THE SIREN CALL: The Dangerous Lure of the Idaho Distance Education Academy
Home schoolers across Idaho have been courted during this spring (2004) by the Idaho Distance Education Academy (I-DEA). Offering substantial financial incentives, the academy's program is designed to lure the traditional home schooling family into the "public school fold." In the opinion of the boards of both the Idaho Coalition of Home Educators (ICHE) and Christian Homeschoolers of Idaho State (CHOIS), the risks inherent in this program outweigh the financial benefits offered by this public school program. The primary risks that are of concern to these organizations are:
- Loss of flexibility in tailoring each child's education to the academic strengths and weaknesses of that child;
- Loss of parental autonomy and control over the child's education;
- Loss or waiver of certain rights of the family to be free from governmental scrutiny;
- Marginalization or elimination of spiritual component or worldview from curriculum options;
- Increased regulation of home education arising from strings attached to public funding; and
- The remarkably small price being offered to home educators to induce them to relinquish control of their children's education.
The program itself is offered by the White Pine School District located in Deary, Idaho. To view the Idaho program's own website, see www.idaho-dea.org. Although the program is for the moment short on details, reliable information is available. The program is a spinoff of the Interior Distance Education of Alaska program which has operated in Alaska since 1997. The Alaskan program has, in turn, been cloned in several other states. Because personnel from the Alaska program are advising those setting up the Idaho program, we can look to the Alaska program as a reliable indicator of what we can expect to see here in Idaho as the details of this program are fleshed out.
The premise of the program is simple: a public school district offers cash incentives to home schooling families to induce them to register with the district. The district receives a substantial sum of government funds each year (estimated at $4,000 to $4,400 under this program) for each such "enrolled" student and uses a portion of those funds to create a program of governmental management. Because the district can administer the program for far less money than the state is required to pay, the district can then keep the bulk of those funds to supplement the other funds it collects for its regularly-enrolled students.
To draw the home schoolers into this arrangement, cash incentives are offered. The incentives range from $600 per year for each kindergarten student enrolled to $1,600 per year for each 9th through 12th grade student enrolled. However, the families will not simply receive the money without controls. The funds will come only in the form of reimbursement for approved out-of-pocket expenses of the family for materials and training that are absolutely devoid of any faith-based components.
Effectively, the participation of home schoolers in this government program is bought and paid for with tax dollars. In exchange, the district gets two important commodities: they get to keep the difference between the total funds taken in and the sum of the funds paid by the district to their staff and to the parents to entice their participation, and they get credit for the academic achievement of the home schoolers that participate. In a state where the home schoolers on average score above the 80th percentile on standardized tests, adding those home educated students to this small district's data will result in a substantial jump in the average scores that can be claimed by the district. For the school district, this is a win-win situation. The district gets additional funds to spend on its two "brick and mortar" schools and their traditional students. They also get the bragging rights of raised standardized test scores.
In addition to the financial incentives, the district also promises families that enroll their children several additional perquisites that make the program look and feel more like a standard public schooling arrangement. These include:
- Certified teaching staff assistance;
- Curriculum standards;
- Individual Learning Plan and High School Planning Consultation;
- Online correspondence courses;
- Standardized testing;
- Technical support consultants; and
- Workshops for parents and students.
While these additional "benefits" may sound enticing, home educators should bear in mind that the academic excellence that home education has historically produced has been obtained without these programs. Indeed, the notion that home educators might benefit from adopting the practices of the public school system should be examined critically in light of the results produced in recent years by that system.
Are these rewards worth the risk for home schooling families? The boards of ICHE and CHOIS think not. Here are the reasons for their conclusions.
Loss of Flexibility
One of the hallmarks of traditional home schooling is the flexibility available to the families. Each student can be advanced at the student's own pace. That pace may vary from subject to subject. A student gifted in math, but struggling in reading, can be accelerated in math while being remediated in reading. Parents can assess each student's unique interests in order to teach to the day-to-day curiosity of the student. Teaching subjects that are currently of interest to the student yields maximal learning.
