opportunity for their children and for generations to come.
Kirby Thomas West is an IJ attorney.
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