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States Adjust to Growing Home School Ranks

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Working with state officials, home-schooled students are gradually gaining access to programs that have long been open only to students in public schools.

But home school advocates remain wary that equal treatment on one front could mean the loss of freedom on another.

In Georgia, Gov. Zell Miller is pushing to increase access for his popular HOPE scholarship program for the state's growing ranks of home-schooled students. State officials estimate that there are more than 17,000 home-schooled students in Georgia. Meanwhile, several other states have adopted laws allowing such children to take part in extracurricular activities and some classes in the public schools.

Nationwide, the National Home Education Research Institute in Salem, Ore. says there are 1 million to 1.3 million home schoolers. As the number of such students climbs, so, too, does the clout their parents can wield. Many are turning to state legislators and policymakers to increase their children's academic and extracurricular options.

HOPE Issues

Paid for by the Georgia lottery, HOPE--for Helping Outstanding Pupils Educationally--rewards students with free college tuition to Georgia's state colleges and universities if they graduate from high school with a B average. Students can also attend technical colleges for free with no grade point average requirement through the HOPE program.

To date, home-schooled students have been awarded the scholarships only after they've maintained a B average after a year in college.

Since home-schooled students don't have grade point averages, state higher education officials have been trying to come up with a fair and accurate way of determining eligibility for incoming college freshmen. The plan is for home-schooled students to take a series of SAT II tests in five subject areas--English writing, math, American history, social studies, and either chemistry, biology, or physics. Most high school students are only required to take the SAT I: Reasoning Test, the two-section college-entrance test of verbal and math skills.

With guidance from the Princeton, N.J.-based Educational Testing Service, the Georgia board of regents, which oversees the state's colleges and universities, has already adopted a college-admissions policy for home-schooled students based on a C average drawn from SAT II scores. The group that administers the HOPE program is now waiting for a recommendation from the ETS regarding the B average.

Parents of home-schooled students in the state have argued against the use of the SAT II: Subject Tests, saying that since public school students aren't required to take those exams, their children shouldn't have to take them either.

"We think that's unfair, and we think there ought to be another way," said Dewitt T. Black, a lawyer at the Purcellville, Va.-based Home School Legal Defense Association who has been monitoring the Georgia situation.

But state officials say using another method might hurt the HOPE program.

"It's important that we maintain the integrity of the B average. It says to that student, you've got to work for four years," said Glenn Newsome, the executive director of the Georgia Student Finance Commission, which administers college loans and scholarships.

Georgia Not Alone

Home school supporters in the state will also have to wait to see whether the legislature approves the $1.5 million needed to open the scholarship program to the roughly 500 incoming college freshmen who were home-schooled and are expected to be eligible for HOPE scholarships for fall 1998.

Georgia is not the only state trying to better accommodate growing numbers of home schoolers.

In Virginia this year, state lawmakers passed legislation that will allow home-schooled students to enroll in their local public schools on a part-time basis. A few other states, including Illinois, Iowa, Maine, and Washington, already allow home schoolers to take academic courses at their local public schools.

About 10 states allow home-schooled students to participate in sports and other extracurricular activities, said Michael P. Farris, the president of the Home School Legal Defense Association. Mr. Farris predicts that, in the next five or six years, the rest of the nation will adopt similar policies.

"It's almost always spearheaded by some dad who wants his kid to play football," Mr. Farris said.

In states with no specific laws, requests are usually handled by the local district, Mr. Black said.

For the most part, families have failed in their attempts to pursue access to public school programs through the courts. But in 1984, in a decision with implications for home-schooled children, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled that school districts must open "nonessential elective courses" to nonpublic school students. The case, Snyder v. Charlotte Public School District, involved a private school student who wanted to take a band class at a public school.

Options Left Unexplored

Whether home-schooled students actually use public school programs is another question.

A survey included in the 1995 book Home Schooling: Parents as Educators showed that even when programs such as school sports, field trips, clubs, and libraries are available to home-schooled students, most families choose not to participate.

"The thought is, we want legal access because we are taxpayers, but most of us don't use it," said Brian Ray, one of the book's authors and the president of the National Home Education Research Institute.

But it's likely that families will increase their use of public school programs and services, he said, and districts will look for more ways to serve home-schooled students as their numbers increase.

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