Home-school parents wary of proposed rules

Posted: Monday, February 25, 2002

JUNEAU (AP) -- Cailey Neary, 11, researched a history topic on the computer while her 8-year-old brother, Aidan, wrote in a workbook in the kitchen. A school district in Galena pays for their school books and the computer, while their mother does the teaching.

That's the way Mary Neary wants to educate her children. But she's worried that proposed state rules will drive her and other home-schoolers from correspondence school programs.

Neary's children are registered with Interior Distance Education of Alaska, run by the Galena City School District.

''I chose them because they would allow me to choose the curriculum I wanted,'' while providing a computer, teaching advice, and $1,400 for each child for educational materials and private lessons, Neary said.

The state Department of Education is looking at rules that would require districts to more closely monitor the work of their correspondence students.

''It's what the law requires. It's accountability,'' said Ed McLain, deputy commissioner in the Department of Education and Early Development.

When state education officials audited two correspondence schools last summer, they found a more free-wheeling system than they expected.

In some cases, parents gave their children final grades. Schools approved curriculum and materials broadly without seeing what was purchased.

Some proposals have alarmed parents and school officials, who are holding meetings, lobbying legislators and offering alternative rules.

The state gives school districts at least $3,208 per correspondence student. That amounts to about $30 million a year for roughly 9,000 students enrolled in 10 district programs.

In the correspondence programs, many students don't use the school district's curriculum or submit work to teachers, as they would in traditional correspondence schools. Instead, the programs offer money and advice, while families choose how to use those resources.

''A lot of parents have decided to home-school because they wanted to be able to have autonomy in their child's education,'' said Thomas Klever, principal for Nenana's CyberLynx correspondence school. ''My fear is we're going to be so overregulated that these families will pull out of the program and the public education system.''

State rules require school boards to select curriculum materials for correspondence programs and make sure they're of the same quality as the ones used in the district's other programs, Deputy Commissioner McLain said.

But with the home-school nature of the programs, ''it turns out that it's very difficult to do,'' he said. ''There needs to be some control.''

Officials from correspondence schools say the rules would impose costly monitoring requirements, taking away choice from parents and money from education.

''In IDEA's program, you get to educate your children as you see fit, and our job is to help you do that,'' Tim Cline, assistant director of the Galena program, told Juneau parents earlier this month. IDEA has 3,450 students, about 180 of them in Juneau.

The rules would require that certified teachers monitor students' work at least monthly and verify that educational materials are aligned with state standards.

Parents also are concerned about a rule that would make it illegal for teachers to provide instruction using materials that teach particular religious beliefs as true. Parents said materials such as math workbooks from religious publishers, bought with their own money, are academic in content.

Half of the families in Nenana's correspondence school choose a curriculum that is religious-based and that they buy with their own money, said Principal Klever. ''We're worried that we're going to lose a lot of those families from our program.''

But Deputy Commissioner McLain said parents are unduly alarmed. The proposed rules wouldn't stop children from asking teachers a math question, he said.

Correspondence parents and school officials also complain that the proposed rules treat their programs differently from standard schools. The rules would forbid students from re-enrolling in correspondence schools if they don't take mandatory state exams. No such rule applies for traditional schools.

Deputy Commissioner McLain said correspondence programs would be treated differently because regular schools can see how students are doing and don't rely as much on the tests to monitor achievement.

The Board of Education is scheduled to discuss the proposed rules at a Juneau meeting in April, but a vote may not come until June.

Last week, Reps. Jeannette James, a North Pole Republican, and Fred Dyson, an Eagle River Republican, introduced House Bill 464, which would forbid the state board from imposing regulations on correspondence students that aren't imposed on public school students.

The measure also forbids the board from imposing more stringent limits on the use of instructional materials for correspondence students than for other students. And the bill says that school districts must decide how often to monitor their correspondence students.

The bill also would have the state approve correspondence programs once every 10 years, instead of the current annual review.

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