Legal opinion sheds light on correspondence school funds

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — The use of public correspondence school funding allotments to pay most or all of a student’s private school’s tuition is “almost certainly unconstitutional,” according to an opinion released Monday by the Alaska attorney general’s office.

The opinion by Deputy Attorney General Cori Mills finds as likely constitutional the use of allotments for “discrete services or materials,” such as private tutoring or an extracurricular activity.

There will be situations that fall into a “gray area,” and the state education department and school districts should consult legal counsel when such cases arise, the opinion states.

Attorney General Treg Taylor recused himself from the matter in May. His wife, Jodi Taylor, had written about school choice and allotments in a May 16 post on the Alaska Policy Forum website.

Mills said questions around the program came up last year, as well as when Jodi Taylor’s opinion piece came out and around a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision. She said it was seen as important to issue a formal opinion on the program overall.

Mills said she believes the framers of the state’s constitution were concerned with “supplanting a public education with a private education. … That is different than supporting or supplementing a public education with the use of some private school resources.”

The state constitution says no money “shall be paid from public funds for the direct benefit of any religious or other private educational institution.”

According to the opinion, correspondence schools are publicly funded and subject to state regulatory oversight. The state education department or school districts must provide correspondence students with individual learning plans. A 2014 state law allows districts to provide an annual allotment to the parents of students in a correspondence program for instructional expenses, the opinion states.