Legislative Challenges

[From Issue 77, winter 2001-2002 issue, of the PA HOMESCHOOLERStm newsletter]

by Howard Richman

Although there is talk of an improved homeschool law in Pennsylvania, our most pressing challenge may be to preserve those three aspects of our law that give homeschoolers options not available in most other states: (1) the compulsory school age of 8, (2) the cyber-charter option, and (3) recognized homeschool organization diplomas. All three are threatened.

Compulsory School Age of 8

Pennsylvania is one of the only two states in the nation (the other is Washington) that has a beginning compulsory school age as late as 8.  This gives homeschoolers in PA the unique opportunity to develop informal and effective programs for their young children, without any official reporting requirements.  For some families with children who need more time to be fully ready for academic study, this later age is a special boon.

From 1991 to 1994, when Governor Casey’s administration was trying to lower the compulsory school age in Pennsylvania, we had to fight hard through an extensive lobbying effort to keep Pennsylvania’s compulsory school age at 8. The Casey administration held that lowering the school age would give school districts a tool to force “at risk” children into school at age six.

      In November, 1994, there was a new election for Governor. We were able to get both of the major candidates (Democrat Singel and Republican Ridge) to answer our questionnaire about their position on the compulsory school age. Both positions were published in the August 1994 issue of the PA Homeschoolers newsletter. Gubernatorial candidate Ridge told us:

“I do not support any changes in the state’s compulsory attendance laws to either lower the school entrance age or raise the exit age. Pennsylvania’s current entrance age requirement gives parents a great deal of freedom, as it appropriately should, as to when their child is ready to begin school. Maintaining the current law’s requirements is consistent with maintaining that parental freedom.”

      Since the election of Governor Ridge, none of the bills that have been introduced to lower the compulsory school age have gotten out of committee. This coming fall.Pennsylvanians will once again elect a new Governor, perhaps one who, like former Governor Casey, will want to lower the compulsory school age.  We may again have to fight hard to keep the option of waiting until 8 to begin formal evaluation of our home education program.

Cyber Charter School Option

While all states have a private home education option, Pennsylvania is one of the first to have a public home education option as well -- cyber-charter schools. 

The parents who enroll a child in one of the cyber-charter schools receive educational help, including a computer, an Internet hook-up, teachers with whom they consult, and access to the local public school’s sports teams and extra-curricular activities. They must use a non-religious curriculum that is designed to teach the objectives set by the Pennsylvania Department of Education and they are held accountable by the staff of the cyber-charter school who monitor the student’s work and interact with the family on a regular basis.

Most of the opposition to these cyber charters has been coming from the educational establishment, especially the school districts and their association, the Pennsylvania School Board Association (PSBA).  The school districts were especially upset this fall when unexpected bills from the cyber-charters (about 3/4 of what it would have cost the school district to educate the same children) busted their budgets.

 As we reported in the last issue, a Senate bill the PSBA was promoting (SB 891) that would have cut off funding to the cyber-charter schools and let school districts charge cyber-charter students with truancy would have passed  the Senate at the end of June except for the opposition from Gov. Ridge’s Department of Education, some homeschoolers, cyber-charter enrollees, and others who favor choice in education.

In October a House Bill that wasn’t quite as bad, but still might have severely limited the growth of the cyber-charters and kept their students off school district sports teams, passed the House Education Committee in a near-unanimous vote, but was tabled by the Republican leadership of the House who believe in freedom of choice for parents and were honoring a promise made to Gov. Ridge not to touch the charter school law at least until the spring.  Bill Bennett, former U.S. Secretary of Education under Ronald Reagan and now a curriculum provider for one of the Pennsylvania cyber-charter schools (Pennsylvania Virtual Charter School), was quite helpful here.  He answered all of the questions that were posed to him by the House Republican leadership. 

While there may still be an attempt, this spring, to restrict the cyber-charters, it is much more likely that the legislature will simply give the school districts some extra funding that will help them pay this year’s unexpected bills. In coming years, the  school districts will be able  to estimate how many of their students will enroll in the cyber-charters and should be able to budget accordingly.

