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Published in Print: April 30, 2003, as Oregon Mulls Relaxing Test Mandate for Home Schoolers

Oregon Mulls Relaxing Test Mandate for Home Schoolers

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In a move that follows similar action in several other states, the Oregon Senate overwhelmingly passed a bill last week that would largely free home-schooled students from state regulation.

The measure, Senate Bill 761, seeks to remove the requirement that home- schooled students take standardized tests and the mandate that parents notify their school districts of their intent to educate their children at home.

Currently, home-schooled students in Oregon must be tested in grades 3, 5, 8, and 10, and parents must notify their districts within 10 days of withdrawing their children from school or beginning to home school.

"This [bill] shows a broad recognition of home education. It is not a subset of public education and [shouldn't] require oversight or restrictions from the state," said Jeanne Biggerstaff, the legislative director of the Oregon Home Education Network, a Beaverton-based group of home-schooled families.

Oregon is following a movement toward relaxing state control over home schooling, said Dewitt Black, the senior counsel for the Home School Legal Defense Association, a national group based in Purcellville, Va.

Arkansas loosened testing requirements for home-schooled students in 1997, while Arizona repealed testing for such students altogether in the mid-1990s, as did New Mexico in 2001. Meanwhile, both Maine and New York state have bills pending that would repeal or loosen other regulations on home schooling.

"The national trend is [for states] to treat home schools more in the nature of traditional private schools," Mr. Black said.

But Jennifer Dounay, a policy analyst for the Education Commission of the States, in Denver, said that statement might be premature. While some states have eased their laws on home education, most still regulate home-schooled students, she said.

For example, advocates of home schooling are worried that a Louisiana bill targeting private schools for state tests could eventually include home schoolers.

The Oregon House is now considering SB 761, which it is expected to pass. The bill would repeal a law passed in 1999, which itself loosened an earlier law that required home-schooled students to be tested every year.

To comply with current law, Oregon home schoolers must choose among five standardized tests, costing between $40 to $50 each.

Parent Power

Republican Sen. Bruce Starr, the bill's sponsor, said that home schooling parents, not the government, should be in charge of their children's education.

"I side with the rights of parents to home educate and direct their child's education process," he said. "In Oregon, we don't regulate parents who send their kids to private schools. This is another form of private education."

He said that home-schooled students tend to do better academically than their public school counterparts. No home-schooled student has been sent to public school for having fallen below the 15th percentile on a standardized test for at least two consecutive years, as required under current law, Mr. Starr said.

This is only the first year, though, that the provision would apply, said Amy Grant, the president of the Oregon Home Education Network.

The bill's passage in the Senate reflects the growing influence and numbers of home schoolers in the state. More than 17,500 Oregon children are home-schooled, according to the network, which reports it has seen an annual 10 percent growth of home schoolers in the past several years.

Most early converts to home schooling did so for religious reasons, but more parents are now teaching their children themselves for reasons such as general dissatisfaction with the public schools, those involved in the movement say.

"Home schooling has reached the mainstream," Ms. Grant said.

Sen. Tony Corcoran

Debate over the bill last week was civil until Sen. John Minnis, a Republican, suggested that opposition to SB 761 stemmed in part from "religious bigotry," a remark that offended some legislators, such as Democratic Sen. Tony Corcoran.

Mr. Corcoran, a former welfare caseworker, said it's not the academic stars among home-schooled pupils that he's worried about. It's the ones who would fall between the cracks, such as chronically truant students, he said.

The absence of a testing mandate and of a requirement that parents notify their districts that they're home schooling means little accountability for such students, he argued.

"We already have a hard time accounting for these kids in this society," Mr. Corcoran said, "and this is another step to lose track of them."

Sen. Margaret Carter, also a Democrat, said that while she supports home education, it needs a way to assess students' academic progress. "The only way you can measure that is through testing, and that should remain a strong piece," she said.

Gov. Theodore R. Kulongoski also opposes the bill. The current law is already a compromise between the ever- growing home school contingent and the legislature, said Marian Hammond, a spokeswoman for the Democratic governor.

"The governor wants to ensure that Oregon children are getting the best education, whether that's in a home school environment, a public school, or private school," she said, stopping short of promising a veto. "That's why he doesn't support the bill."

Vol. 22, Issue 33, Page 26

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