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CALLING THEIR BLUFF: The History of ICHE Complaint Assessments

By Barry Peters
Copyright 2004

      For the past several years, the Board of Directors of the Idaho Coalition of Home Educators (ICHE) has heard persistent tales of educational neglect by home educators. Each year, professional educators and various members of the state legislature have assured us that they knew or had heard of cases of terrible neglect among home schooling families. We heard this as we testified in the Education Committees. We heard it whispered in the halls. We heard it from the Governor's Blue Ribbon Task Force. We heard it from Health and Welfare. And, as we attended our annual Legislative "Pie Day," we repeatedly heard the same claims from liberal legislators, the Idaho Department of Education, and the Idaho Education Association (IEA).

      Their mantra: "We support home education and know that you people here at "Pie Day" are all doing a fine job of teaching your children at home, but... what about those children whose parents are uneducated themselves. They are keeping their children out of school so that they can work on the family farm, or so that they can babysit the younger children in the family. We need home school accountability with mandatory registration and testing to catch those children who are falling through the cracks so that no child is left behind."

      Those reports alleged that there were a significant number of children in the state whose parents claimed that they were teaching their children at home when they were, in fact, giving them no education at all. Dr. Robert Fontaine, the Accreditation and Elementary Services Coordinator at the Idaho Department of Education at the time, stated that he personally received an average of two such reports each week.

      In its extensive experience with the home education community, ICHE had not been given credible evidence of such a situation. But because these reports were almost always third or fourth-hand anecdotal accounts, they were extremely difficult to verify or refute. Our law, based on the presumption of innocence, requires substantial evidence to establish guilt. Had evidence of such widespread neglect existed, prosecution would be expected. Nonetheless, ICHE wanted to know if the reports had merit. They also wanted to silence the false rumors concerning home education if the reports were foundationless. In order to call the bluff of those demanding registration and testing, it was necessary to take the risk that we might be proven wrong.

      Consequently, as the outcome of a meeting during the 2000 legislative session with Representative Fred Tilman (R-Boise), Representative Wendy Jaquet (D-Ketchum), Dr. Michael Friend , Executive Director, Idaho Association of School Administrators, and Dr. Robert Fontaine, ICHE agreed to set up an informal arrangement with the Idaho Department of Education. It was agreed that the department's Accreditation and Elementary Services Coordinator would serve as the conduit to pass to ICHE all such reports or complaints received by the department.

      Those reports would then be forwarded to former Representative Robert Forrey, an advisor to ICHE and a former employee of the Department of Education. Mr. Forrey agreed that he would personally investigate each situation brought to his attention to ascertain if the parents in question were having genuine difficulties in educating their children. If they were, it was agreed that ICHE would offer assistance to the family through the ICHE Regional Coordinator responsible for the region in which the family resided.

      With the wide array of excellent diagnostic tools and curricula available to home educators, an effective educational program could then be designed for the individual needs of the family having difficulty. If the parents were truly unwilling or incapable of providing competent instruction for their children, ICHE would encourage them to place the children into other private, parochial, or public school settings.

      This system was instigated in 2000. At the end of the first year, ICHE met with those who had requested that the system be set up in order to report on the first year's outcomes. The results: not a single complaint had even been forwarded to ICHE for investigation.

      State agencies then put out the word to all of the school districts in the state encouraging school district and law enforcement personnel to pass on all such complaints to the Accreditation and Elementary Services Coordinator at the Department of Education.

      Eventually, a cluster of twelve "complaints" was forwarded to ICHE in the second half of 2002. In 2003, the number of complaints forwarded to ICHE dropped back to just three. Each of those fifteen complaints was carefully investigated. The results of all of the reported cases for the entire four-year life of this program to date, each of which was reported back to the Department of Education as promised, were as follows:

Outcome of Inquiry: *No. of Situations
Complaining party failed to respond to letters and calls: 7
Complaint did not involve a home educated child: 6
Complaining party failed or refused to identify the family about whom the complaint was made: 2
Student was not the proper age to be subject to the compulsory school law: 2
Complaining party or public official indicated that the situation was resolved or under control: 2
Family and curriculum assessed and found legally adequate: 1
Family and curriculum assessed and found not legally adequate: 0

*Note that some complaints fell into more than one category.

      In short, the massive problems with home education perceived by the professional education community now appear not merely to have been overblown, but to be essentially nonexistent.

      This new information has provided ICHE with a tremendous tool to dissuade legislators of the need for registration and testing. It effectively counters the "what if" scenarios offered by the opponents of home education. As we have been invited to address groups exploring whether to seek registration and testing requirements for home educating families, this data, along with the remarkable academic test scores obtained by our students, tends to quell those efforts. It takes the wind out of the sails of those proposing that a system be created to address the concerns that are being expressed.

      While this arrangement offers no assurance that abuse of our freedoms will not ever occur, it does provide hope that such a situation will be quickly discovered and remedied. Our children do not reside in the protected haven of the public school, where they are presumed to be instructed. We are under the continual scrutiny of family, friends, neighbors, and officials who may not understand our unique lifestyle. If not adequately addressed, that contrast may breed suspicion, mistrust, jealousy, and even vindictiveness.

      This means that we must all remain faithful to the task of instructing our children each day. As well, we must extend a hand to those in our ranks who might need the benefit of our experience, knowledge, or encouragement. To the degree that we accomplish this, we will continue to enjoy the freedom to educate our children in the strength of our personal convictions, and in the nurture of our own homes.

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