Meanwhile, many of the school districts have been refusing to pay the cyber-charter schools.  The PA Department of Education will eventually withhold this money from its payments to school districts and will pay the cyber-charter schools directly, but in the meantime this is giving some of the cyber-charters a severe cash-crunch.

Also the PSBA and some of the school districts have also been trying to close down the cyber-charter schools in court.  So far they have won some county court rulings against one of the cyber-charters (TEACH, The Einstein Academy CHarter school), but they have not yet been able to get a ruling against any of the others or against the cyber-charter schools in general. 

Their biggest ruling against TEACH came on September 10 when Butler County Court Judge William R. Shafer  prohibited TEACH  from enrolling students in several Butler County school districts.  He found all of the following in his ruling:

1.      The Morrisville School District did not follow proper procedures when they approved TEACH’s charter.

2.      TEACH’s legal name “National Organization for Children, Inc.” was not disclosed as it should have been on the TEACH charter.

3.      TEACH agreed to pay Morrisville, in return for “services,”  $200 for each student enrolled and also agreed to lease space and custodial services from Morrisville for $35,000 per year.

4.      TEACH is undercapitalized.

5.      TEACH claims to have 20-30 teachers, but could only produce the signed contracts for 13 and had not produced evidence that a sufficient percentage of their teachers were certified to meet the requirements of the charter school law.

6.      TEACH has failed to make required reports to Morrisville and thus could be in breach of its charter school agreement.

The finding that TEACH is undercapitalized was quite ironic since those who were suing TEACH were themselves responsible for TEACH’s financial difficulties!

After losing in Butler Court, TEACH received further negative press when they failed to  cooperate with a PA Department of Education audit as part of its report to the legislature about the cyber-charter schools.  That report can be found on the Internet at: http://www.pde.psu.edu/cybercs/cybercsrev.html.

The cyber-charters are not yet out of the woods -- TEACH is particularly precarious -- and we will have to be alert this coming spring and try to defeat any bad bill that comes along in order to preserve this  new publicly funded education option.

While certainly many homeschoolers prefer the home education law’s freedom to develop their own unique programs, cyber charter schools have especially been a help to those on limited incomes, those with ill children who otherwise might never have chosen home education, and families with children who simply didn’t fit in regular schools but who didn’t have the confidence or the means to develop their own program. Many parents appreciate the regular oversight, support, and structure given by the cyber charter schools, while still having their children at home in a family environment.

Recognized diplomas

      Throughout the country home-schoolers have several graduation options including high school graduation by taking college courses (in PA you can get a Commonwealth Secondary School Diploma by completing 30 college credits), parent-issued diplomas, the GED, diplomas from supervising private schools, diplomas from public schools, and diplomas from national correspondence schools such as American School, Keystone National High School, Clonlara, and Seton Home Study.  Only in Pennsylvania and South Carolina can homeschoolers also get diplomas from homeschool organizations which are in-turn recognized by their state government.  In letters to the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency and to Penn State University, the Pennsylvania Department of Education has recognized the diplomas of homeschool organizations as being the substantial equivalent of a public high school diploma, meeting criteria that require a high school diploma or its equivalent.

      There are now seven homeschool organizations that are recognized to give diplomas by the PA Department of Education. (For the current list, see the PA Department of Education website and look for the word diplomas as part of the organization’s listing.)  Together they awarded 646 diplomas to homeschoolers in Pennsylvania during the 1999-2000 school year.  In fact, about 1/3 of the homeschoolers of graduation age in 2000 got diplomas from one or another of these organizations. That year, Pennsylvania Homeschoolers Accreditation Agency (PHAA) gave 467 diplomas, Erie gave 75, Buxmont gave 60, Home School Academy gave 27, Mason Dixon gave 11, and Aleithia gave 6. These organizations also organized activities and graduation ceremonies for high school level homeschoolers.  Perhaps as a result of this recognized diploma option, the number of homeschoolers by age level declines more slowly in Pennsylvania than in the other states where statistics are available as I noted in the front page article of Issue 74. Apparently homeschoolers continue homeschooling throughout high school much more in Pennsylvania than in other states.

