A concerned parent's reaction to the Alaskan Department of Education's attack on religous freedom.
Dear Friend of Parent-Guided Education, Recently, DEED auditors completed comprehensive examinations of certain statewide correspondence school programs. Failing to uncover any substantive problems with the programs, auditors zeroed in on the fact that some participants use privately funded sectarian materials to round out their individual learning plans (ILPs). No public funds are used to buy sectarian materials, or to support sectarian teaching services. Parents who choose to use (for example) ABEKA science, language or history materials pay out of their own pockets. Nonetheless, DEED has decreed that no official school credit may be granted for sectarian courses, i.e.: no sectarian course may even APPEAR in a student's individual learning plan for which school credit is granted. So, your high school student cannot, will not, receive any credit for completing one of the best language curriculums available — simply because some of the sentences your student diagrams include the name of God. This is a violation of AS 14.07.050, and an absurd interpretation of AS 14.03.090 and a ridiculous (utterly!) abuse of AS 14.18.060 – and yet all of these statutes were quoted in the copy of the audit findings and corrective action demands I read. The district my child attends has notified me that they can no longer give credit for the course I teach through the statewide correspondence program because the (excellent) material is sectarian. Faith based initiatives? What a joke! Some one, somewhere, PLEASE REIGN IN THE DEED! These perhaps well-meaning but most certainly misguided bureaucrats are presiding over the continuing decline of education in this state. Statewide correspondence schools are the last real chance for parents like me to realize any modicum of the broad constitutional guarantee described in Article Seven of our State Constitution. I urge you in the strongest terms to take immediate action to forestall or prohibit DEED from the threatened closure of any program that does not change its operation plan to reflect the audit corrective actions related to the private use of sectarian materials that otherwise meet or exceed state standards. My district was told it must comply by May 5. Will you end this legislative session without taking effective action? I hope not! Please write to me and let me know what might be done. I will be sharing this with several statewide home school and correspondence school family email lists shortly. Correspondence schools are cost effective, successful education alternatives in desperate need of regulatory protection. Please ask for copies of the audit reports – as public entities, they should not be considered confidential. Thank you for your concern in this matter, and for having patience with a rational and otherwise calm parent's rantings.
FootnotesThese footnotes weren't part of the letter. The text of the laws is from an HTML version which the State maintains. The sections in italics are my comments.
 AS 14.07.050. Selection of Textbooks.
Textbooks for use in the public schools of the state, including a district offered statewide correspondence study program, shall be selected by district boards for district schools. Nothing in this section precludes a correspondence study student, or the parent or guardian of a correspondence study student, from privately obtaining or using textbooks or curriculum material not provided by the school district. I think this is painfully clear, except, apparently, in the minds of DEED's auditors.  AS 14.03.090. Partisan, Sectarian, or Denominational Doctrines Prohibited.
Partisan, sectarian, or denominational doctrines may not be advocated in a public school during the hours the school is in session. A teacher or school board violating this section may not receive public money. Nothing here prohibits parents from teaching their own religion to their children at home, and nothing prevents the schools from acknowledging such teaching, except, apparently, in the minds of DEED's auditors.
 AS 14.18.060. Discrimination in Textbooks and Instructional Materials Prohibited.
- School boards shall have textbooks and instructional materials reviewed for evidence of sex bias in accordance with AS 14.08.111 (9) and AS 14.14.090 (7). School boards shall use educationally sound, unbiased texts and other instructional materials as they become available. Nothing in this section prohibits use of literary works. The Bible is a literary work, except, apparently, in the minds of DEED's auditors. The intent here, clearly, is to avoid ``sex bias''. There is no reason to think that religious materials have any ``sex bias'', unless you've defined ``sex bias'' to mean ``Christianity''. Only in the minds of DEED's auditors ....
