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Four States, Feeling Pressure, Loosen Home-Schooling Rules

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Intensified pressure from Christian fundamentalist groups and citizens expressing disenchantment with the public schools has prompted the introduction of permissive home-schooling bills in a number of legislatures this year.

Lawmakers in Arkansas, New Mexico, Washington, and Wyoming, for example, approved legislation this spring that will, for the first time, specifically allow parents to educate their children at home, and the Tennessee legislature is expected to adopt a more liberal home-school law within the next few weeks.

Other states--including Florida, Missouri, and Oregon--expect to be acting on home-education bills in the near future.

And in Idaho, where three families were jailed last December for keeping their 16 school-age children out of school, the legislature, after a clamorous debate, rejected proposed changes in the education statutes governing home schooling.

Religious Motivation

John Holt, the prominent champion of home schooling who is president of Holt Associates, a Boston firm that publishes the newsletter Growing Without Schooling and serves as a resource center to help parents who want to provide home education, estimates there are now 15,000 to 20,000 families providing home schooling for their children, compared with an estimated 10,000 such families just five years ago.

Most states, according to Patricia M. Lines, director of the Education Commission of the States' law and education center, do not challenge the right of parents to educate their children at home. But conflicts between parents who operate home schools, local law-enforcement officers, and state officials have been brewing in about 16 states where, until now, home education has not been expressly permitted by law.

The legislation that has emerged, according to Ms. Lines, has largely been the result of recent intense lobbying efforts of home educators, many of whom have been "coming out of the closet" in recent years.

Home schoolers, she said, "have observed the success of fundamentalist Christian schools which [under state statutes] fit in the same category, and they have obtained passage of state legislation that accommodates what they want to do."

Seeking More Freedom

Parents who seek to provide home education are "more vocal, visible, and assertive of their rights" today than they were five or 10 years ago, according to Robert K. Sharp, legal counsel for the Tennessee Department of Education.

Home educators want to keep their children at home primarily for religious reasons, he said, and because they are upset by what they perceive as the "immoral" social environment in schools.

The driving force behind the Arkansas bill, for example, was religious groups who sought "more and more freedom from any kind of government control," according to Paul R. Root, special assistant to Gov. Bill Clinton. Lawmakers who wrote the bill, he said, sought to balance the "state's responsibility to provide quality education and to respect individuals' rights to educate children based on their interpretation of Scripture."

He said that most of the home-school parents were products of public schools and sought a return to a more "basic" way of life and education for their children.

Legal Issues

Aside from the increased strength of the home-education lobby, observers say there are forceful legal reasons for states to relax strictures on home instruction.

Compulsory-education laws in some states have been successfully challenged in court, resulting in pressure to develop new laws that are less vague and give more direction to school districts and to parents on what constitutes a legitimate school program; the new bills often include a definition of home schooling.

"Legislators are working to balance their responsibility to see that all children receive an education with the desire of parents to educate their children as they choose," according to Representative Sheila F. Lumpe, a member of the Missouri House education committee and chairman of a legislative commission on alternatives to public education there.

In Tennessee, for example, the compulsory-attendance law was deemed by state courts and the at-torney general to be "vague and unenforceable," according to Mr. Sharp, the legal counsel to the state education department.

In two recent cases, judges refused to require children educated at home to attend school because the existing law, which says that "every child between 7 and 16 shall attend public or private school," does not define what a school is.

A new home-school bill, approved earlier this month by the Senate and by the House education committee, specifies no curriculum but sets standards for home-school teachers requiring that parents hold a bachelor's degree to teach students in grades 9 through 12 and at least a high-school diploma to teach K-8 students.

Under the terms of the bill, students would be tested on the same state schedule as students who attend public schools, and the test results would have to be reported to the superintendent of the local school system. A student falling more than six months behind his or her peers would be required to enter an approved public school, private school, or state-certified tutorial program.

Action in Legislatures

Other recent developments involving home-schooling measures include these:

In Arkansas, a state that previously had no provision for home schooling, the legislature approved a law in late March that will allow parents to educate their children at home, provided that they declare their intent with the local school superintendent and test their children annually, beginning at age 9. Students who do not make satisfactory progress will be required to enroll in a public or an accredited private school.

In New Mexico, lawmakers amended the state's compulsory-attendance law in March to allow parents to teach their children at home and directed the state board of education to develop requirements for home schooling. (See Education Week, March 27, 1985.)

In Wyoming, the legislature approved in late February a bill that legitimizes home education in the state for the first time. The law permits parents to teach their children at home after submitting to the local district a curriculum showing that they intend to provide "fundamental, sequential instruction in reading, writing, mathematics, civics, history, literature, and science." (See Education Week, March 20, 1985.)

In Washington State, a liberal home-schooling bill was approved by lawmakers this month and is expected to be signed by Gov. Booth Gardner.

The bill, SSB3279, will amend the state's compulsory-education laws to recognize home schooling as one appropriate way for children to be educated. According to one official in the education department, the measure is the state's way of giving up on its "feeble efforts to enforce the mandatory-attendance act" on "the assumption that children will receive viable educational experiences at home."

In Missouri, the current compulsory-attendance statute says that parents must send children to a "public, private, parochial, or parish" school or provide them with "substantially equivalent" regular daily instruction at home.

But a bill in the legislature would change the definition of home and private schooling, requiring private schools--which previously have not been regulated--to offer a course on the U.S. Constitution and American history and provide at least 800 hours of instruction in reading, language arts, math, social studies, and science.

Home schools would be excluded from the requirement for the course on American history and the Constitution but would be required to provide the mandated hours of instruction annually in the same academic fields.

The bill is on the legislative calendar, "but so far down that it's not likely to get through the legislative process," according to Daniel Landon, a legislative researcher.

In Oregon, a bill has been introduced to eliminate a clause in the school-attendance law that requires parents to receive annual written permission from the local school superintendent to operate home schools.

It would also delete regulations giving superintendents the authority to order home-taught pupils who are not performing up to standard to return to public schools and requiring that children educated at home be tested by the local district, according to Assistant State Superintendent Jan R. Coulton.

The bill, HB2475, which is currently before the House education committee, would instead simply require parents to notify local districts that they are educating their children at home.

In Florida, a bill in the House would liberalize compulsory-education statutes to allow people to educate their children at home "without benefit of a degree or certification and without specifying the curriculum," according to the bill's sponsor, Representative Walter Young.

Under the provisions of HB50-326, parents would be required to inform the local school superintendent of their intention to provide home instruction. They would annually have to show evidence of their child's progress by presenting: a portfolio of the student's activities, evidence of satisfactory performance on an approved standardized test administered by a state-certified teacher, or a satisfactory evaluation by a psychologist, or other evidence of achievement agreed upon by the parent and the superintendent.

The bill is now out of the House education committee and in the appropriations committee and is likely to pass in the House, according to Representative Young. A companion bill, SB352, is still in the Senate education committee and will face a difficult time in the Senate, he said.

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