      Congressman Joe Pitts deserves much of the credit for this diploma option.  Back in 1985 when Pennsylvania was prosecuting more homeschoolers than any other state, he, then a Representative in Harrisburg, introduced a homeschooling bill designed to end those prosecutions.  Little noticed by those of us who lobbied hard for that bill and its successors, he included a passage in the bill that specified requirements for high school graduation from a home education program.  That provision, though never discussed, was carried on in each successive homeschool bill. Just before passage at the end of 1988, the Department of Education took the graduation requirements out (in the Appropriations Committee)  but we were able to put them back in (just before final passage on the House Floor).

      After the bill passed, the Department of Education sent out a “Basic Education Circular” to explain the new home education law to the school districts.  In that circular they said that school districts didn’t have to give diplomas to homeschoolers, but they did not specify who would give the diplomas.  So, a few months later, I wrote to Joseph Bard, the homeschool liaison at the Department of Education, and asked which of three alternatives he favored:

“1. School districts must award high school diplomas to home educated students who meet the graduation requirements, or

2. The Department of Education must create a new regulation which awards the Commonwealth Secondary School Diploma to applicants who have successfully met the requirements for high school graduation in home education programs, or

3. Supervisors of home education programs may give their students high school diplomas which are officially recognized by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.”

He replied:

“As regards your suggested solutions to the diploma problem: I believe your second suggestion of the Department creating a new regulation to award the Commonwealth diploma to applicants who have successfully completed a home education program has the most merit.

Unfortunately, none of your suggestions can come to fruition without considerable time and effort. This is something to discuss.”

      On Sept. 22, 1990, I wrote a carefully crafted letter with input from 70 support group leaders, including those of the Pennsylvania Home Education Network, that was designed to get the Department to award their Commonwealth Secondary School Diploma to homeschool graduates, while not precluding any other diploma option. And on Sept 27, 1990, the Pennsylvania Home Education Network (an organization that has since joined the PAFREE coalition)  wrote a letter to the Department of Education arguing that the Department of Education should not award diplomas to homeschoolers but should instead regulate evaluators!  It is possible that this letter convinced the Department that they didn’t want to touch the idea of awarding diplomas with a ten foot pole!

      Instead, the Department of Education  decided that home education organizations should award the diplomas, because as the new Chief of the Division of Advisory Services wrote on October 2, 1990:

“It seems more appropriate to me to have the credential for home schoolers issued by a home schoolers organization. The monitoring and evaluation could then be done by individuals familiar with those programs and the quality control could be enforced by those individuals who have a vested interest in maintaining that quality.”

      I was thrilled with that response. It meant that they were going to let the home education community stand on its own two feet. It meant that homeschoolers would have many choices of diploma standards, not just an arbitrary standard set by the government. In response to that letter I immediately started Pennsylvania Homeschoolers Accreditation Agency.

In other states, homeschoolers often have problems with extra-requirements set for them by colleges.  According to a 1998-1999 survey by the National Center for Home Education, 38% of the public colleges and 29% of private colleges across the nation either require homeschoolers to take tests not required of school graduates or else they set criteria for homeschool admission that are higher than those set for school graduates.  In Pennsylvania, those homeschoolers who graduate with homeschool organization diplomas rarely encounter such difficulties. 

Oddly enough, the threat to the home education organization diplomas does not come from the teachers’ unions or the school board association, it comes from a homeschool coalition called PAFREE.

One member of the steering committee of that coalition, Ms. Barbara Page, has been especially active. For example on July 27, 2001, she complained to the Better Business Bureau in an attempt to shut down Pennsylvania Homeschoolers Accreditation Agency as a fraud and thus take away the diplomas from our graduates and current students.  She has also been posting on an e-mail list that goes to college admissions officers telling them, in essence, that the graduates of the homeschool organizations have purchased their diplomas.

Like others who engage in nasty acts she tried to make her complaint annonymously.  However, the Better Business Bureau (BBB) forwarded a full copy of her complaint to PHAA.  (If you would like a copy of Ms. Page’s complaint and PHAA’s response, just send a self-addressed stamped envelope, 80¢ stamp, to PHAA, RR 2 Box 117, Kittanning PA 16201.)

