Homeschoolers find their own clout

September 14, 2013 1:30 am(3) Comments
Iowa’s homeschoolers delivered an important lesson for every student enrolled in a public K-12 district, and every private school, as well as their parents: If you want to change state law, it helps to have your advocates hold elected office.

Seven state representatives and three state senators who homeschooled their own children helped push through amendments to Iowa’s education reform that effectively liberate homeschoolers from the strict results accountability required of public and private schools.

In a three-day series that ended last Tuesday, Times Des Moines Bureau Chief Mike Wiser examined the amendments added in the final days of the 2013 legislative session. The GOP-backed amendment helped win votes for the entire reform proposal, which included major funding increases to improve teacher quality and accountability.

Public school reform was subject to two years of public discussion and debate with hearings across the state. The homeschool reform – touted as the biggest expansion nationwide by the Home School Legal Defense Association – won approval with no public hearings.

“The Network of Iowa Christian Home Educators and HSLDA opted for a quiet but effective legislative strategy and did not ask families to make phone calls,” HSLDA advocates wrote on the organization website.

The homeschool reforms include options that eliminate annual assessments of results and criteria for hired teachers, and reduces the number of education days.

Homeschoolers are now allowed to win tax credit support for their expenses if accredited by a number of private agencies, not just the Iowa Department of Education. Homeschoolers need not comply with the common core curriculum now required of all public schools.

Iowa’s homeschool community is cheering these reforms for liberating it from government oversight and control. The same reforms also increase opportunities for homeschoolers to use public school programs, for which they still pay taxes.

We can support this newfound education freedom for the tiny minority of Iowa families who choose home schooling. Wiser’s reporting disclosed 2.3 percent of Iowa children are homeschooled. These reforms are expected to fuel even more homeschooling interest.

That’s when trouble comes.

Iowa’s extensive public school reform is intended to shore up lagging academic performance and increase science, math and technology education deemed essential to building the workforce and economy. Legislative reform directed billions of dollars in local property taxes and state income taxes for those goals, increasing teacher quality and compensation and measuring outcomes.

Progress on those goals can be tracked as long as 97.7 percent of students remain in public and private schools. But if these reforms encourage more homeschooling – as expected by advocates – those public school reforms will be tougher to achieve and impossible to track.

None of this was discussed in the mad end-of-session dash to push through comprehensive education reform with the last-minute homeschool amendments.

But they certainly must be addressed next session if these reforms have the intended effect of drawing more students away from public schools.

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