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Calif. Law Seeks To Plug Home-Schooling Loophole

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A new California law is aimed at ending a controversial financial relationship between some school districts and home-schooling parents under which parents have received money to buy goods and services--from cooking equipment to trips to Sea World--that go well beyond anything provided to students in regular schools.

Uncertainty over the measure has left education department officials, local educators, and parents scrambling to deal with the change and its ramifications.

Included in the state budget passed by the legislature in September, the new rule seeks to curtail a practice adopted in recent years by an estimated 10 school districts in northern California. The districts have been offering up to $1,000 in expense reimbursements to home-schooling parents who enrolled their children in an independent-study program, officials said.

For each student enrolled, the districts have received state-aid payments of more than $3,000--in effect, clearing a substantial profit on the deal.

At the same time, say critics, the districts have failed to provide the extensive services for home-schooled students that they are supposed to under state regulations.

Although at least one district is planning to contest the new rule in court, other educators are hailing it for cracking down on an unethical and possibly illegal activity that reflected badly on the many districts that were not engaging in the practice.

A Boon to Some Districts

Officials of a few districts said they have routinely reimbursed parents for such expenses as art classes at a local museum, private music lessons, field trips, and computer and other equipment, provided the expenses helped meet students' educational goals and objectives.

The legislation states, however, that a district cannot claim state aid for independent study if it has provided "any funds or other thing of value'' to the student or his parents that the school system does not offer to students who attend regular classes.

The law also states that districts can only claim state per-pupil aid for students who live in the county of the district, or in a county immediately adjacent.

Officials emphasized that the overwhelming majority of districts were not offering the reimbursements, and that home-schooling independent study is a legitimate educational practice.

Fewer than 500 students have been involved in reimbursements, out of the 53,000 students in more than 700 districts statewide who participate in independent study, said Lynn Hartzler, a consultant to the state department's division of youth, adult, and alternative educational services.

"A very few school districts saw this as a boon,'' he said.

One cash-strapped school district--Bennett Valley Union Elementary, which is filing a lawsuit against the new rule--was drawing state-funded enrollees from three counties away.

Lyle Graf, the Bennett Valley superintendent, acknowledged that his district was effectively clearing a profit from state aid for home-schooled students. The costs of running the independent-study program and paying reimbursements to parents did not use up all of the state funding, he said.

The district, which is suffering from declining enrollment, used the "leftover'' money to lower class size and to help meet its budget, Superintendent Graf said. Nearly 250 of the 1,147 students on the books of the K-6 district are enrolled in the independent-study program.

Tighter Rules in Effect

Until a few years ago, Mr. Hartzler acknowledged, it was possible for districts "to realize a net gain'' on the arrangement while complying with the loose state standards in effect.

In 1989, however, the state adopted new regulations requiring that districts provide monitoring by certified teachers and other services for home-schooled students.

Since adoption of the tighter regulations, educators said, districts have not been able to clear a profit on an independent-study program that satisfied state mandates.

"If you're running a program [in compliance with the law], you wouldn't be making any money,'' said Sandra Steiger, a Milpitas assistant principal who is a past president of the California Consortium for Independent Study.

But some districts were apparently still operating under the older standards, providing minimal services to home-schooled students.

Superintendent Graf of Bennett Valley said his district recently received a letter from the department of finance "saying we need to have policies [brought] up to date.''

Mr. Graf said he had not been aware of the 1989 changes to the independent-study regulations. "Sometimes things just get by you,'' he said.

"This is, from our point of view, inexcusable,'' Mr. Hartzler said, because every superintendent was told of the change.

Charles Pillsbury, an analyst with the finance department, said last week that his agency has been reviewing the practices of the Bennett Valley and Cupertino school districts.

'In It for the Money'

In the aftermath of the law's passage, education department officials have been working to interpret the law and to get the word out to districts.

As of last week, a field advisory from the department interpreting the law had not yet been issued.

Meanwhile, districts are trying to inform parents about a law that they are unsure how to implement.

Patricia A. Lamson, the superintendent of the Cupertino district, said a letter had gone out to parents of the 173 children in the program outlining the new law. That was to be followed by a meeting with parents last week.

Pending more specific instructions from the state, the district is only going to reimburse for the cost of instructional materials, such as books, pencils, and paper, Ms. Lamson said.

"We do not in any way want to violate the budget law,'' she said.

Acknowledging that the reimbursements were key to their participation in the program, some home-schooling parents said they were considering dropping out.

"We're in this program for the money,'' said Gail Chernoff, who teaches two daughters and a grandson through an independent-study program with the Gilroy school district. "It's as clear as that.''

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