In her BBB complaint Mrs. Page alleged  that PHAA was a diploma  mill, that PHAA does not have the authority from the Pennsylvania Department of Education to award diplomas and that PHAA makes various  false claims.  She also noted that she had previously filed similar complaints to  the PA Department of Education and the Attorney General, but that both had ignored her. 

As Executive Director of PHAA, I simply responded with the truth which I supported  with various correspondence.  For example, in response to Ms. Page’s false allegation that PHAA’s diplomas are only recognized for post-secondary grants, I wrote: 

“On May 13, 1993, the Department of Education wrote a letter to Penn State which caused Penn State to drop its requirement that our graduates take the GED.  And on April 3, 2001, the Department wrote a letter to us in which they held that our graduates have the qualification necessary (a high school diploma or its equivalent) to teach their own children in Pennsylvania. As the April 3, 2001, letter clearly states, the Department of Education considers the diplomas of the organizations that they recognize to be substantially the equivalent of a public high school diploma....”

Meanwhile, Ms.  Page’s coalition, PAFREE, is floating a grand proposal for erasing the entire home education law and then rewriting it from scratch.  They naïvely think that they can prevent the enemies of home education from having input.  Their first gambit is to erase all of the protections in the home education law (such as due process hearings and objectives that can’t be rejected). This is a recipe for legislative disaster.

But their lack of caution isn’t the worst aspect of their proposal.  If passed it would yank the rug out from under the homeschool diploma organizations in three ways, any one of which, by itself, could prove fatal  to this option.  Although PAFREE claims that they have no intention of hurting the homeschool diploma organizations, here are specifics from their proposal as it appeared on the Internet on Dec. 2, 2001:

1.   They mention only one diploma option for homeschoolers -- the GED.  Here is their language:

“Students who are educated in programs of home education pursuant to this section may not be discriminated against in… eligibility for the option to obtain the general educational development (GED) diploma upon completion of the graduation requirements in Section (e) below regardless of age.”

This is the only part of their proposal which specifically mentions a diploma. Thus it could be inferred that the GED was the diploma for homeschoolers intended by this legislation. PAFREE could also list diplomas issued by home education organizations as legitimate diplomas for homeschoolers, but have decided not to do so. They also seem unaware of the national ruling against the state of Virginia several years ago when that state began offering that homeschool students could take the GED at age 15-- Virginia had to drop this option, as the developers of the GED test did not see this as a valid use of their program. The age limit set for the GED is not set by each state.

2.   They take away the Department of Education’s ability to recognize the diplomas of homeschool organizations. The PAFREE proposal includes the following specific language that prevents the PDE from recognizing diplomas issued by homeschool organizations:

“Neither the State Board of Education nor the Secretary of Education shall have authority to adopt any rules or regulations applicable to programs of home education.”

The only such rules that the Department of Education has adopted since the passage of the home education law were their rules for recognition of the home education organizations to give diplomas.  Such rules are clearly prohibited by this language.  PAFREE could have made recognition of homeschool organizations that give diplomas an exception here – that the PA Department of Education should indeed maintain a list of bona fide homeschool organizations whose standards and procedures for evaluating portfolios and awarding credits meet the PA Law, but again they have decided not to do so.

3.   They eliminate evaluations at the high school level. The Department of Education recognizes these diploma programs by recognizing their procedures for awarding course credit through portfolio evaluations. 

Despite these attacks, diplomas from homeschool organizations are actually quite safe.  Neither the Better Business Bureau, nor the PA Department of Education, nor the Attorney General is paying the slightest attention to Ms. Page’s false allegations.  As far as legislation is concerned, legislators will not support a homeschool bill which is opposed by a sizable segment of the homeschool community. The membership of PHAA alone, without help from any other segment of the homeschool community, would easily kill such a bill. 

Improvements in Home Ed Law

There are several legislative proposals floating around the homeschool community, which, unlike PAFREE’s proposal,  have some hope of passage, at least in part. 

