Homeschoolers Saved from Bad Bill!
(from Issue 81 – Winter 2002-2003 of PA HOMESCHOOLERS® newsletter)
from Howard Richman
House Bill 2560, the proposed rewrite of Pennsylvania’s home education law, was tabled in the House Education Committee in Harrisburg on November 13, 2002. This means that the legislators decided to let it die in committee, saving homeschoolers from a bad homeschool bill.
Before letting the bill die, the Education Committee initially passed an amendment to House Bill 2560 proposed by Rep. Stairs which would have done all of the following:
· Restored evaluators and evaluations.
· Maintained the ability of the Department of Education and school districts to set policies regarding homeschooling, such as the policies that recognize homeschool association diplomas and allow homeschoolers into school sports.
· Replaced the recognized parent-issued diploma of HB 2560 with an unrecognized evaluator-issued diploma.
Here is the key quote from the hearing. Rep. Stairs was explaining how his heart had been touched making him want to keep evaluators in the Pennsylvania home education law:
You know one thing that I never thought about until I heard a homeschooler tell me this a while back. She said, “It’s really nice when your parents tell you you’re doing a good job — you get that support. But it’s really an extra bonus when an outsider, somebody you don’t know, comes in and looks over what you’re studying and how you are doing and says you’re doing a great job — to get this outside comment, this outside credit.” So, it’s something that I never thought about but I think it does provide the accountability that we’re wanting to have in education and so I think this is not an obstacle but an asset which makes the bill stronger....
Rep. Rohrer, homeschool dad and prime sponsor of the bill, did his best to defeat Rep. Stairs’ amendment during the discussion of that amendment in committee:
1. In order to the defeat re-introduction of evaluators into his bill, he argued that evaluators are subjective:
It is subjective what “appropriate” means and it is subjective what is “progress.” That is frankly not defined under any sphere of education, public, non-public, or anything else. And it has been applied in the home education setting and there have been many problems because one evaluator, sitting down, can say, “I think this is appropriate,” and another one can sit down and just as easily say, “I don’t think this is appropriate,” the reason being that both come in with different perspectives. The intent of not having this in here was to address continuing conflicting areas that revolve around subjectivism rather than objectivism....
This led Rep. Steelman to point out that Rep. Rohrer had not substituted any “objective” measure:
Rep. Rohrer is introducing a straw man when he says that these evaluators are subjective and they are not objective. But this bill, also, does not provide for any form whatsoever of objective evaluation of performance of individual homeschooled children. I don’t see any recommendation in this bill that every child who is being homeschooled be required to take some nationally normed performance test every school year. I don’t see any objective measures of performance built into this bill....
I was aghast at this argument by Rep. Rohrer. From 1984 to 1988 I co-led the lobbying effort that passed the current law, fighting off the attempt by the PA Department of Education to judge homeschoolers on the “objective” basis of achievement tests. The homeschooling community was united that judgement by achievement tests would be unfair to those families who, through no fault of their own, have children who do not score well on tests. Here, however, was Rep. Rohrer trashing the current evaluation procedures that protect all of those homeschoolers who put in the required effort and implying that he would prefer to have homeschoolers judged by achievement tests!
Rep. Rohrer also argued that evaluators and accountability were unnecessary, as far as homeschoolers are concerned:
The fact that there is such an entity as an evaluator does not contribute to better instruction or higher levels of academic development that has occurred or anything of that type....
Rep. Steelman countered:
There has to be some form of evaluation. I think that, because I have heard of too many cases in which homeschooling for various reasons is not providing individual children with an adequate educational environment. Now, those families and those children are a very small percentage of the homeschooling community. On average, the homeschooling commnunity does a good job of providing for its children. And Rep. Rohrer is referring to average performance here when he says that it is difficult or impossible to document the differences between average homeschool performance in Pennsylvania and average homeschool performance in other states....
Rep. Rohrer was basing his conclusion that evaluators have no effect upon a single study by Dr. Brian Ray which found that home educated students nationwide perform at about the same levels on standardized achievement tests, regardless of the level or lack of state regulation in place. However, Ray’s study had a fundamental flaw since in unregulated states, those homeschoolers who are not teaching their children would not test them either, while in regulated states all homeschoolers are required to test. Ray’s study was further flawed in that only 29% of the homeschoolers surveyed responded and only about 11% (38% of that 29%) provided test scores that Ray could use. The average student in his study scored at an atmospheric 87th national percentile in total reading and 82nd national percentile in total math, compared to much lower national percentiles in the 60’s for reading and the 50’s for math when the testing sample is representative of the national homeschool population as a whole (including the national SAT test results reported by the College Board). What Ray was really finding was that there is little difference between different states among those homeschoolers who want to brag to him about their children’s test scores!
2. Rep. Rohrer also argued to retain the part of his bill that struck out school district and Department of Education policies, regulations, and guidelines. He said:
It has not been so much an issue with the Department as an entity. It has been a problem with local school districts attempting to make law, enforce law, or otherwise tell parents what they can or cannot do that is outside the current law and has therefore made us as a state, either 1 or 2, depending how you look at it, the most litigious state when it comes to home educating parents. There are more legal problems in Pennsylvania than any other state, perhaps outside New York, because of the attempt of those who are involved in the process, local districts and the Department somewhat, crafting or creating new interpretations of the current law....
