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Iowa’s homeschool rules part of education debate

Published: Monday, April 22, 2013 11:24 a.m. CDT

DES MOINES (AP) — While most of the education debate in the state Capitol this year has been on how to improve teachers and enhance schools, some Iowa lawmakers are focused on a very different educational goal — seeking to reduce regulations for homeschooling families.

Language added to an education bill passed in the Republican-controlled state House in February would remove oversight for some households that homeschool their children. The proposals could complicate negotiations as House Republicans try to reach a compromise with the Democratic-controlled Senate on overall school funding and an education overhaul plan from Gov. Terry Branstad.

Some House Republicans have made clear that they will not support an education policy plan without these homeschooling provisions.

“The proposal the House put out was not an easy position to get to and we would not be able to get to the offer we made, putting the money behind the education reform, without those pieces,” said Rep. Cecil Dolecheck, a Republican from Mount Ayr who sponsored one of the amendments to remove reporting requirements for some families. “As a caucus we have to have them, or we don’t have support for the education reform.”

Democrats were noncommittal on whether they would support the homeschooling proposals.

“That’s an issue that will receive a lot of discussion in our caucus,” said Democratic Senate President Pam Jochum, of Dubuque. Jochum said Democrats wanted to reach a school compromise, but said members’ feelings on homeschooling varied.

“In terms of homeschooling, that’s kind of all over the board in terms of where people stand on that issue. I think the greatest concern is number one, making sure children are testing well and doing well, that they are homeschooled on a curriculum that is laid out. And the second piece that is just as important, is that they have the social skills that go with it,” Jochum said.

Tim Albrecht, a spokesman for Branstad, said the governor supported the Republican education plan with the proposed changes to the homeschool rules, noting that Branstad signed the current homeschool law in 1991 during his previous stint as governor. Albrecht said Branstad “is a strong supporter of both public schools and those who choose to educate their children at home.”

The latest count shows 10,732 homeschooled students in Iowa between the ages of 6 and 16— the compulsory school age in the state, according to Education Department spokeswoman Staci Hupp. There are 508,500 K-12 students in public and private schools.

Under the existing rules, parents who homeschool their children must report their plans to their local district and the students must meet annual assessment standards. Homeschool students can enroll in a program through a school that provides supervision, or sign up to participate in some classes or activities at their local school. Some state funds are provided to schools for those students.

Neighboring states Illinois and Missouri do not have reporting requirements for homeschooled students, though Minnesota and Nebraska do.

The proposed changes in Iowa would exempt some homeschool families from filing reports with the state and doing annual educational assessments, as well as permit teaching up to four unrelated children in one household. There is also a provision to permit homeschooling parents to provide driver’s education to their kids. The proposals would not change the reporting rules for families that homeschool but receive some supervision from an accredited school or take part in some school programs.

A key supporter of the effort is Republican state Rep. Matt Windschitl, of Missouri Valley, who said he was homeschooled and that he and his wife are providing the same education to his two daughters.

“There are a great deal of benefits to homeschooling,” said Windschitl, who authored some of the homeschooling proposals. “The way the current Iowa code is, you have to at least notify your superintendent in your local school district that you are choosing to homeschool and you have to fill out your course plan you have to have for your student. It’s not a lot of information you have to give, but it’s information I don’t feel should have to be given.”

But the homeschool proposals drew sharp criticism from Melissa Peterson, a government affairs specialist with the Iowa State Education Association, which represents about 34,000 teachers, support staff and other educators.

“We don’t think we should do anything to lessen the quality of the education or the accountability of the education (system),” Peterson said. “We think the public education is in good shape, but we are respectful of the current homeschool statute. But we don’t think it should be expanded while being deregulated.”

Bill Gustoff, a Des Moines attorney who homeschools his four children with his wife Sara, said the changes to Iowa law would reduce paperwork and expenses that he described as burdensome for his family and others.

“Right now, we fill out paperwork every year that really honestly doesn’t get looked at. It doesn’t really accomplish anything other than put more barriers up for homeschoolers,” said Gustoff, who serves as a legislative liaison for Network of Iowa Christian Home Educators, a group that he said had several thousand members. “There are several states that are very similar to what we’re proposing.”

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