News: CJ Exclusives

A New Charter for Homeschooling?

Attractions and drawbacks appear in home-based charter schools

Public school parents and homeschoolers alike may be wondering what to think of one of the latest ideas to hit the school-choice arena: public charter schools for home-schoolers.

Seemingly well within the growing pattern of choices for parents of school-aged children, the charter homeschool is publicly funded education for parents who prefer to teach their children at home.

These schools aren’t yet a real presence in North Carolina, but there is enough evidence of how homeschool charters and “virtual” charters operate in Alaska and California to gain some insight into their attractiveness as well as their drawbacks.

How does the movement for choice in public education intersect the choice for home education? In California, and even more so in Alaska, state education departments have been courting home-school parents with the offer of state “support” for their educational efforts. The charter home- school and virtual charter home-school programs these states offer are the vehicles for this program.

The draw of these arrangements is that parents can “home-school” at virtually no cost to the family. Charter schools operate on taxpayer dollars.

But support may come with significant strings attached, said Michael Smith, president of the Home School Legal Defense Association of Purcelville, Va. In the Home School Court Report “Charter Schools,” Smith said, “Despite all of the attractions for home schoolers, virtual charter schools are supporting home schooling in name only. Parents who enroll their children…are actually creating small public schools in their own home.”

In a recent interview with Carolina Journal, Hal Young, president of North Carolinians for Home Education, expressed “deep concern” about public charter and virtual charter schools for home-school families. “Certainly there is occasion to move a public school student out of the classroom for health, family, or disciplinary reasons… However, I am concerned when these programs are targeted at home-schooling families, sometimes including financial or other material incentives,” Young said.

NCHE supports any parent-directed choice in education. “Our organization believes that is the right and duty of the parents to direct the education of their children, by whatever method seems appropriate,” including the public schools, as long as parents believe that the school meets the child’s needs. “That’s their choice,” Young said.

The appeal of home-based charter schools represents a threat to the independence of home schooling, Young said. “The most insidious of these offerings, in my opinion, are those specifically meant to be Trojan horse programs, aimed at ‘recapturing’ — a term used by their promoters — students ‘lost’ to homeschooling.”

In December, a CJ editorial noted the operation of charter homeschools in Orange County, Calif. The California Home Education Program appeals to homeschool families on its “Who We Are” web page by noting that “parents who wish to home school benefit from support.” Through charter and virtual charter schools, CHEP supplies textbooks, lesson plans, oversight via certified teachers, testing, grading, student-teacher and parent-teacher conferences, as well as computers, Internet access, and software.

California home-schoolers have four options under the law. Parents can establish a private school at home as long as they can prove they are “capable of teaching” and meet several other requirements. They can also hire a certified tutor, run an independent public school program (such as CHEP) in their home, or run a home-based program under the direction of a private school.

Even though homeschooling is legal in California, in 2002 the Chino Valley, Galt Joint Union, and Morengo Unified school districts contacted parents who had filed the required private-school affidavits, according to the Home School Legal Defense Association. Letters asked parents to “call the districts regarding the enrollment status of their children.” The districts announced that small private schools would be “visited to make sure that they are in compliance” with state laws. As a result, the California Department of Education has made programs like CHEP more attractive by threatening homeschool families with interference by the state.

Alaska has an even more extensive home-based public-school program. As early as 1997, Alaska made private, home, and correspondence school students eligible to enroll part-time in public schools. Alaska initially offered a package to homeschool parents that included texts of their choice, plus computers and Internet access in some grades.

Although Alaska has one of the best homeschool laws in the nation, 75 percent of homeschool families enrolled in the state’s publicly supported homeschool programs. Private homeschool support organizations atrophied.

Then the rules began to change. In what Young described as a “bait and switch” tactic, the Alaska Department of Education eliminated the eligibility of all religious materials, and publishers whose texts have a religious foundation. Next, education officials proposed a ban on all religion-based teaching in public-school satellite programs, even if families purchase the religious materials themselves.

In a letter to the Juneau Empire, one parent who was participating in the correspondence home-school program expressed alarm. “I am greatly concerned by the new home-school rules proposed. They seem to be designed to take our freedom of choice as home school parents away… To suggest that I may not teach my children religious-based curriculum, paid for with personal funds, meeting up with the requirements of the state of Alaska and that my choices must line up with the public school system is simply ridiculous. Why do you think I home school?”

In 2002, Alaska required homeschool students enrolled in public correspondence schools to take the statewide assessment test, and to have it monitored and graded by a state-certified teacher. Alaskan homeschool students in these programs now have a mandatory conference with a certified teacher, minus parent, at least once a month. Grades are determined by a certified teacher, not the parent, curriculum must be aligned to state standards, and a certified teacher must review and approve curricular materials for each student before parents can be reimbursed by the state.
Alaska dropped the proposal to disallow all religious-based instruction, but prohibits state support for religious materials or teaching in its homeschool programs.

As for North Carolina, Young rebuffs the idea that homeschooling is a “protest movement.” “The vast majority,” he said, “have pursued home education in search of academic benefits or the opportunity to raise their children in the framework of the parents’ religious or philosophical beliefs (of whatever type)… rendering meaningless the notion that homeschoolers are just holding out for a better package from government education.”

Dr. Karen Palasek is assistant editor of Carolina Journal.