Alaska judge grants limited stay in correspondence school allotments decision


JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — A state court judge has paused through June his decision striking down laws that allowed some Alaska students to use public funds at private and religious schools, rejecting a request from the state for a longer stay.

Superior Court Judge Adolf Zeman also said Thursday that the state “mischaracterizes and misreads” his original ruling on correspondence school allotments last month.

Zeman in April found that laws around correspondence school allotments “were drafted with the express purpose of allowing purchases of private educational services with the public correspondence student allotments.” The Alaska Constitution says public funds can’t be paid “for the direct benefit of any religious or other private educational institution.”

Attorneys for the state in court documents said Zeman’s April 12 ruling meant that correspondence schools apparently cannot prepare individual learning plans for students or provide any allotments, “even if the allotments are spent only on things like textbooks and laptops rather than on private school classes or tuition.”

Zeman “applied such a broad reading of the constitutional term ‘educational institution’” that his original ruling “would render unconstitutional even basic purchases by brick-and-mortar public schools from private businesses like textbook publishers or equipment vendors,” attorneys Margaret Paton Walsh and Laura Fox wrote in seeking a stay while the case is heard on appeal by the Alaska Supreme Court. An appeal in the case is planned.

The state’s broader read of the ruling has been at odds with an analysis by legislative attorneys, who said correspondence programs could continue with small changes to the law or regulations, the Anchorage Daily News reported.

Zeman said Thursday that his original decision “did not find that correspondence study programs were unconstitutional,” and said correspondence programs “continue to exist after this Court’s Order.”

There are more than 22,000 correspondence students in Alaska.

The Associated Press sent an email seeking comment to the state Department of Law Thursday.

The stay granted by Zeman was in line with one requested by the plaintiffs in the case. Scott Kendall, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said the limited stay would allow students to finish the school year with minimal disruption — but it also meant that unconstitutional spending would not continue indefinitely.

Several lawmakers said the judge’s latest order reinforced that they should be working to address the issue before the legislature is scheduled to adjourn in mid-May. Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy earlier this week said he thought lawmakers should wait to pass legislation addressing correspondence programs until the state Supreme Court weighs in.

Sen. Bill Wielechowski, an Anchorage Democrat, said the limited stay “reiterates the urgency of the Legislature passing legislation” now.

“If the court had granted a stay through next year, then it would have taken the urgency away from doing something because we could address it next session. Now that we know that this expires June 30, I think it would not be responsible for us to not pass something before we leave, or for emergency regulations to be enacted,” he said.