When a parent registers a student for the I-DEA program, that flexibility will be the first casualty. The public schools are all subject to assessment testing that will shortly dictate the subjects, and ultimately the curriculum, offered to each student. Curiosity-driven learning will, of necessity, yield to "by the book" learning.
This test-driven curriculum will also keep students from accelerating as home schooled students so often do. A gifted student in math may be capable of excelling in higher mathematics. But the grade level assessment tests are not designed to carefully measure those accelerated skills. Consequently, the program will tend to force the student to remain unchallenged so that maximal scores on the grade level mathematics materials are obtained.
More critically, as a student enrolled in a public school program, it will be necessary to spend excessive hours in instruction. The Idaho Administrative Code at section 08.02.01.250 requires certain minimum hours of instruction each year for public school students. Those requirements range from 450 hours per year for kindergarten students to 990 hours per year for 9th through 12th grade students. Assuming 200 school days per year, each parent will be required to ensure that each home school student under this program receives up to 5 hours of instruction per day. The failure to provide that amount of instruction may expose the parent and the child to prosecution under Idaho's habitual truancy statute, section 33-206 of the Idaho Code. It may ultimately turn out that a parent of multiple students will actually be required to provide separate instruction to each student in a manner that does not allow simultaneous instruction to satisfy these requirements. At some point, there will simply not be enough hours in the day for a parent to satisfy these standards with integrity. Home schooling parents, on the other hand are exempt from any specific hourly requirements. In fact, on average in this country, home schooling parents spend only three to four hours per day in formalized instruction.
Parents who grow weary of this massive hourly requirement will be tempted not to be entirely forthright in their time records. Beyond the personal compromise this will involve is the possibility of the harmful lessons that the children are taught as they observe this behavior by their parents.
Loss of Parental Control & Parental Rights
Idaho home educators have been blessed with freedoms that are among the best in the nation. In the absence of substantial and credible evidence of educational neglect or failure, parents are free to pursue the education of their children in the manner that to them seems best. As home schooling families enroll in the I-DEA program, they will lose much of that freedom.
First, the school district will begin to accumulate a file on each student. The file will include not only academic information, but other personal and medical information, as well. That file will be retained by the district even when the student is no longer registered with the district.
Second, the very act of enrolling the student in the district entails a waiver of certain rights enjoyed by parents and their children in the home school setting. The home will lose some of its sacrosanctity as the district begins to monitor the education being provided to the child there.
Third, it may prove difficult to withdraw children once they are logged into this program. The district will have a vested financial interest in discouraging any student from leaving the program. Those who have attended the seminars put on by the program have been told that, if they remove their children from the program before November, they will be required to repay all of the funds spent on that child under the program.
Fourth, if a child turns out to be a delayed reader, there is a risk that the child may be labeled as "learning disabled." This is a label that is difficult to ever overcome. It is also a label that potentially enables the district to collect even more money. This in turn raises the possibility that the district will make it even more difficult to withdraw that student when the parent later decides to continue the child's education without the district's assistance.
Finally, there exists a potential that social workers may have a greater right to enter the home to evaluate the children and their education. In at least a theoretical sense, each home under this program becomes a satellite operation of the White Pine School District. Just as social workers have fairly unfettered access to students in a traditional public school, they may gain additional access to enrolled home schoolers, circumventing the constitutional protections of the home from unreasonable search and seizure.
A brief analysis of the creeping regulation of families enrolled in Alaska's distance education program may be viewed at the Home School Legal Defense Association's website.
God is Marginalized
For people of faith, the constitutional free exercise of religion will be compromised by participation in the I-DEA program.