Rep. Rohrer did not mention that by striking out this language, Rep. Stairs was restoring the Department of Education policy that lets homeschoolers get recognized homeschool association diplomas as well as the school district policies that let homeschoolers participate in public school sports. It would have been possible for Rep. Rohrer to exempt these good policies when he had originally written HB 2560, but he had not chosen to do so.
What Rep. Rohrer was referring to as “litigation” are the many written and verbal contacts between parents and school districts, contacts that rarely find their way into the court room. Pennsylvania is actually one of the safest states in the country for homeschooling because of the due process protections that HB 2560 would have eliminated from our current law.
3. Rep. Rohrer also argued for the restoration of the part of the bill recognizing parent-issued diplomas:
[Rep. Stairs’ amendment will] remove an extremely important provision that is contained in 2560 and that is the provision that recognizes that a child who successfully completes a home education program deserves the same rights and recognitions as any other student. Under current law that is not true....
Here Rep. Rohrer was completely ignoring the long established Pennsylvania Department of Education policy that homeschoolers can get recognized diplomas from a non-profit homeschool association (something that his bill would have taken away) and that homeschoolers’ certificates of completion are recognized as the equivalent of a diploma if the local school superintendent signs it. Pennsylvania is actually the only state in the country where homeschoolers already get recognized diplomas!
Unfortunately, since HB 2560 had already stripped the evaluator qualifications and procedures out of the current home education law, it was up to Rep. Stairs to write new qualifications and procedures when he put the evaluators back in. At the request of the PA Department of Education and possibly in response to Rep. Rohrer’s argument (in private discussions with Rep. Stairs) that evaluators are too varied, making evaluations “subjective,” Rep. Stairs restricted evaluators to those approved by the Department who had PA teaching certificates and who had taught for three years within the last ten years. Although this would, perhaps, make the evaluation process more uniform, it would also eliminate from the evaluator pool most current experienced evaluators including almost all of the homeschooling parents and non-public school teachers. Currently homeschoolers can find evaluators who share their own religious or educational philosophy. With a reduced evaluator pool, this would have been much more difficult and evaluations would have become much more expensive.
Also, instead of restoring the due process procedures which HB 2560 had stripped from the current home education law, the Stairs’ amendment would force the parent to enroll the child in a local public school without any due process protection whatsoever if the evaluator’s letter to the superintendent were negative, or even simply late! Without the due process protections of our current law, Pennsylvania would have moved from being one of the most safe states for homeschooling in the country to one of the least safe states.
After Rep. Stairs’ amendment had passed by a 17 to 6 vote, Rep. Rohrer was no longer supportive of HB 2560 and asked that it be tabled. (The 17 representatives voting for the Stairs amendment were: Stairs, Clymer, Herman, Krebs, Mackereth, Miller, Nailor, Schuyler, Stevenson, Curry, Grucella, Kirkland, Mundy, Robinson, Roebuck, Steelman, and Sturla.) The representatives then voted 14 to 9 to table the bill. (The 14 representatives voting to table the bill were: Bastian, Clymer, Fleagle, Krebs, Mackereth, McIlhattan, Metcalf, Miller, Rohrer, Schuyler, Stevenson, Grucella, Robinson, and Yewcic.) Because the legislative session was about to end, this action essentially killed HB 2560.
Rep. Stair’s amendment re-taught all of us that you can’t pass a bill without accountability in Pennsylvania, that you can’t pass standardless parent-issued diplomas, that rewriting a law from scratch is a risky process, that a lobbying effort which trashes the current law will lose the advantages of the current law, and that those in the educational establishment will have their own agenda and will have their equal opportunity to have a say on any legislation affecting homeschoolers in Pennsylvania.
The Alternative that Would Have Kept Homeschoolers Safe
When Rep. Armstrong and I called the initial meeting on February 14, 2000, which eventually led to HB 2560, I was hoping that we could put together a bill to fix some of the problems with the current home education law. I was aware that every state that had thus far improved their homeschooling law had done so in incremental steps or had passed a new homeschooling alternative, leaving the old law alone. Rewriting a law is bound to divide the homeschooling community because some of the good aspects of the current law would be lost. Unfortunately, HB 2560 was neither incremental, nor did it create a new alternative. It completely erased the current home education law and then substituted entirely new language.
Once HB 2560 had been introduced, I did my best to change it from a rewrite to an alternative. I wanted both to preserve the good aspects of the current law that had been left out of HB 2560 (i.e. homeschool association diplomas, due process safety, borrowing of textbooks, and school sports access in half the districts), and also to give homeschoolers a safety harness as the proponents of HB 2560 headed toward the edge of a cliff, seemingly oblivious to the danger of last minute amendment by the educational establishment.