- The board shall establish by regulation standards for nondiscriminatory textbooks and educational materials. Each school board shall provide training for all its certificated personnel in the identification and recognition of sex-biased materials. Again, nothing here prohibits parents from choosing and using other textbooks and materials. Furthermore, the issue is still ``sex bias''. There is no evidence here of legislative intent to abridge our religious freedoms.
- The Board of Regents shall establish and implement a policy under AS 14.40.170 (b) for the guidance of officers and employees of the university on the selection of nondiscriminatory textbooks and educational materials. This is strictly for the University system, no application here.
 Article VII "Health, Education and Welfare"
SECTION 1. PUBLIC EDUCATION.
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.
``Open to all'' means ``open to all'', unless you're a DEED auditor, in which case it apparently means ``open to all, unless they're of the wrong religion''.
UpdatesSB167, which is an attempt to fix this mess. Ruth Aboud of Delta Junction and Annie Doughty of Fairbanks also testified, by teleconference. Since I only heard their names once, I have probably gotten the spelling completely wrong. Their testimony was clear and compelling. I've put a copy of the testimony I read from below. As I listened to the Departments of Law and Education testifying, I had made a number of notes, but the only one I could seem to focus on was a note to the effect that in the statewide programs, the ``teachers'' are consultants, who don't teach the kids!. I think that was divine intervention; those other notes would have been bad rabbit trails to run down. Here it is, as I carried it into the room.
I was homeschooled from second grade through highschool, and today, my wife and I are homeschooling our three children. This year I am the co-chair for the Juneau Home Educators' Association (JHEA), a group of about fifty homeschooling families in Juneau. I am here today to tell you how my family will be affected by the Department of Education and Early Development's new policy, and why I think that the Legislature needs to address the problem. My family has been using one or another of the statewide correspondence programs since my oldest child turned five. For two years now, we have been using the Raven School. We have found that the local representative is very helpful: she has been able to help us find teaching methods and curricula which work for our children, she has helped us with the paperwork, but most importantly, she has been a source of encouragement for my wife, who bears most of the burden of educating our children. At this point I ad-libbed a bit. I told them something along the lines of this:I'll be tracking this on my homeschooling blog, so go there for for the most recent commentary.
The local representative isn't really a teacher: she doesn't teach our kids. In the three years we used Alyeska Central School, the representative saw our child one time, and that was once more than was necessary. The local representative is a facilitator, a consultant, a representative, but she never teaches the kids, and she need never see the kids, or the materials we use. She has no opportunity to advocate any religion or doctrine, even if she wanted to. Each of the programs we have tried has imposed some paperwork burdens and restrictions, but so far, they have been tolerable for our family. If the burdens and restrictions reach the point that they interfere with our responsibility to educate our children, we will have to leave the public schools and teach our children independently. After last year's new regulations, several of the families in the JHEA group are already struggling with the question of whether it is worthwhile to continue in the statewide programs. I fear that this new policy will push some of them to go independent, and it may have that effect on us. The new policy from DEED will interfere with my family's ability to teach our children as our religion requires. We make God a part of all the children's lessons, and for some of the lessons, such as ancient history, we use the Bible as a central text. The statewide programs have never paid for Christian materials, but they have always allowed us to use them to meet the goals on our children's Individual Learning Plans. The programs' teachers have always been able to evaluate what we are doing, and help us do it, without advocating either their religious beliefs or ours. I believe that the Statewide School Board and the DEED are acting in accordance with what they think is the legislature's intent, and I believe they are mistaken: I can't imagine that the legislature ever intended to restrict our family's religious freedom, or to interfere with our right to educate our children as we see fit. The School Board and the DEED need the Legislature to provide a clear response to this new policy to readjust their understanding of the intent behind the laws they enforce. Because it addresses this one issue, simply and directly, SB 167 will provide that clear response, and the clear direction that the DEED needs. I'd like to urge you to pass this bill as it stands. I think that its brevity is the key to its effectiveness. Thank you for listening to a concerned father, and thank you for considering this bill.