The state Board of Education is concerned that school districts may be using funding derived from correspondence students to support in-district programs.
It's a growing phenomenon in Alaska for small school districts to run statewide programs for correspondence and home-schooled students, boosting the districts' state funding.
Ten such districts have attracted about 9,000 students, state officials said. Thirteen districts have applied to run statewide correspondence programs for about 9,650 students next year.
State School Board members said earlier this month that they may ask the Legislature to require correspondence programs to spend state funds derived from out-of-district students on those children only.
School superintendents have been very open in saying correspondence programs are a way to raise money for other programs, Deputy Education Commissioner Ed McLain told the board at a Feb. 11 meeting in Anchorage.
That's true, agreed Thomas Klever, principal of Nenana's CyberLynx correspondence school, in an interview. CyberLynx enrolls the equivalent of 1,500 full-time correspondence students, compared with about 140 students in the regular Nenana schools.
"Why would a district want to have a correspondence program if they aren't going to have any gain from it?" Klever said.
The mind-set that correspondence programs are a way to make money to spend on other children "is offensive to many of us, frankly," said School Board Chairwoman Susan Stitham, a Fairbanks teacher, at a board meeting earlier this month.
The state gives school districts at least $3,208 a year for each correspondence student. The school districts in turn give correspondence parents $1,400 to $1,700 a year per child for educational materials, and loan them a computer, state education officials said. School districts pay to administer the programs, including hiring teachers and support staff.
The state School Board will talk about statewide correspondence schools at an April 4 work session in Juneau. The board will meet formally on April 5-6 in Juneau.
Board members also are concerned that parents in correspondence programs can't vote for, or run for, the school board that operates the program. Without that political power, parents can't be sure their interests are represented in school districts' decisions, including setting budgets, board members said.
"It seems to me an issue of accountability and stewardship I would hope the Legislature would take up," Chairwoman Stitham said.
Deputy Commissioner McLain said state law requires school boards to do what is best for students who live in their district. School boards "may be forced to make decisions to minimize expenditures for students out of district," he told the board.
Stitham said correspondence parents can't vote with their feet by selecting another program, because all of the programs spend roughly the same amount on correspondence students.
But correspondence parents are represented by parent advisory committees, say correspondence school officials. And those educators point out that it's common for traditional schools to spend varying amounts of money per student, such as for vocational and alternative programs.
Correspondence schools want to be held to the same standards as other schools, said Jim Foster, assistant superintendent of the Galena City School District, which runs a correspondence program for 3,450 students statewide.
"We haven't had a history of parents sitting back and saying they don't have enough money or they're not happy with the program," Foster said in an interview.
Mary Neary, a Juneau parent who has two children in Galena's correspondence program, said political representation hasn't been a concern for her.
"I guess I've always been pleased," she said. "I haven't had any issues come up."
Foster and Galena School Board President John Billings said the school district spends a lot more on correspondence students than just the allotment of $1,400 to $1,800 for materials.
The Galena district employs about 30 teachers and 32 support staff for the correspondence program, runs five regional offices, loans computers to families and pays for Internet access, offers workshops for parents, and sends students to special events, school officials said.
Eric Fry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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