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State Warns Parents of Home-School Edict

Education: A teaching credential or public school ties are needed, but enforcement is dicey.

October 10, 2002|DAVID PIERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The California Department of Education is warning that parents should not home-school their children without teachers' credentials or affiliation with a public school.

That ruling could potentially affect thousands of households and has triggered protests from home-schooling parents who contend the state is harassing them. But the ability of officials to enforce the rules remains unclear.

The warning, which the state says is based on long-existing truancy laws, is directed at families operating private schools out of their homes. Since the state does not require private school teachers to have educational credentials, home-school parents say they are complying with the rules.

So far, state officials say no one has been prosecuted, and school districts say they don't have the capacity to sniff out parents claiming to run private schools. Still, many home-schoolers say the state is scaring parents in an effort to quash educational alternatives and garner as much federal money as possible based on daily attendance in the public school system.

Manhattan Beach resident Pam Scaia, for example, said that she has run a private school for 12 years but that the recent attention has made her uneasy.

"I'm nervous that they're going to come knock on my door and say, 'Why aren't your kids in school?' '" said Scaia, who home-schools her six children who range in age from 6 to 19. "Home-schooling has increased so dramatically that we're in the limelight now."

As a believer in bilingual education, now mainly abandoned in public schools, Scaia teaches in English and Spanish and infuses Latino culture into her lessons. And like many home-schoolers, she doesn't keep to a fixed class schedule but says her children will learn any time of the day. Scaia said she will continue to declare her home a private school despite the concern triggered by the state.

Karen Taylor, president of the Web-based California Homeschool Network and a home-schooler for seven years in Victorville, called the state warning a form of intimidation and said it is intended to draw "attention away from failing public schools."

When the state sent directives to its 58 county offices of education in July restating the policy on home-schooling, Taylor was one of the first to raise the alarm with other parents through her tight Internet community. Parents then inundated the state Department of Education with angry e-mails.

In response, state Supt. of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin wrote a letter to California's state senators last month asking for a legislative solution to the issue and saying the state was wrongly accused of harassing home-schoolers.

Eastin has made no formal judgment about the educational value of home-schooling, but says all schooling needs to be supervised by professionally trained staff. "Home schools are not even subject to competition from private schools, where the marketplace would presumably ensure some level of quality and innovation," she said in the letter.

The warning in July accompanied a change in how institutions seeking private school status are supposed to register. In the past, they did so through counties, but now, in what state officials say is an attempt to streamline matters, the schools must contact the state Department of Education directly.

Fast-Growing Movement

Once considered on the fringe, home-schooling has grown in recent years as more parents are disillusioned with the quality of public schools. Advocates estimate there are up to 100,000 home-schooled children in the state and 2 million nationwide, figures that education officials could not confirm. Home-schooling has spawned a cottage industry of educational materials that are often sold and discussed at large annual conferences.

Home-schooling is considered legal in California only when students are taught by a credentialed tutor, a state-approved charter school, or enrolled in an independent study program supervised by a public school district. The public school affiliation requires home-schoolers to sign a contract of their involvement and entitles them to access to school resources. Aside from helping to account for children, the programs also keep the state eligible for some federal funding based on pupil attendance at home.

Though she'd rather be completely independent, Heidi Swale chose to home-school her 10-year-old daughter through a publicly-funded charter program sanctioned by the state. She said she was too intimidated to declare herself a private school after encountering difficulty attaining the needed form from the state earlier this year.

"I attempted it, but I couldn't deal with the uncertainty," the Canyon Country resident said. "I didn't have it in me to put up a fight."

However, the state says it is easy to register as a private school. The form asks for basic information such as the school's address and the list of grades being taught, but does not require any investigation into the school's legitimacy.

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