Complaints spur tightening of correspondence school rules

Critics say some families are using education funds for activities such as ski lessons, cruise-ship trips

Posted: Tuesday, December 30, 2003

ANCHORAGE - State school officials are moving to stiffen correspondence rules amid complaints that some districts are funding questionable expenses with state money.

Critics contend two districts are taking advantage of a loophole that allows students enrolled full-time in private school to qualify for state funding at correspondence schools.

But instead of using financial allotments for academics, some private school families are using them for nonacademic pursuits such as sports, music lessons and travel.

They point to the Denali Borough School District's Personalized Education for Alaskan Kids, or PEAK, and Craig City School's Personal Alternative Choices in Education, known as PACE.

Reimbursement forms from the PACE program show families have used funds to pay for activities that include a family pass at an Anchorage water park, a trip to Washington, D.C., lessons at Hilltop Ski Area and activities on a Royal Caribbean cruise, according to a story published in Monday's Anchorage Daily News.

"It's outrageous," said Karen Brandon, an Anchorage substitute teacher who worked for Denali's PEAK this fall. "If you really believe this is something that's a valid way to spend state money, fine. But the public doesn't really know about this."

State Education Commissioner Roger Sampson recently told correspondence school officials to voluntarily change their program or face mandated reform.

State officials have been peppered recently by e-mails from Alaskans who say they are disgusted by what they say are abuses of the public school funding system.

Bill Whicker, principal of PACE, doesn't believe his program is doing anything wrong, because it's all legal.

And some private school administrators who allow the program to fund extracurricular activities of some students also don't have a problem with it.

"If it was something illegal, obviously we would be totally against it," said Shyla Wells, academic dean at Anchorage Christian Schools. "But in this situation, it's something the correspondence schools are pushing and even telling parents, 'This is the way you can use it."'

Nate Davis, chief administrator at Anchorage's Grace Christian School, said students there also use financial allotments from PACE and PEAK to pay for activities such as photography lessons and athletics.

Davis said he grappled with whether to use the program, but ultimately decided it was a fair use of the money.

Public school students receive a free education and pay extra for activities, Davis said. Private school students who are paying for their education can receive financial help for activities, Davis said.

"These parents are paying thousands of dollars in tuition every year. It's harder for them to keep kids enrolled in all those other things that we know are good for kids, like extra electives," Davis said.

An estimated 9,000 students are enrolled in 31 correspondence schools across the state.

A regular public school gets about $4,169 from the state for each student enrolled. Correspondence students generate about 80 percent of that regular funding.

Each correspondence program has its own rules for allowable expenses. Generally, a parent submits a reimbursement form and gets money back.

Sen. Lyda Green, a Wasilla Republican, said some correspondence programs have veered from their original purpose of educating children.

Private school students are entitled to use public schools and programs to take legitimate academic classes, Green said. But the correspondence schools were never intended to pay for children's hobbies or generate money for school districts.

"If I had the ability to visit the people who run all these programs, I would suggest they go back and review the intent of the legislation, the intent of the programs they have in their district," Green said.

PACE opened about four years ago and has nearly 600 students. The program reached capacity so the Craig school district helped to open the PEAK program last summer, Whicker said. That program enrolled about 300 students.

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