Lawsuit alleges Alaska program allowing students to purchase materials for certain courses unconstitutional despite reported benefits

A new lawsuit alleges Alaska’s state-funded correspondence study program is unconstitutional because it allows families to purchase private services and materials, including private school…

A new lawsuit alleges Alaska’s state-funded correspondence study program is unconstitutional because it allows families to purchase private services and materials, including private school materials.

The lawsuit opposes Alaska Statute 14.03.310, which provides an annual allotment to students in public correspondence programs (CSAP) to purchase “nonsectarian services and materials from a public, private, or religious organization.”

The suit claims the statute violates Alaska’s Constitution, which states, “No money shall be paid from public funds for the direct benefit of any religious or other private educational institution.” The lawsuit was filed on Tuesday against acting Alaska Department of Education Commissioner Heidi Teshner.

The lawsuit claims that when CSAP was proposed in 2013, Michael Dunleavy, a state senator at the time, claimed the allotment would require a constitutional amendment, which never occurred.

When the issue was raised last year, Deputy Attorney General Cori Mills wrote a letter to Teshner defending the constitutionality of the program:

“Students enrolled in the program receive an education that is overseen by public school correspondence teachers and that meets state educational requirements,” wrote Mills. “The allotment program supports students enrolled in public correspondence schools by permitting public money to be spent for certain materials and services from a private vendor to fulfill a student’s individual learning plan.

“Such spending does not, on its face, violate the Alaska Constitution’s prohibition against spending public funds for the direct benefit of a private educational institution.” 

The plaintiffs claim otherwise. “This is exactly the type of direct benefit for private educational institutions prohibited by Article VII, Section 1 of the Alaska Constitution,” the suit says.  

However, the suit doesn’t address Mills’ later distinction that “using allotment money for one or two classes…is likely constitutional, whereas using public school allotment money to pay for most or all of a private school’s tuition would not be.”  

Meanwhile, Institute for Justice (IJ) is defending the program on behalf of families who say they benefit from it. 

“Alaska’s correspondence study program has produced massive educational benefits for Alaska’s children,” said David Hodges, an attorney for IJ. “We’re prepared to defend the rights of all Alaska families to get the educational services that best fit their unique needs.” 

Teachers’ unions, which typically fight against any form of school choice, have predictably come out in support of the suit.  

“We want to make sure all of the public money that is rightfully allocated to the public school system stays within the public school system in order to give our students the best chance to succeed possible,” said Tom Klaameyer, president of NEA-Alaska.  

Yet critics may wonder if the state’s public schools actually give students the best possible chance to succeed. Only 70% of the state’s 9th graders are proficient in English, and 77% aren’t proficient in math. The problems predate the pandemic, too. Alaska’s 4th and 8th grade test scores have been steadily worsening for the past 20 years. 

On Friday, Alaska Policy Forum (APF), a nonprofit think tank, also came out in support of the program. 

“Alaska Policy Forum applauds the Institute for Justice’s efforts to defend the rights of families to choose the best education for their child’s individual learning needs,” Bethan Marcum, APF’s CEO, said in a press release. “We also recognize the families that have courageously stepped forward to defend the CSAP program, not only for their own children but for the future of Alaska.  

“We fully support CSAP, and are hopeful the outcome of this case will affirm this critical and innovative program.”