Cailey Neary, 11, researched a history topic on the computer while her 8-year-old brother, Aidan, wrote in a workbook in the family's kitchen in Juneau on a recent afternoon. A school district in Galena pays for their school books and the computer.
That's the way Mary Neary wants to educate her children, but she's worried that proposed state rules will drive her and other home-schoolers from such programs, called statewide correspondence schools.
Neary educates her two children at home, but they're registered with the Interior Distance Education of Alaska correspondence school, run by the Galena City School District.
"I chose them because they would allow me to choose the curriculum I wanted" and yet provide a computer, $1,400 a child for educational materials and private lessons, such as in the arts, and advice on how to teach, Neary said.
But now the state Department of Education has proposed rules that would require school districts to more closely monitor the work of their correspondence students.
"It's what the law requires. It's accountability," said state Deputy Education Commissioner Ed McLain.
When state education officials audited two correspondence schools last summer they found a more free-wheeling system than they expected. In some cases parents gave their children final grades. School boards approved curriculum and materials broadly without seeing what was purchased.
Some of the proposed rules have alarmed parents and school officials, who are holding public meetings around the state, lobbying legislators and offering their own versions of state rules. A bill was introduced in the House last week that meets some of the schools' concerns.
The state gives school districts at least $3,208 per correspondence student. The state pays about $30 million a year for roughly 9,000 students enrolled in 10 school districts with such programs. About 280 local students were enrolled in those programs in 2000, the Juneau School District estimated.
The proposed rules come at a time of growing enrollments in correspondence programs in which many students don't use the school district's curriculum or submit work to teachers, as they would in traditional correspondence schools. Instead, the programs offer financial support and educational advice to families that essentially are home-schooling.
"A lot of parents have decided to home-school because they wanted to be able to have autonomy in their child's education," said Nenana's CyberLynx correspondence school principal Thomas Klever. "My fear is we're going to be so overregulated that these families will pull out of the program and the public education system."
State rules have required school boards to select curriculum materials for correspondence programs and make sure they're of the same quality as the ones used in the district's other programs, Deputy Commissioner McLain said.
But with the home-school nature of the programs, "it turns out that it's very difficult to do," he said. "There needs to be some control."
Officials from correspondence schools complain that the rules would impose intrusive and costly requirements to monitor student work, taking away choice from parents and funds from education.
"There are many things in these regs - they're trying to put you back into the box, folks," Tim Cline, assistant director of the Galena IDEA program, told Juneau parents at a public meeting earlier this month. "In IDEA's program, you get to educate your children as you see fit, and our job is to help you do that."
IDEA enrolls 3,450 students from around the state, including about 180 from Juneau.
The rules would require that certified teachers monitor students' work at least monthly and verify that all educational materials are aligned with state academic standards.
"We look at it as major areas of fiscal impact," Galena School District Superintendent Carl Knudsen said.
Neary, the Juneau parent, said she worries that she will have to spend a lot of time presenting educational materials and her children's schoolwork to teachers, who will have less time to help parents with their questions.
"If it becomes more trouble than it's worth, it could drive us from the program," Neary said.
Parents also are concerned about a rule that would make it illegal for teachers to provide instruction using materials that teach particular religious beliefs as true. Parents said materials such as math workbooks from religious publishers, bought with their own money, are academic in content.
"If you're talking about adding and subtracting, it really doesn't matter if there's a Bible quotation at the top of the page," Cline of IDEA said earlier this month.
The rule alarms Mike Eberhardt, a Juneau parent who enrolls two sons in the IDEA program. "As soon as you see a regulation saying 'If you're practicing your religious freedom, you can't be involved in a state program,' that really smacks as anti-American," he said.
Half of the families in Nenana's correspondence school choose a curriculum that is religious-based and that they buy with their own money, said Principal Klever. "We're worried that we're going to lose a lot of those families from our program."
But Deputy Commissioner McLain said parents are unduly alarmed. The proposed rules wouldn't stop children from asking teachers a math question, he said.
But McLain couldn't say exactly how the rules would apply, and the uncertainty inherent in interpreting regulations is part of what concerns officials from correspondence schools.
Correspondence parents and school officials also complain that the proposed rules treat their programs differently from "brick-and-mortar" schools. The rules would forbid students from re-enrolling in correspondence schools if they don't take mandatory state exams. But no such rule applies to traditionally schooled students.
Deputy Commissioner McLain said correspondence programs would be treated differently because regular schools can see throughout the school year how students are doing. Brick-and-mortar schools don't rely as much on the state tests to monitor students' achievement, he said.
The state Board of Education is scheduled to discuss the Department of Education's proposed rules at its meeting April 5-6 in Juneau, but it may not vote on them until June, state officials said.
Meanwhile, last week Reps. Jeannette James, a North Pole Republican, and Fred Dyson, an Eagle River Republican, introduced House Bill 464, which would forbid the state School Board from imposing regulations on correspondence students that aren't imposed on public school students.
The measure also forbids the School Board from imposing more stringent limits on the use of instructional materials for correspondence students than for other students. And the bill says that school districts must decide how often to monitor their correspondence students.
The bill also would have the state approve correspondence programs once every 10 years, instead of the current annual review.
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