For decades, students living in Alaska’s most far-flung coastal inlets, mountain ranges, and northern villages have relied on correspondence schools to provide them with the academic coursework that traditional schools could not.
But today, state education officials fear that their taxpayer-supported system of providing long-distance education to students is being manipulated, courtesy of a legal but controversial loophole.
Officials with the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development are cracking down on correspondence schools that they say provided state-funded reimbursements to full-time private school students—as opposed to students in remote locations— for charges such as family travel, fitness-club memberships, and private lessons in recreational sports.
The payments have drawn increasing scrutiny from state lawmakers and Alaska Commissioner of Education Roger Sampson, who last month expressed his frustration in a sternly worded memo to district superintendents, warning them to keep tighter controls on such spending.
“These types of expenditures are not defensible!” Mr. Sampson wrote in the March 26 memo. “A district that continues to approve these types of expenditures will be subject to a complete program audit. Results of that audit could include repayment of funds to the state of Alaska.”
Last month, Mr. Sampson’s agency proposed regulations that would bar correspondence programs from using state funding to reimburse families for health-club dues, private lessons at ski resorts, and similar expenses. In addition, students enrolled in correspondence programs would have to take at least 50 percent of their core academic coursework in subjects such as mathematics, English, foreign language, technology, or special education study to be eligible for the state-financed reimbursements.
The regulations are open for written public comment until May 14. Alaska’s state board of education can approve them at its June meeting. They would then have to undergo a review by the state’s law department before taking effect.
State education officials and legislators have been hearing complaints about the reimbursement policy for months, department spokesman Harry Gamble said. While he noted that correspondence schools were within their rights under current state law to reimburse private school students for nonacademic work, he said the system clearly was not intended to work that way.
“More and more [districts] jumped into the [correspondence school] business,” Mr. Gamble said. “The competition has become such that some of what they have offered became controversial.”
Correspondence programs have traditionally been essential to students in Alaska’s isolated regions. Such schools typically mail books and other materials to families; communicate with them by e-mail and telephone (where available); and offer parents tips on helping students with schoolwork.
Alaska’s first statewide correspondence school was Alyeska Central School in Juneau, which opened in 1939 and for years was the only such program in the state. But in recent years, the number of correspondence schools in Alaska has boomed. Today, some 7,400 students take part in 12 statewide programs, which receive nearly $25 million in annual state funding.
All of the correspondence programs subject to the proposed state regulations are operated by school districts. In some cases, they have become valuable sources of revenue for those systems. Districts receive money for both the full-time students they serve, about $4,170 per student, and 80 percent of that amount, or roughly $3,335 per pupil, for the correspondence school students they help. Under current state law, districts are expected to reimburse families of correspondence school students for their basic instructional expenses.
But that system hasn’t only been benefiting families in remote areas who needed it the most, state officials say. In many cases, students enrolled full-time at private schools across Alaska register for correspondence courses offered in public school districts, located near their homes or in other parts of the state.
As a result, rather than offering the reimbursement subsidy only to families of home-school students in remote areas, state law has granted private-school families the same subsidy, sometimes for extracurricular courses, critics say. Meanwhile, the public school districts offering correspondence programs reap per-pupil dollars from the state for taking those private-school students.
While some Alaska home- schooled students may take courses from privately-run correspondence programs, those institutions do not receive state funding and would not be covered by the proposed regulations, Mr. Gamble said.
Ronald W. Erickson, the superintendent of the Craig City school system, in southeastern Alaska, acknowledged that his district had been criticized for reimbursing private school students for the cost of family gym memberships.
Yet Mr. Erickson said his district, which has 573 full-time students and 383 students taking correspondence classes, was in many cases providing physical education and other courses to private school students whose home districts did not offer such classes. He said reimbursing the cost of family gym memberships was cheaper in many cases than paying for individual ones for students.
Mr. Erickson said his district is anticipating losing about 15 percent of its $6 million budget next year because of the proposed regulations and a drop in correspondence students. He supports the state’s push for tougher reimbursement rules, but said some of the language in the proposal would hurt students who were seeking help in fulfilling requirements such as physical education and other legitimate subjects.
The proposed rules “would prevent us from helping true home-school students,” said Mr. Erickson, who added that his district was submitting comments on the regulations. “The language is too encompassing and restrictive.”