The Boney Courthouse in downtown Anchorage, across the street from the larger Nesbett Courthouse, holds the Alaska Supreme Court chambers. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)
The Boney Courthouse in downtown Anchorage, across the street from the larger Nesbett Courthouse, holds the Alaska Supreme Court chambers. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

Candace Hall teaches all four of her children from their home about 25 miles north of Haines. She loves the flexibility, the ability to prioritize what they’re learning and the amount of time she can spend with her fifth-grader, third-grader, first-grader, and preschooler.

“We just love being together as a family,” she said. 

The family uses Raven Homeschool, a statewide correspondence program. Each year, they get an educational allotment from the state, usually about $2,500 per child. It helps with the cost of the curriculum.  It also pays for tutors and helps with extracurriculars like the swim team or music.  

“Our daughter is taking music lessons,” Hall said. “We bought the banjo so she could play.”

But that state educational allotment for homeschool students is in jeopardy after an Anchorage judge struck down the law, saying the state is constitutionally prohibited from spending public money on private school.  

Hall said without that money, her family will still homeschool. But, things will be tighter. They’ll probably drop the extracurriculars.

“I don’t think our kids would be on the swim team, at least not full time,” she said.

She’s hopeful, though, that it won’t come to that.  

“I’m not too concerned to be honest. There’s a lot of kids that are homeschooled and it seems like that our legislature wouldn’t completely drop that many families and in that many locations,” she said.  “I trust that the legislature will fix it.” 

That’s a sentiment Rick Petersen, Director of Distance Learning at the Chatham School District shares. The district includes Klukwan, Angoon, Gustavus, and Tenakee Springs. 

He said people in Tenakee Springs, a community of just over 100 people, rallied when the town’s school closed and developed a homeschool program that has only gotten more robust over the years. First they offered it just for kids in Tenakee Springs, now it’s statewide. 

“We don’t have a brick and mortar school but we have kids who need education,” Petersen said. “There are a lot of tiny towns in Alaska like this.” 

The Chatham School District offers between $2,400 and $2,800 annually, depending on the grade level, though Petersen said most families do not use the full amount. But some do.

“It’s really dependent on the income of the family,” he said. “Some families can absorb that without a problem. I wouldn’t say that’s a rule with our students. We serve some teenage single moms up north who have almost no money and it’s hard to get a job when they’re taking care of their baby. And $2,000 is not something they’re going to have in a savings account throughout the school year. It could make or break whether or not they graduate high school. If we couldn’t pay for their books they probably wouldn’t be in school.”

Alaska has operated correspondence programs for homeschool students, many with allotments for students for decades. The state’s Constitution prohibits public funds from benefitting religious or private educational institutions.

But, in 2022, the Alaska Beacon reported several state-licensed homeschool programs had begun allowing participants to use their allotments to pay for classes at private and religious schools. That practice, and the state’s decision to defend it, eventually led to the lawsuit which saw the whole system overturned earlier this year. 

But school district leaders who administer these programs in both the Chatham and Haines school districts say they have not seen many attempts by parents to use those educational allotments on private instructions or religious schooling.  

“My experience is that people aren’t trying to get away with something. Most families are pretty clear on what they can and can’t buy. We have a handbook that describes what you can spend money on and what you can’t,” Petersen said. “We rarely have to say no.” 

The Haines Borough School District, serves 27 students with an in-district correspondence program. Superintendent Roy Getchell said when it does have to deny expenses it’s usually because the families are new or learning how things work. 

“We work really hard to just educate parents up front, work with parents up front so we don’t have to deny,” he said. 

Getchell, and others, said they are hopeful that state leadership will find a solution to the problem for a number of reasons. One is that it’s much cheaper to educate a student via homeschool or correspondence than in a brick-and-mortar school. 

Getchell said the district pays about $20,000 per student, per year in its physical schools. It reimburses families in its correspondence school programs just $3,000 a year. 

And, nearly a quarter of all students in Alaska are homeschooled or in correspondence schools. 

“Brick and mortar schools are just not prepared to accept 20,000 students back,” said Petersen. “Budgets are set and teachers are hired. Even if the teachers wanted to go back I don’t know the teachers would be able to handle them all. It’s too big of a problem, I think the state’s going to come up with a solution.” 

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the state’s allotment program for homeschooling families began in 2014. Allotments have been available for much longer.