In final judgment, judge blocks Alaska correspondence provisions, keeps current rules through June

 


An Anchorage Superior Court judge on Thursday put on hold through the end of the school year a ruling invalidating two provisions of state law governing correspondence education.

Judge Adolf Zeman issued a hold, known as a “stay,” requested by plaintiffs on a ruling he made in April, that found the state violated the Alaska Constitution by providing public funding for private schools through its allotment program. The hold will remain in effect through June 30.

Along with the hold, Zeman issued a final judgment on the two provisions, enacted in 2014. One provision governed the allotments and the other required school districts to write learning plans for correspondence students while also limiting what the state can require of these students. As part of the final judgment, he blocked the state from spending “public funds for the direct benefit of private educational institutions.”

That means if legislators and Gov. Mike Dunleavy want to ensure new laws or rules are in place before the stay ends, they have less than two months to act — unless the Alaska Supreme Court rules otherwise before then.

Thursday’s final judgment is a victory for the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, who didn’t want the current programs to end suddenly, but also did not want them in place for next school year. It means the state won’t be able to spend money through the two provisions of state law starting July 1, unless the state Supreme Court extends the stay before then. The laws that Zeman found to be unconstitutional have allowed the state to pay for correspondence families’ costs, including for students to attend classes in private schools.

“The good news is, if there ever was a crisis, there’s no crisis,” said Scott Kendall, the plaintiff’s lawyer, in response to Zeman’s final judgment. “There are easily fixable things here. And the only thing you can’t do is pay money to private schools or reimburse private school tuition.”

The administration was not successful in its request for Zeman to stay the ruling until the state Supreme Court rules on an appeal.

“A limited stay until the end of the fiscal year will ensure that any correspondence allotments that were taken” in reliance on the invalidated provisions will be honored, Zeman wrote, “while minimizing the potential for continued unfettered unconstitutional spending.”

The administration has said Zeman’s April ruling throws the entire correspondence program into doubt. The judge wrote in the stay order on Thursday that the state misread him, writing that the court “did not find that correspondence programs were unconstitutional.” He noted that correspondence programs existed before the state enacted the two provisions in question, and he wrote that they continue to exist.

The state Department of Law did not immediately return a phone call seeking its response to the ruling.

Under Zeman’s rulings, it’s up to lawmakers to decide whether they want new correspondence program laws beyond what existed before 2014.

“To reiterate, it’s not the Court’s role to draft legislation and determine policy for the state through impermissibly revising otherwise unconstitutional statutes,” Zeman wrote in the stay order.

Both chambers of the Legislature are working on fixes related to the judge’s April ruling. But on Wednesday, Dunleavy suggested he would veto bills passed before the Supreme Court rules on an appeal. He said he could call the Legislature into a special session after a ruling.

James Brooks contributed to this article. The Alaska Beacon is an independent, donor-funded news organization. Alaskabeacon.com.

 

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