The program is up front in acknowledging that the funds provided to the parents by the program cannot be used to purchase curriculum that includes any religious component. That said, the program's promoters are quick to point out that parents, at their own expense, may acquire and use such materials as a complement to the nonreligious materials provided under the program. Such parents will be required to teach such subjects twice. They will, in the process, create confused children who will be unable to understand why the duplication and inconsistency is necessary. In short, the program will send the wrong message to the children of parents for whom the spiritual motivation is central. And in time the likelihood of teaching two curricula will become more and more remote.
How much is enough money to justify the skewing of our children's curriculum to exclude the normal and natural references to God and traditional notions of right and wrong?
The "Accountability" Juggernaut
Every expenditure of government funds requires some measure of accountability. We expect such. And as taxpayers, if accountability is lacking in any governmental program, we will be the first to demand it.
In Idaho for years, home schoolers have fought valiantly to defeat proposals to register and test our students. Those battles have repeatedly been won in significant part because we do not take anything from the government. Our legislators have respected our willingness to bear the cost of teaching our children without taking public funds.
With enrollment in the I-DEA program, that strength goes out the window. Suddenly, home schoolers are the recipients and beneficiaries of public funds. Legislators will be quick to impose additional oversight. That is precisely the pattern that has been imposed in Alaska. The IDEA program there initially included significant freedom and flexibility. Gradually those freedoms have been curtailed as calls for "accountability" have gained traction. The same will occur in Idaho. And sadly, those calls will encompass not only those families enrolled in this program, but all traditional home schoolers, as well. The lines that have historically separated public school students from home schoolers will be sufficiently blurred to make it significantly more difficult to maintain our precious home schooling freedoms.
Less than Minimum Wage
While "free" money is always tempting, consider the cost in this case.
Under this program, the Idaho Administrative Procedures Act will require the parents of each enrolled student to spend 450 to 990 hours per year in instructional activities. In exchange for those hours, the parents will receive between $600 and $1,600 per year. That works out to an effective compensation rate of just $1.33 to 1.62 per hour, less than one-third of the federal minimum wage. Stated differently, the government has bought the right to influence or control what, when, and how you teach your children for just $1.62 per hour or less. Surely you can do better than that.
Participation in this program will also create a dependency within a family's budget. Once a family comes to expect and rely on these government funds, it will become more difficult to suffer the financial consequences of withdrawing from the program.
Consider that the average home school family spends just $450 per year teaching each child. Where is the wisdom or ethics of spending up to $1,600 of taxpayer funds to teach that same child from government-controlled materials? Why is it that we are willing to spend more profligately simply because the money is not "our own?" Is this not poor stewardship? Does it not send the wrong message to our children? Since we feel so strongly about the education of our children that we make major lifestyle decisions so that we can control that process, why would we then turn around and sell that right for a bowl of lentils? In the final analysis, are we willing to place the decisions of the school district above our own wisdom in guiding the education of our children?
Ultimately, home educators in Idaho are invited to voluntarily place themselves under the same public school system that has produced such mediocre academic results for its own students. Assurances are given that families will retain their freedoms to do things almost the same way they have always done them. And the bait on the hook is "free money," the commodity that always seems to be in short supply.
We understand that there are families whose financial situation is strained, even desperate. As one views the available educational choices, this program may seem like the best option. But remember that others have home schooled with great success with no more than a library card.
The boards of both ICHE and CHOIS strongly encourage their members and all home schoolers to carefully consider this issue. Think about the tremendous freedoms that we currently enjoy here in Idaho in teaching our children at home without any government interference or oversight. It is unavoidable that the acceptance of government funds will result in a loss of freedom, initially for those families enrolling their children, but ultimately for all traditional home schoolers. That loss of freedom will be accompanied by a loss of flexibility as the government turns up the regulations on the participating families.
Like the sailors who learned too late the dangers of yielding to the sirens' song, Idaho home educators must study this issue carefully to avoid inadvertently imperiling not only their own family and freedoms, but those of all home schoolers in the state, as well.
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