Is Alaska Violating its Own Constitution?

During recent testimony to the Senate Education Committee, it was disclosed that public funds were being used to fund private education.  How can that be?  Aren’t we a nation of laws?  Sometimes these actions occur because people just are not informed of the law or constitution.  Other times these actions occur because the laws and constitution are just plain ignored when it benefits a particular constituency.

The Alaska Constitution prohibits public funds supporting other than the public education system (Blaine Amendment). Here is the exact language:

Alaska’s “Blaine Amendment” language was part of our original constitution Article VII, § 1, and reads: “The legislature shall by general law establish and maintain a system of public schools open to all children of the State, and may provide for other public educational institutions. Schools and institutions so established shall be free from sectarian control. No money shall be paid from public funds for the direct benefit of any religious or other private educational institution.” (emphasis added)

The opponents of school choice and empowering parents to directly participate in their child’s education defend this language in any discussion of alternatives to the public education system.  The key word in the above quote is “direct” which is emphasized for clarity.  Just what is direct benefit and what is indirect benefit? If the state provides funds directly to a religious or private educational institution, that is most likely unconstitutional.  But what if the state provides funds to a public school district and that district hires a private entity with those same funds to provide educational services to a student?  In the Sheldon Jackson College v. State (1979), the Alaska Supreme Court invalidated a grant program which helped students pay tuition at the private college, Sheldon Jackson College.  This was in spite of the fact that the funds went to the student who used these funds to pay tuition.  These funds did not go directly to the college.

Interestingly enough, the US Supreme Court has ruled otherwise in several cases.  In the Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002) case the Court upheld a direct scholarship program in which the state provided scholarships to students who could then choose the private or religious school to attend.  The Court ruled that this was not a violation of the federal Establishment Clause and that the benefit to the religious school was incidental and that the parent made the conscious decision to select that school.  The direct benefit was to the student, not the religious school.  In Winn v. Arizona Christian School Tuitioning Organizaton (2011) the Court upheld state income tax credits for scholarship granting organizations as well.

Most are aware of federal programs for post-secondary education in which the federal government provides funds to students who can then choose any college or university to attend.  Two of the most popular are the G.I. Bill and Pell Grants.  The G.I. bill, passed by Congress in 1944,  benefited more than 2.2 million veterans by 1956.  These veterans could attend any college or university of their choice, private, public or religious.  Pell Grants have opened the door to educational opportunity for low income students by providing grants to attend educational institutions, private, public or religious.  Neither of these programs of educational choice has been challenged in the courts.  Do we have similar programs in Alaska and are they aligned with the Alaska Constitution?

The State of Alaska has a large variety of educational programs which provide funding to/for non-public education entities.  During the period 2011-2013, the legislature provided $5,789,612 in grants to more than 2,600 students under the AlaskAdvantage Education Grant program.  These students attended public colleges, private colleges, religious colleges, and for-profit educational institutions.  This is an example of indirect aid benefiting students with public funds.

The legislature also has provided direct aid to private organizations for education programs and facilities.  During the period 2009-2013 these private organizations received more than $11 Million in public funds to provide education programs to Alaskan students.  One of these grants provided more than $6 Million to Local Labor Union 341 for a dormitory and a training facility.  If this direct funding of a private organization’s facility is constitutional, then Alaska could probably be funding the construction of private/religious facilities for educational purposes.  It must be said that many of these other grants provide excellent education opportunities that are not available in the public education system.  Here is a listing of those programs:

 Select Grants to Ed Programs Facilities Training

The Alaska Department of Labor & Workforce Development also provides public funds to many private organizations for “training” programs which mostly consist of post-secondary vocational programs.  In fiscal year 2013 the state used more than $8 Million of public funds to support organizations such as, Alaska Forum on the Environment, Affinityfilms Inc, Green Earth Landscaping, and the Alaska Laborers Training School.  Once again, this is public funds supporting private educational-like organizations.

Finally, one recent program which funds post-secondary education is the Alaska Performance Scholarship program.  The intent of this program is to incentivize student achievement of high school students.  And there is nothing wrong with that intent.  The following private post-secondary educational institutions are “approved to participate” in the APS program:

  • Alaska Bible College
  • Alaska Career College
  • Alaska Christian College
  • Alaska Pacific University
  • Charter College
  • Wayland Baptist University
  • A Head of Time Design Academy
  • Amundsen Educational Center
  • MetrOasis
  • Northern Industrial Training

Note that some of these are religious educational institutions and some are for-profit educational institutions.  Once again, public funds are used to support private/religious education institutions.  The question of the quality of instruction/programs and the benefits to students are not the issue.  Many of these organizations provide excellent educational support for these students.  But is the use of public funds constitutional?  Should we just look the other way or should we enforce the Alaska Constitution?