Homeschoolers fear loss of independence

"Are the days of homeschooling numbered?That's a real concern among many people who currently teach their children at home under the state's Home-Based Instruction Law. Their reasoning is that public school programs, such as the Oak Harbor School District's Home Connection, which offer special classes and other benefits to homeschool families, are beginning to pull some of their numbers into a system that is at least partially controlled by the district.Some of the lure of the district programs is that they can often offer homeschool parents a broader range of specialized classes, official state testing and, in Oak Harbor's case, $400 cash for the purchase of educational materials.Oak Harbor School District officials say that the alternative learning experience programs they offer would never have started and could not continue without strong support from homeschool families. But at a recent meeting in Oak Harbor, leaders of the home-based education community expressed concern and even genuine fear that the freedom homeschool families now enjoy could be at risk. Mia Anderson, a member of the Washington Homeschool Organization told an audience of about 25 that many homeschool alternative or what she called parent partner programs offered by school districts are misleading. They all look very loose and very friendly, but you need to get back to accountability and responsibilities, said Mia Anderson, a member of the Washington Homeschool Organization. Parent partner programs are not bad in and of themselves ... but it's not homeschooling.Anderson said that when homeschool families sign up with programs such as Home Connection they need to fully understand that they are enrolling their children in the school district and agreeing that the district will keep records, approve learning plans and administer tests including the state's Washington Assessment of Student Learning exams. To her, that means turning over parent accountability to the government and weakening the position and legal freedoms currently held by homeschoolers.The (Superintendent of Public Instruction) could go to the Legislature and say, 'Most homeschoolers are taking the WASLs and most are overseen by school districts ... why don't we bring in the independents out there.Last week, representatives from Homeschoolers on Whidbey, a local home-based education group, asked the Oak Harbor School Board to prohibit the district from using the word homeschool and its various forms when referring to Home Connection. Home-based parent Lynne Vagt said the term homeschool should be applied only to families who control their children's education rather than to all families who teach at home.We're going to wake up one day and find ourselves compromised, she said.But Sherry Fakkema, assistant superintendent of the Oak Harbor School District, said the district's Home Connection is simply an option to homeschool families and is far from being the imposing threat the home-based parents paint.Our intent is not to decimate home-based instruction, said Fakkema. If parents don't want Home Connection, it will go away as fast as it started. Now in its third year, Home Connection currently has about 35 families representing about 55 to 60 students enrolled. That's about 23 percent of the total number of homeschool families within the district's boundaries. The program has neither grown dramatically nor diminished in size said program coordinator and lead teacher Steve Hall. To be part of the program parents need to have been schooling under home-based instruction for at least 90 days. They must establish and regularly update a student learning plan with the assistance of the district and keep to a schedule of up to 25 hours per week working on the planHall said parents interested in Home Connection are clearly told both in writing and verbally that the program is linked to the school district. He said the Home Connection parents have been surprised that home-based parents don't see them as true homeschoolers.It did not sit well with our families. They work very hard at what they do, said Hall. The people involved in Home Connection are very supportive of the home-based law.District officials admit that some homeschool families new to the district may have gotten incomplete or incorrect information recently due to some staff turnover but they stand behind the clarity of their written material which states in its second line that Home Connection students are enrolled in the Oak Harbor School District.The home-based parents are still concerned that they are being targeted and point to new proposals to revise the state's alternative learning law. The proposed changes loosen requirements and allow part-time participation in school district programs, thus making them more attractive. Is homeschooling going to stay the same in our state or is it going to change because the definition of homeschooling is changing? Anderson asked.In addition to restricting the use of the word homeschool, the home-based parents also asked the school board to clamp down on Home Connection families they believe are using religious curriculum and materials during the time they are required to be part of the public school program. The state Constitution prohibits the use of such instruction in public schools. Hall said Home Connection parents are free to use religious materials outside of the 25 required hours per week but within those hours parents know that the rules change.You can teach about religion but you can't teach religion, he said.Despite their differences, both the home-based parents and the district officials say the important thing is giving kids a good education.We don't want to do away with their program. In fact, we think it's a good way to do public schools, said Vagt. We just want to make the laws clear.Fakkema agreed.I think more people are interested in alternatives to public school. When the dust settles, I think we'll have good options that meet the needs of kids. "

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