New rules give more freedom to Arkansas parents homeschooling children

Posted: December 30, 2017 at 4:30 a.m.

Parents of thousands of home-schooled Arkansas students are no longer required to annually describe to the state the curriculum they will teach, their teaching schedule or their teaching qualifications, according to 2017 changes in state law.

Those changes -- paired with the 2013 law that gives home-schoolers a shot at participating in a public school district's interscholastic activities and a 2015 law that eliminates state testing of home-schooled students -- are the basis for newly drafted rules governing home schooling.

The proposed rules will be the subject of a public hearing at 1:30 p.m. Jan. 10 in Room 201A of the Arkansas Department of Education, 4 Capitol Mall, in Little Rock. Unless significant changes are made in the draft as the result of public comments, the rules will go to the state Board of Education for approval in early 2018 and then on to a couple of legislative committees.

More than 19,000 Arkansas children were home-schooled in the 2015-16 school year, the last year for which a statewide total is available from the Arkansas Department of Education. If home-schooled students made up a district, it would be the third largest district in the state, smaller only than the Little Rock and Springdale districts.

The draft rules are intended to replace 2007 rules that have become outdated by revisions to state laws.

While statute changes eliminated all state-mandated testing and reporting of courses taught and grades earned, parents are free to give standardized tests to their home-schooled students and maintain academic records.

Those standardized test scores, transcripts and grades can be used, under the new laws and proposed rules, to ease a home-schooler's enrollment into a public school or into a public-school class or an interscholastic activity -- such as athletics -- if that is desired at some point in a student's schooling.

Jerry Cox, president of the Family Council, a conservative research, advocacy and education organization, welcomed the proposed rules. He expects them to standardize the interaction between families that home-school and state public school districts.

"This just makes it a lot more clear for everyone concerned," Cox said.

Fred Worth, a leader of the Clark County Christian Home School Organization and a member of the statewide Education Alliance steering committee, also praised the statutory and regulatory changes for their potential to promote uniformity.

"For the most part it's just making sure that, from district to district, kids are going to be treated fairly," Worth said. "I can't imagine anybody objecting" to the proposed rules.

The laws, and the proposed rules that track those laws, require families that home school to notify their local school district superintendents of their home-schooling intentions by Aug. 15 of each year or complete a form on the Arkansas Department of Education's website.

If, in the midst of a school year, parents want to start home schooling, they must give notice 14 days before withdrawing their child from a school.

Information on the notice must include name, sex, birth date and grade level of the child and the name of the last school attended, if there is one. The mailing address and telephone number of the home school is required, as is the name of the parent or guardian doing the teaching.

Plans for a home-schooler to participate in a public school interscholastic activity should also be included on the form as well as a student's plan to seek a high school equivalency diploma or a driver's license during the course of the current school year.

Kim Bragg, a home-schooling parent and activities coordinator for the Texarkana Organization for Resolute Christian Homeschoolers, said she is grateful for the changes in the laws and the draft rules.

"I believe things are really good," Bragg said about the state of the Arkansas law but added, "I would rather us be kind of like Texas where they don't have to fill out [annual] forms. Their law is more hands-off by the government."

Gone from the proposed Arkansas rules are provisions in the 2007 regulations that require students to take a state-selected and state-administered norm-referenced achievement test, such as the Stanford Achievement Test or the Iowa Test of Basic Skills.

In the past, the required annual testing was organized by the state, typically through the state's 15 education service cooperatives or the Pulaski County school districts.

Now it's up to the parent to decide whether a home-schooler takes a standardized test or how often the test is given.

"I never did care that much about testing," Bragg said, calling it "aggravating" in terms of the time it took and the challenge to find a state testing location. "I think it is up to the parent. They usually know what their kids are doing or how they are doing. They are able to have a test if they like. There is that ability out there. If they really want to test their children, they can do that."

Dena Wilson, a Maumelle member of the Home Educators of Greater Little Rock organization, said she also saw little value to the state-required and state-financed testing program.