      On February 14, 2000, Rep. Tom Armstrong and I called a meeting between homeschool leaders and the state representatives who are homeschool dads in order to explore possible changes to the homeschool law.  We invited representatives of CHAP, Home School Legal Defense Association, and other homeschool organizations to the meeting. (Some of those who attended later started PAFREE.) At that meeting we discussed proposals made by Dee Black of Home School Legal Defense Association to improve the homeschooling law in ways that would reduce conflicts between school districts and parents. The homeschool dads thought that they could quietly  pass some small changes to the PA home education law and  asked each group to prioritize those proposals.

After the meeting several of the groups conducted surveys and made proposals. The CHAP (Christian Homeschool Association of Pennsylvania) proposal can be found at their website http://www.chapboard.org/.  Ideally, they would like to eliminate the compulsory education law or enact a very simple law that you simply file a notice of intent in order to homeschool.  But they also suggest four incremental changes that could possibly pass:

  1. “Expanding the definition of qualified evaluators to include parents with ten or more years of homeschooling experience.”
  2. “Eliminating the need to turn in portfolios to the school districts.”
  3. “Allowing either standardized testing or evaluations for students at the parents’ discretion.”
  4. “Eliminating the requirement to submit objectives to the school districts.”

 I would only oppose CHAP’s fourth proposed incremental change, eliminating the objectives.  As currently written, our home education law states that the objectives that we write “shall not be utilized by the superintendent in determining if the home education program is out of compliance with” the law.  In other words, we set our own objectives and cannot be forced to teach the public school’s objectives.   Although writing our own objectives takes a bit of time, it does guarantee our right to choose our own curriculum.

      The following eight  proposals, listed in the order of srength of support,  were strongly favored by a majority of those who answered our Internet survey of what  those in our support network would like to see improved in the homeschool law:

1.      86% were strongly in favor and an additional 9% were supportive of adding a clear statement to law that local school districts cannot make policies that go beyond the home education law.

2.      69% were strongly in favor and an additional 20% were supportive of adding a statement to law that those high school credits (but not grades) awarded by recognized home education organizations must be recognized by school districts should a home education student transfer into a public school at the high school level.

3.      66% were strongly in favor and an additional 20% were supportive of changing the law so that homeschoolers do not have to turn in their portfolios at the end of the school year.

4.      60% were strongly in favor and an additional 11% were supportive of changing the home education affidavit so that homeschoolers do not have to include immunization records attachments.

5.      57% were strongly in favor and an additional 34% were supportive of clarifying the law so that the annual written evaluation obtained by the parent be accepted by the superintendent as determinative of whether an appropriate education is taking place.

6.      57% were strongly in favor and an additional 20% were supportive of changing the home education affidavit so that homeschoolers do not have to include any medical services attachments.

7.      54% were strongly in favor and an additional 26% were supportive of placing a statement into law that the Department of Education must continue to maintain a list of nonprofit organizations whose standards and procedures insure that the graduation requirements of the home education law are met, and will continue to recognize the validity of those diplomas.

8.      51% were strongly in favor and an additional 26% were supportive of requiring school districts to provide special education services to homeschoolers should the parent request.

PAFREE wants to change the home education law in grand ways. They want you to believe that the grander the proposal the better the proposer. But a grand proposal that gets nowhere, or even backfires, is not better than cautious incremental steps that succeed.  The effect of their actions, since the February 14 2000 meeting, has been to prevent the incremental changes from being introduced that could actually pass.

There is an important principle that they have not yet learned which must guide our legislative efforts:  Not one step backward. Promote only what would provide homeschoolers with new options. Oppose any bill or amendment that would take away options already won. 

PAFREE folk repeatedly claim that Pennsylvania has one of the worst homeschooling laws in the nation. They hope that if they say it often enough, people will believe it.  However, in New York homeschooled students must  score well on tests, in Tennessee parents have to have a college diploma to teach high school unless they homeschool under a church’s umbrella school, and in Massachusetts the school districts can do home visits.

Moreover, most other states do not have a compulsory school age of 8, most other states do not have cyber-charter schools, and most other states do not have recognized home education diplomas.   While there is plenty of room to improve our home education law, our biggest challenge in the years ahead may simply be to preserve these three threatened options.

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