February 24, 2008

Home-School Pitch Pits Personal Choice Vs. Government Role

By Jeffrey Robb, Omaha World-Herald, Neb.

Feb. 24--When school is in session for the Conrad kids, the living room of their northwest Omaha home is often their classroom.

Lessons last as long as needed to complete the day's tasks.

Mother Natalie Conrad is the teacher to her three school-age children.

Natalie and Chris Conrad's family is part of the 6,000-student home-school network across Nebraska. And the family is a small part of a debate in the Nebraska Legislature pitting personal choices and religious freedoms against state government's educational responsibilities.

State Sen. DiAnna Schimek of Lincoln has proposed a bill to recast Nebraska's generally loose regulations over home-school students.

Her bill would require home-school students to take state-mandated tests or have their schoolwork assessed by an outside evaluator. If students' progress falls short academically, they would be sent to public or private schools.

Nebraska's home-school system developed amid controversy in the 1980s. Since then, families have been able to opt out of public and private schools with little oversight from state government.

Schimek said the system leaves the state without a way to check into potential problems.

"Our responsibility is to see that the children of the state do have access to an education," she said. "That's a constitutional responsibility."

Chris Conrad said he and his wife were called by their Christian faith to take personal responsibility for educating their children. He said the bill would take away a responsibility best kept with parents.

"It's the parents' responsibility to educate the child, not the state's," Conrad said.

Nebraska's home-school families have mobilized against Legislative Bill 1141, which will have a public hearing Tuesday before the Education Committee.

For all the debate spawned by the bill, it stands little chance of becoming law. By Tuesday, the Legislature will be halfway into its short session. The bill also lacks the priority tag that gives bills the best chance of being debated by the full Legislature.

If it does pass, Gov. Dave Heineman has said he will veto the measure.

"The bill presents a heavy-handed, state government regulatory approach to this issue which, in my view, is not warranted," Heineman said in a statement. "It dramatically infringes on Nebraska parents' choices regarding the education of their children."

In 1984, the Legislature created Nebraska's home-school laws to settle the controversy over a church school in Louisville that operated without state-certified teachers.

Parents originally were allowed a religious exemption from sending their children to public or private schools. The exemption was expanded to allow any parents to opt out if they felt that was the best thing for their child's education.

Today, home-school students account for about 2 percent of school-age children statewide.

According to the Home School Legal Defense Association, Nebraska is among the 24 states with low or no home-school regulations. Iowa's regulations are considered moderate because the state requires testing, such as Schimek is proposing, unless a licensed teacher runs the home school.

Some studies have noted that home-school students score higher than their public school peers nationally. Home-school students, for instance, have consistently outperformed the national average on the ACT college entrance exam: 22.5 compared with 20.9 in 2005.

For Nebraska's Class of 2005, 103 home-school students who took the ACT scored a 22.9 on average, compared with the state average of 21.8.

Local supporters say that they believe students are doing well and that they see it in their own homes.

"To me, this seems to be a solution in search of a problem," said Ken Dick, president of the Home Educators Network, a faith-based organization working with home schools in eastern Nebraska and western Iowa. "And there is no problem."

Schimek said she believes that some home schools are doing a good job. Although her husband is a lobbyist for the state teachers union, Schimek said that did not influence her decision to introduce the bill.

She said her concern comes from the stories she hears about students who are kept out of public or private schools but receive little to no schooling.

That concern reveals a conflict between Nebraska's policies and its practices regarding home-school oversight.

Current regulations allow state officials to visit home schools, impose testing and withdraw a family's exemption if the children aren't meeting the basic academic requirements.

But Russ Inbody, an administrator with the Nebraska Department of Education, said officials are operating under an opinion from the Nebraska Attorney General's Office that the state can't deny a family's right to opt out of state regulations.

Inbody said he was not aware that the department had ever employed the oversight provisions. If someone suspects a problem, he recommended contacting another state agency, the Department of Health and Human Services.

Education Commissioner Doug Christensen declined to take sides on the bill. He said the state should support parents' choices. But he also said he understands the need for public accountability in all education, including home schools.

"Can you say it's working very well? Not really. Can you say it's working horribly? Not really," he said. "We just don't know."

Home-school supporters say Nebraska's current rules and truancy laws are sufficient to address any problem situations.

If Nebraska implements a testing system, families will lose the ability to teach what they choose as they adapt to what's being tested, said Colleen McNamara, president of the Catholic Homeschool Association of Omaha.

Deb Badeer, a legislative liaison for the Nebraska Christian Home Educators Association, said the issue goes beyond home schooling, amounting to a threat to families' religious freedom and parental rights.

"They have no need to be intrusive, if you will, into the family's privacy," Badeer said.

The Conrads now have taught 11-year-old Brooke, 9-year-old Ashley and 5-year-old Bradley at home. Andrew, who is 3, will be next.

Chris Conrad said his two oldest children have taken annual standardized tests, at the family's choice and cost. Conrad said Brooke and Ashley's results were "at or way above" grade level.

Friday, Brooke proved her language skills against public and private school competition. She won the Douglas County Spelling Bee over seven competitors and will advance to the Midwest Regional Spelling Bee.

"We've taken on this huge responsibility," Conrad said. "We take it seriously."


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