Thursday, July 24, 2008

After 17 years of not knowing who was being home-schooled in the District because so few rules governed the process, the city has reinstituted regulations, but not until four children who were supposed to be learning at home were found dead inside their mother’s Southeast row house.

The regulations took effect last week, six months after D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, a Democrat, vowed to reform home-schooling regulations and the city’s Child and Family Services Agency.

Among the biggest changes is a requirement that home-schooling parents have a high school diploma and keep a portfolio of their children’s work.

The changes bring the District more in line with other cities and follow an effort in California to tighten rules, but home-school advocates criticize the move.

“It’s my responsibility to educate my child, not the government’s,” said Ethan Reedy, president of the D.C. Home Educators Association. “This is my choice.”

About 1.1 million children across the country are schooled at home, according to a 2003 Education Department report that provides the most recent numbers. An estimated 130 children are in home schools in the District, but city officials acknowledge that the exact number is difficult to determine because of lax guidelines on reporting such information.

The District began re-examining the regulations after the incident in January in which federal marshals found the decomposed bodies of the four girls.

The three youngest children attended the Meridian Public Charter School consistently until March 2007, said a D.C. Public Charter School Board spokeswoman.

When the children stopped attending, she said, officials attempted to reach their mother, Banita Jacks, by phone and mail. When an official went to the family’s home, Mrs. Jacks said she wanted to withdraw the children and home-school them. The eldest child attended Stuart-Hobson Middle School but withdrew in 2006.

The reinstituted regulations also give the city’s Office of the State Superintendent of Education the power enforce attendance and put children into public schools if instructors fail to meet the regulations.

The superintendent’s office also can request a review of the portfolio and issue a warning if the superintendent finds that the parents are failing to educate students properly. Parents who do not alter their curriculum or enforce stricter attendance then must enroll their children in a full-time school within 45 days.

Superintendent Deborah A. Gist said Wednesday that the department can review portfolios “for any number of reasons” but acknowledged the mayor’s office “has to invest in a much larger staff for us to review all home-schooled students.”

The Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) attempted to remove several of the D.C. requirements, including the one regarding the high school diploma. The superintendent’s office kept the requirement but removed one allowing officials to randomly inspect home-schooling families.

“We would like to see the superintendent enforce regulations the same way all other child welfare regulations are enforced - only with probable cause,” Mr. Reedy said Tuesday.

Chris Klicka, lead counsel for HSLDA, which provides free legal counsel to members fighting for decreased oversight on home-schooling, said, “The rule really doesn’t spell out what parents can expect when they submit those portfolios.”

In California, home-schoolers have filed a legal challenge to an appeals court ruling earlier this year that stated parents must have the same credentials as public school teachers.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, and state schools Superintendent Jack T. O’Connell have joined roughly 166,000 parents in saying the ruling violates a parent’s right to determine a child’s education. A ruling is expected by the start of the school year.

The HSLDA listed the District as a “low regulation” area with few requirements of parents. The city now fits the description of U.S. states with “moderate restrictions,” such as Maryland and Virginia.

Virginia requires parents to submit a curriculum, but it does not have to be approved by the state. Maryland has no qualifications for parents, such as a minimum education. However, officials can review a student portfolio up to three times a year, recommend changes and move the student to a full-time school.

Under the new rules, home-schooling is considered a private education. State standardized exams are not required.

New York requires instruction for 180 days and sets out required curriculum for each year of instruction. New York home-schoolers also are subject to standardized tests on which they must receive a minimum score to continue.

The District suspended its regulations on home-schooling in 1991, after being challenged on regulations that allowed city officials to certify parents and make unannounced visits to home schools.

Mr. Klicka said the problem was the city’s Child Family Services Agency failing to recognize warning signs and that further government intervention with Mrs. Jacks’ daughters’ education would not have prevented their deaths.

Mr. Fenty fired at least six Child and Family Services Agency employees after the incident.

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