The State of Vermont is looking to cut positions in the state government to save money. That’s great. In fact, it should be done yearly. Every agency should be required to find positions that could be cut, in order to keep the government lean.
That’s what we do. Well, we don’t cut positions in our family, but we do cut out expenses. It’s amazing how things I think I can’t live without one year go on the chopping block the next.
The Times-Argus had an article the other day about the cuts, specifically focused, at least titularly, on the St. Johnsbury prison closing. But there was something else tucked in there that caught my eye.
According to the article, “Some of the proposed cuts rely on shifting responsibilities to local communities, the federal government and other organizations.” One of those proposed shifts is “having local school districts oversee the state’s home school program.”
Currently, the state Department of Education has a full-time, year-round Home Study Office. There is a small staff (three, I think) that deals with homeschooling parents’ questions and approves enrollment applications.
Just as a side here, for those of you who don’t know about homeschooling in Vermont, every year, parents need to send in enrollment packets with the curriculum for the coming year and an assessment of the prior year, as well as some other administrative stuff. The Home Study Office reads through all of this information and determines whether or not the parents are meeting the legal requirements for homeschooling, providing an education in the six subject areas required by statute (which applies to all schools, public, private, and home) at the age and ability-level of the child.
The Home Study Office costs between $250,000 and $300,000 per year. There are over 2,000 families enrolled in the home study program. (There are also families who homeschool without enrolling.)
Now, normally I am a fan of local control. I am not a supporter of centralized government. I believe strongly that when the people making the decisions that affect your life can see you, as opposed to a bureaucracy that only knows you as a name or number, it is usually better. They have to see the consequences of their actions as they impact real people in their community.
For every rule, there is an exception, and this is one exception. I will give you three reasons why this is a bad idea, followed by a couple of solutions. (Bolded, for easy skimming!)
The way our education funding system is set up, the local schools have a financial incentive to have homeschool students return to the schools. The funding they receive from the state is based on number of pupils. For every homeschooled student, they lose money from the state.
In contrast, the state saves money for every homeschooled student. The state pays block grants per pupil. Fewer pupils means less money going out.
There is a conflict of interest when the body charged with approving homeschool enrollments has a financial interest in seeing homeschooling fail. That alone is a good reason to keep the approval process with the state.
Another concern, as a homeschooling parent, is that the public schools, in general, will be less understanding of homeschooling, why people do it, how it is beneficial, and that it is okay to do learning differently than it is done in a classroom. Whereas most homeschooling parents allow for their children to learn in an unconventional way, most school personnel have doubts about those methods, despite the success rate of homeschooling.
A third reason this is a bad idea is that there will be an uneven application of the law. This is the case in Massachusetts, where the local school districts oversee homeschooling. The oversight varies from a simple letter of notification required in some places to a detailed list of all materials that are going to be used and proof that the parent is qualified to teach requested in other districts.
I inquired with the school district where my parents-in-law live (in Mass.) and the packet they sent me asked for all kinds of detailed, privacy-violating information that went way beyond ensuring that the children were receiving an education.
My solution would be to cut the Home Study Office and not replace it with anything. My longtime readers know that I advocate an “innocent until proven guilty” approach that assumes parents are educating their children and not abusing them, unless there is reason to investigate. Our current law assumes we all need a thorough annual investigation.
Ideally, the law should only require a notification be sent to the local school that the child will be home schooled. Parents should still be required to provide an education in the six subject areas required by law and to assess the child’s progress annually using the currently accepted methods. Except, instead of sending these to the state (or a local school) to be reviewed, the parents should keep them on file, to be turned over in the event of an investigation prompted by a concern over neglect.
Obviously, that won’t happen. Parents are not trusted with the rearing of their own children without government intervention these days.
Besides, Armando Vilaseca, the Commissioner of the VT Dept. of Ed., already told homeschoolers he cannot support notification only with no oversight.
Okay, so my real solution is to do nothing. Keep the system the way it is. The local school districts are not equipped to handle home study enrollment reviews – most are not well-versed in the complexities of the law – and this “unfunded mandate” could cost the local schools more than it saves the state.
Again, this is an idealistic solution. Commissioner Vilaseca has expressed support for local oversight. Given that he is charged with finding positions to cut in the Department of Education, my guess is that this will go forward.
If the state is determined to cut the Home Study Office, it is important that homeschooling parents have an alternative to the local school available. In New Hampshire, parents can have their enrollment reviewed by the public school, a private school (which usually charges a fee), or the state.
We need a fail-safe in place if we are faced with a school district that is hostile to homeschooling. It is unfair to parents to subject them to an unevenly applied law, enforced by an entity with a financial stake in seeing them denied their right to homeschool, without providing options for relief.
Update: Nothing will be done this year.