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Student funding ignites debate

Assembly to tackle hot home-school controversy tonight

Posted: Tuesday, February 20, 2001

Do Kenai Peninsula students need to attend Kenai Peninsula schools?

Home-school parents want the freedom to choose programs for their children. For hundreds of families, that quest has led to programs sponsored by districts other than the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District. The most popular is Interior Distance Education of Alaska (IDEA), headquartered in Galena, which began in 1997.

Borough officials want state education funding dollars for peninsula students to go into peninsula schools. Families enrolling elsewhere lead to school dollars leaving the area, they say.

Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly member Jack Brown has waded into this controversy by introducing a resolution urging the Legislature to prohibit districts from operating statewide programs.

"I do not believe a public entity like Galena should be able to come into the community and pirate the money away," he said Monday.

"It seems we are not adequately addressing the home-school issue."

The resolution, numbered 2001-018, does not appear on the published agenda of tonight's assembly meeting, but is planned as a "lay down" addition.

Home-school activists are up in arms about the proposal.

"I got about 9,000 e-mails on the resolution," Brown said. "I literally have received more e-mail on this than any other issue in a long time."

Carol Simpson, IDEA's field representative for the peninsula, learned of the proposal from a parent, who heard about it from assembly member Milli Martin.

"I wasn't too concerned. But then Paul Fischer called Saturday morning and said to be at the meeting," Simpson said.

Simpson sent out an e-mail alert to the parents on her network, suggesting they contact all the assembly members. She said she plans to attend today's work session discussion and the assembly meeting, which begins at 7 p.m. in the assembly chambers of the Borough Building on Binkley Street in Soldotna.

She expressed concern about the resolution's lack of public notice; its language, which she called inflammatory; its statistics, which she believes give a misleading impression about IDEA's finances; and its potential to influence the Legislature or the state Department of Education and Early Develop-ment to close down programs such as IDEA.

Brown said not getting the resolution on the advertised agenda was an oversight.

"I just didn't get it in on time," he said. "I think a lot of people know about it."

Part of the resolution states that peninsula public schools "have lost over 600 students to such programs at a cost of more than $4,300,000 in lost revenue ... ."

The district has been struggling financially because revenue per student, corrected for inflation, has been declining since the early 1980s. Enrollment has declined over the past several years, leading to further cutbacks.

Simpson pointed out that Galena received $3,152 per student this school year, not the $10,000 she had heard people spreading in rumors. She also noted that, based on past surveys, a majority of IDEA's students were from home-school families that had never had their children enrolled in the public school system.

Brown said that in his district of Nikiski, people are concerned that declining school enrollment may be linked to families transferring their children from public school to programs like IDEA. Nikiski Middle-Senior High School is slated to lose a teaching position next year because of enrollment declines, he said.

He wants to see the district here improve and expand its own 2-year-old cyber school, Connec-tions, to meet the needs of home-school families, he said.

Simpson said she respects Brown's concern for his constituents, but that the resolution and the legislation it advocates is not the way to proceed.

Brown said the dire financial straits of the peninsula's public schools and the ethics of Galena's program prompted his intervention.

"Galena should not be able to do what they are doing. It is wrong," he said.

"I don't know what the solution is, but the Legislature needs to take a look at it."



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