The spanking new Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport terminal – all glass, marble and chrome – is a sign that Alaska has finally caught up with the other 49 states in terms of mainstream amenities. Much has changed since my last visit 15 years ago in May 1991. There’s now an upscale mall and a large, elegant Nordstrom in downtown Anchorage, and freeways now radiate to the growing suburbs. There are all the standard stores and franchises we see in every American city. Still, the awesome sight of snow-capped mountains reminds the visitor that Alaska is still the last frontier with vast empty lands stretching up to Prudhoe Bay.

I had been invited to speak at the convention of the Alaska Private and Home Educators Association, or APHEA, being held Oct. 6 and 7 at a large church in one of the suburbs. Back in March 1997, Alaskan homeschoolers had achieved total independence of the state when, at APHEA’s request, state Sen. Loren Leman, R-Anchorage, now lieutenant governor, introduced Senate Bill 134, designed to completely deregulate home education in Alaska. The bill passed both the Senate and the House unanimously.

But no sooner had I arrived in the great Northland than I was told of a significant problem that independent homeschoolers are now facing. Despite their total independence, thousands of home-educating families had joined a government program that offered them free money.

The whole idea seemed to contradict what Alaskan home education was all about: independence, religious teaching, academic freedom and rugged individualism. But money talks, even in Alaska.

The program is called Interior Distance Education of Alaska, or IDEA, a program of the Galena City School District. The program, launched in 1997, was the brainchild of Carl Knudsen, superintendent of schools in Galena, a small isolated town in the middle of the state with fewer than 700 residents, halfway between Fairbanks and Nome, and no roads connecting it to the outside world. With the nearby Air Force Base closing down, the town fathers wondered what could be done to keep the town economically alive.

It was then that Knudsen’s brain lit up with a revolutionary idea. Why not use online technology to tap into a market that no one else in public education was serving: the homeschool student? And thus IDEA was born. The plan was to entice homeschoolers with a package of goodies, including computers, access to instructional resources, assistance from certified teachers, guidance from a network of field representatives who are also homeschooling parents, plus a cash allotment for non-religious educational materials.

Since all of these homeschoolers would now be considered public schoolers, Galena would be entitled to state funding of 80 percent of the basic rate paid for students in their own district. Thus, from a local base of only 120 students, by 2004, they were able to grow into a school district with 3,712 students online and an income of $16 million.

The cash allotments are the big draw for homeschooling families: $1,600 per student for kindergarten through third grade, $1,800 for grades 4-8, and $2,000 for grades 9-12. While parents are free to use and teach any curricula they want, they’re not permitted to use the allotment for any religious program or activity. They do not get cash; they simply get reimbursement for buying the approved materials. Thus, a family with five children in the elementary grades must spend $8,000 on materials. To help the families spend that money, IDEA now sponsors curriculum fairs with vendors eager to separate these homeschoolers from their new-found riches.

Naturally, the leadership of APHEA is not very happy with this development. As Christians, they prefer to see homeschoolers totally independent of the state when it comes to the education of their children. And they predict that over time, the state will impose more and more regulations over what the enrolled homeschoolers can do to be eligible for the cash allotments.

But the Galena School District does not want to kill the goose that is laying its colossal golden egg. So it must tread lightly. Even so, it has launched its own advanced curriculum program, Galena On-Line Delivery Program (GOLD) for grades 8-12. After all, with a captive audience of well over 3,500 students, why not find ways to expand your services? But as we all know, power corrupts, and the IDEA people of Galena are no exception.

Will the idea spread beyond Alaska? We shall have to wait and see. Meanwhile, I had a wonderful time socializing with dedicated home-educating parents, and I enjoyed meeting so many truly intelligent and ambitious youngsters. Their parents have imbued them with a philosophy of independence and excellence, and they have no desire to become minions of Galena. The remnant of true believers is always small, but spiritually blessed.

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