'Cyber-schools' do battle with new state regulations

Posted: Wednesday, April 03, 2002

After months of lobbying and hundreds of letters, parents and staff of the state's 10 statewide correspondence schools put the brakes on new rules they say would have overregulated their programs unfairly.

The regulations, proposed in November by the state Board of Education and Early Development, would have changed the way statewide correspondence schools operate, mandating more teacher contact with home-schoolers, further regulating the use of religious instructional materials and affecting other areas of the successful programs.

The biggest statewide correspondence school in Alaska, the Interior Distance Education of Alaska (IDEA), based in the Galena City School District, was immediately concerned about the proposed rules.

"It would have greatly affected how we operate our program and how home-school parents interact with us," said Carol Simpson, IDEA administrative assistant and mother of four of the 600 Kenai Peninsula students enrolled in IDEA.

The new regulations were proposed after two correspondence schools were audited last fall. According to Ed McLain, deputy commissioner in the Department of Education and Early Development, the audits raised concerns about the educational consistency offered statewide through these schools.

Those concerns were amplified by the fact that parents and students enrolled in statewide correspondence school programs technically have little power to effect change in the districts their schools originate because they may not live there.

Simpson said while those concerns may be theoretically valid, the reality is quite different for IDEA students and their families. The Galena district has numerous parent-teacher associations statewide through which people can voice concerns.

The regulations, however, went beyond those protections. For example, correspondence families would have to submit to a monthly review of each student's work by a staff teacher, and a teacher would have had to approve each expenditure.

Another contentious issue was privately purchased curricular materials with religious content. Currently, no state funds can be used to purchase such materials, but with the new regulations, parents would have been prohibited from using them as part of their curriculum because the staff teacher would not be allowed to review any work from the texts.

Simpson, along with other IDEA staff members, held town meetings for correspondence school families around the state this winter, informing them of the potential changes and encouraging them to write to their legislators and state board of education members and staff if they disagreed with the proposed changes.

"They were, of course, even more upset than we were, so they wrote," Simpson said.

The state education department said it received more than 350 letters from parents of the 9,000 "cyber-students," as did representatives from around the state.

Lawmakers soon reacted to the controversy. House Bill 464 was introduced in February by Rep. Jeannette James, R-North Pole, and would have prohibited the state board from making many of the regulation changes it was planning. This month, the Senate Health, Education and Social Service Committee introduced a companion bill, Senate Bill 346.

"The combination of public response and input and the two bills resulted in (the Department of Education and Early Development) completely rewriting the regulations," Simpson said.

She and others from IDEA submitted a point-by-point rewrite of the planned regulations, she said, and met with McLain last week. After some negotiation, the department returned with a rewrite quite similar to IDEA's suggestions. It was a pleasant surprise, Simpson said.

"I didn't expect the first rewrite to be acceptable," she said.

According to Simpson, the rewrite of the regulations dealt with each of the contentious issues IDEA brought up, including yearly rectification for statewide correspondence schools, the use of privately purchased curricular materials with religious content, the degree of teacher contact and approval, and regulations regarding state-mandated testing.

According to Harry Gamble, Department of Education information officer, some of the regulations were an attempt to clarify the role individual school boards needed to take with cyber-schools.

"We are not trying to make these decisions. Local school boards have to get involved with those kinds of decisions," Gamble said. "We are not trying to micromanage those things from the Department of Education. We can't do that."

He said this process is an example of the department's responsiveness to public comments.

"We take into consideration public comments, and we look for those comments that are an improvement on what we are trying to accomplish," he said.

"It is common for proposals that generate this much response to have several periods of public comment."

The rewritten regulations will be presented to the state Board of Education at its three-day meeting beginning Thursday and then likely will be presented to the public for another 90-day comment period.

Simpson said many parents have expressed concerns about the regulations and are skeptical all their concerns have been dealt with. She said, however, she is confident the department will not try to overregulate statewide correspondence programs in the future.

"This seems to be a good example of the system working well," she said. "It was interesting to learn more about the process."

Carey James is a reporter for the Homer News.

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