"Since they weren't really using the test data for individual students, I'm not sure what it gave the state," Wilson said. "It seemed like they were spending a lot of state money just so they could make themselves feel better about monitoring us but they weren't really getting a lot out of that.

"Many parents still test their kids, but they just don't want the state involved. I tested my own children last year, but I did it on my own dime," Wilson said, adding that she tested two of the four school-age children that she is now home-schooling.

She will do the same for a third child this school year -- but not the two that were most recently tested. Wilson has children ages eight months to 23 years old. She is currently home-schooling four sons in first, third, fifth and sixth grades.

"I don't feel like I need to test every year because I feel like I have a thumb on where they are," she said.

The proposed rules specify how a school district can respond to home-schooled students who seek to enroll or re-enroll in public schools.

The newly drafted rules direct public schools to place a home-schooler who enrolls or re-enrolls in a public school in the grade and in the courses that are at least equivalent to the student's grade level and the courses taken in the home school. The grade and course levels are indicated by:

• The student's transcript of all courses taken and semester grades in the home school.

• A score that is at least at the 30th percentile on "a nationally recognized norm referenced assessment taken in the past year." (The 50th percentile is generally considered the national average on a nationally recognized norm reference test.)

• A portfolio of indicators of a student's academic status such as the curricula used in the home school, the tests taken and lessons completed.

If a student can't provide results from a nationally recognized norm-referenced test, then a school district has the option of giving the student such a test or waiving that requirement, according to the proposed rules.

The rules also allow a school district to waive requirements for transcripts -- and to simply enroll the student by mutual agreement with the parent.

"In many cases the local public school really didn't know how to give credit for work done in the home school," said Cox of the Family Council.

"These new rules spell out how that transfer process is to occur," he said. "If home-school students want to have full credit for their home-school work, then they present standardized test scores and transcripts. The local public school then actually has something concrete to go on."

In regard to a home-schooler participating in public school courses and trying out for interscholastic activities, the proposed rules direct a public school principal to permit it -- if told about the student's interest before any sign-up or tryout deadlines. The parent must also let the principal know of the student's academic eligibility as evidenced by a minimum test score at the 30th percentile on a recognized norm-referenced test in the past 12 months.

The principal has more flexibility if a home-schooler indicates an interest in an activity within the first 11 days of a semester. At that point the principal may, rather than must, permit participation.

A home-schooler must have an equal opportunity to try out and participate in an activity but is not guaranteed selection to participate, according to law. The home-schooled student participating in an public school activity must comply with the requirements that apply to all other students in an activity -- including rules for behavior, practice time, drug testing, physical exams, and payment of participation or activity fees, according to the draft rules.

State law and the proposed rules also allow a home-schooler to participate in an interscholastic activity in a school other than the public school serving the area in which the student lives.

Any student who withdraws from a public school to be home-schooled shall not participate in an interscholastic activity in the resident school district for at least 365 days after withdrawing from the school, the draft rules state.

As far as college, home-schooled students must meet the admission requirements set by a higher education institution for them.

In addition to conducting the Jan. 10 public hearing on the proposed rules, the Arkansas Department of Education is taking written comments on the proposed rules through Jan. 17. Email on the proposed rules can be sent to ADE.RulesComments@arkansas.gov.

After the public comment period ends, agency staff members will review the responses to determine if revisions in the rules are needed, Education Department leaders said this week.

If no substantive changes are made, the rules (along with the comments) will be submitted to the Education Board for approval.

The approved rules go to the Administrative Rules and Regulations Subcommittee of the Arkansas Legislative Council, and then to the full Legislative Council. If the subcommittee and council approve the rules, the Education Department will file them with the secretary of state.

They become effective 10 days later.

If substantive changes are made as a result of public comment, the revised rules will be resubmitted to the governor's office for approval and, if approved, be released for a second public comment period. Then the same procedure will be followed, with the proposed rules going to the Education Board, the two legislative bodies and then to the secretary of state's office.

The draft rules are available here: http://bit.ly/2BTClJb

A Section on 12/30/2017