Correspondence regs compromise on religious materials

Posted: Friday, April 05, 2002

JUNEAU (AP) -- Megan and Michael Simila's high school biology textbook teaches photosynthesis, the parts of a plant cell, the anatomy of an earth worm -- and that God is responsible for the complexity of life.

Their parents paid for the book with their own money because it contains religious doctrine. But the students will be able to get public high school credit for the course.

That's a key provision in compromise rules the state Board of Education is taking up this week governing correspondence schools.

Under the newest version of the rules, correspondence school students will be able to use religious materials in classes as long as state money doesn't pay for them, the teacher doesn't advocate any doctrine and the materials also teach required academic content.

Jim Foster, an assistant superintendent at the Galena School District's correspondence program, said he's pleased with the new rules.

''The regulations as proposed will enhance what we're trying to do. They won't hurt us,'' Foster said.

Ten school districts offer correspondence classes to about 9,000 students in Alaska. The state spends more than $30 million a year on the programs.

A Department of Education audit last year revealed concerns with some programs, including cases of parents designing courses and assigning final grades, rather than teachers.

Former state Board of Education member Ernie Hall was alarmed when he learned a young relative had enrolled for two years in a correspondence school without earning any high school credits.

''The reality is some oversight falls to us,'' Hall said. ''Our ultimate responsibility is to the child receiving the education.''

In November the Board of Education proposed new rules for schools offering classes outside their districts, but some school administrators and parents said they went too far.

''If they become too onerous, we'll just drop back out of the system,'' said Anne Simila. She has educated Megan, 17, and Michael, 14, at home since Megan was in kindergarten. She now does so with help from the Nenana School District's Cyber Lynx program.

One area of concern was a regulation stating that correspondence teachers were not to provide instruction using religious, partisan, sectarian or denominational curricula, even if it were purchased without school funds.

The new rules state simply that staff shall not advocate partisan, sectarian or denominational doctrine as part of their duties as staff at the schools. And the rules state that parents are not prohibited from teaching their children using whatever materials they like, as long as the materials aren't bought with program funds.

Foster reads the new rules as letting his teachers grade students' work and give them credit for courses parents buy from religious publishers as long as the teachers focus on academics and not religious concepts - and as long as the school doesn't pay for the materials.

Foster said that's an important change for some of the parents, who teach their children at home for religious reasons.

He believes as long as the materials parents buy teach the concepts students are supposed to learn, it doesn't matter if a math workbook has kids counting angels, instead of apples.

''It's one plus two that's important,'' Foster said.

Parents had also objected to a proposed requirement for teachers to review students' work monthly.

Many home school parents consider themselves the primary teachers and said that requirement would take time away from schoolwork.

''The way it works currently, I just call her (the teacher) if I need something or she just calls me if she needs something,'' Anne Simila said.

The new rules compromise by calling for at least monthly ''contact'' between parents or students and their teachers, but only quarterly review of the students' work.

Some educators who had supported the department's initial attempt to beef up the rules say the compromise proposal also looks fine.

''I think they cover the things we need to get covered,'' said Dan Beck, superintendent of Delta/Greely School District, which offers an Internet correspondence program.

The compromise rules still require grades to be decided by a teacher, not a parent. And they still require that materials used be aligned to state standards and approved by the local school board.

Susan Stitham, state Board of Education president, said those commenting on the new rules so far are mostly pleased with the changes.

''The basic bottom line is accountability for public funds and . . . for making sure all Alaska students have an opportunity to learn and to meet the standards,'' Stitham said.

The board intends to take comments on the regulations until at least June.

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