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Here come the strings

Education | Alaska's groundbreaking support for homeschools may be buried in state audits and new rulings

Issue: "Salting Hollywood," Sept. 3, 2005

Since 1997, parents in Alaska have enjoyed state support for homeschool expenses with almost no academic restraint-provided any religious-themed teaching materials were purchased with private money. No more. "Here come the strings," said Peter Torkelson, a former state legislator who, along with his wife Lisa, is one parent who has resisted taking government money to homeschool his daughters. "They managed to avoid for a while what I thought would happen a long time ago."

Armed with a new application of an old statute, Alaska's Department of Education and Early Development (EED) declared that teaching a majority of core subjects with religious-based materials-even those privately purchased-disqualifies parents from receiving government funds. It employed a 1966 law, which states, "Partisan, sectarian, or denominational doctrines may not be advocated in a public school during the hours the school is in session."

Assistant attorney general Kathleen Starsbaugh confirmed EED's interpretive broadening of the law, labeling private homes as public schools: "While it uses terminology more easily applied to the traditional classroom, it applies to public schooling however delivered." She added that dispensing public money to parents who rely heavily on religious-themed curricula also violates the Alaska Constitution and the First Amendment's establishment clause.

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Alaska's correspondence programs grew from a need to serve students in remote areas, but soon parents in major cities embraced them. Fallout from the new directive was immediate. Correspondence programs reported decreases in enrollment as families committed to faith-based education refused to compromise and backed out. Steve Musser, who oversees one such program, told WORLD he lost several hundred students. "Did we see this coming?" he said. "No. We'd been doing this for years."

Former EED commissioner Shirley Holloway, who helped launch the correspondence programs eight years ago and now serves on the state board of education, told WORLD that the sudden audits resulted from anonymous complaints of financial abuses. Those include using public education dollars for ski trips in the name of physical education or purchasing kitchen appliances for home economics. But Ms. Holloway insisted that such rare infractions were heavily outweighed by the programs' overwhelming success.

Whatever the impetus, the changes affect 10,000 students, many of whom have posted improved standardized test scores while costing the state 20 percent less than those at "brick and mortar" schools. The majority of these students have remained in the respective programs despite the new limitations, some finding creative ways to skirt the rules. If secular materials are used in enough core subjects, parents who use some religious materials can still qualify for funding.

Nevertheless, state Sen. Fred Dyson considers such restrictions illegal, citing legislation passed in August 2002 that specifically protects the use of privately purchased curricula-even if not officially provided as part of the correspondence program. He told WORLD that the new restrictions resulted from state education officials "collectively getting their panties in a wad because so many parents were opting out of public schools."

Mr. Torkelson agrees that the correspondence programs have opened up the homeschooling option to families that previously could not afford it. But he grew concerned when 80 percent to 90 percent of Alaska homeschoolers jumped on board. Mr. Torkelson recalls when state legislators first laughed at the homeschool movement several decades ago, then ignored it, then fought it.

He views correspondence programs as the state's latest strategy to cripple decentralized education: "Once you're taking the money, they have a legitimate interest in what you're doing. This is a way to damage the movement over the long run."

Mr. Torkelson is too kind to say "I told you so." But he just did.

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