Soon after HB 2560 was introduced in May, I offered a compromise to bill proponents -- our organization, Pennsylvania Homeschoolers Accreditation Agency (PHAA), would stop opposing their bill if they turned it into an alternative, not a rewrite. However, bill proponents never responded to my offer. At the June 13 House Education Committee informational meeting about HB 2560, I asked the committee to leave the current law alone by either killing HB 2560 or turning it into an alternative. Then after the meeting, I worked with Rep. McIlhattan who wrote up an amendment which would have changed HB 2560 from a rewrite to an alternative, giving bill proponents all of their language as part of a new alternative, but leaving the current law alone.
Rep. McIlhattan planned to introduce his amendment in committee in order to protect the PHAA diploma for his constituents, but changed his mind once he realized that HB 2560 was not going to pass and that some bill proponents opposed his amendment. He was surprised that bill proponents would oppose an amendment that would give them all of the language that they wanted, but I was not. If HB 2560 were turned into an alternative, bill proponents knew that their language would not prevent the Department of Education from continuing its policy that recognizes homeschool associations to give diplomas under the current law. As a result, there would be what bill proponents called a “tiered” system or a “hierarchy” of homeschool diplomas. (This was not the first time that they had rejected a compromise which would have continued recognition of the homeschool association diploma -- see “Howard Richman’s Testimony at Informational Meeting” in Issue 79.)
Although the alternative version of HB 2560 still lacked accountability and thus would not have been able to pass, at least it would not have divided homeschoolers or put us all at risk.
The Incremental Bill that Might have Passed
As homeschoolers were lobbying both for and against HB 2560, Democratic Representative Sara Steelman listened closely to both sides and also talked to school district officials. During the House Education Committee’s informational meeting on June 13, she asked tough but perceptive questions. In the months that followed, she responded to thoughtful e-mails and letters from all sides of the homeschooling debate. We didn’t know it at the time, but she was busy coming up with her own homeschooling bill, an incremental bill that would solve the problems that she was learning about.
I had heard rumors that she was planning to introduce an amendment to HB 2560, but didn’t actually see the amendment until November 13, when I sat in the committee room awaiting the start of the House Education Committee meeting. When I read her amendment, I was pleasantly surprised. Her amendment restored the old homeeducation law and erased all of the replacement language that had been proposed in HB 2560. Then it proceeded to change our current homeschool law in incremental ways, each of which made it better than before. The only negative change that she made was when she eliminated licensed psychologists from the evaluator pool, apparently because she thought that educators, not psychologists, should do homeschool evaluations.
If homeschoolers had been able to work together, we might have passed a bill like the one proposed by Rep. Steelman’s amendment and we could have gotten strong support from many of the Democrats and Republicans on the House Education Committee who ended up opposing HB 2560. Her amendment would have done all of the following:
· Homeschoolers would not have to include objectives with their affidavit.
· Homeschoolers would only have to file a notarized affidavit once (when they began homeschooling a child); after that they would just have to file an annual letter saying that they were continuing to homeschool and complying with the law.
· Evaluators would no longer have to have teaching experience.
· Homeschoolers would no longer turn in their portfolios and test scores, just the evaluation letter.
· Superintendents would no longer be able to contradict the evaluator as part of the due process procedures. They would only investigate whether education were taking place if the evaluator had not said that it was taking place.
· Superintendents would no longer be able to investigate documentation mid-year.
The Heart of the King
Unfortunately, the incremental bill did not happen. The proponents of HB 2560 threw practicality aside and went for what they saw as the “perfect” bill which would restore parental rights in one fell swoop (including the right not to educate one’s children!). Ignoring lobbyists familiar with the Pennsylvania legislature, including Ted Claytor of the Keystone Christian Education Association, they assumed that it was possible to pass a bill without accountability in Pennsylvania. Rejecting any compromise that would have continued the recognition of homeschool association diplomas, they insured that organized groups of homeschoolers would oppose their bill (PHAA and Buxmont Christian Educational Institute). The proponents of HB 2560 were not affected by such practical considerations. In their broadcast e-mails they noted that anything is possible since “the king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord” (Proverbs 21:1).
But as the Lord touched the hearts of the House Education Committee, support for the bill slipped away. Proponents of the bill mounted phone and e-mail campaigns, but to no avail. Three members of the House Education Committee who had been so supportive that they had co-sponsored the bill on May 1, ended up opposing it. In a broadcast e-mail dated July 11, bill proponents reported that 11 of the 26 members of the House Education Committee were supportive of their bill. Then on October 14, they reported that only 9 members were still supportive. Then on November 13, when the key vote actually occurred, only 6 of the members were sufficiently supportive of HB 2560 to oppose the Stairs amendment. The heart of the king had indeed been touched, but, as Rep. Stairs indicated, it had not been touched for exclusive parental rights but instead for homeschooled children, that they may have an evaluator to give encouragement and hold their parents accountable.
We are fortunate that the bill didn’t get to the House Floor as bill proponents would have liked. We only found out how the Republicans in the PA Department of Education wanted to amend the bill. We never did find out how the Democrats in the teachers’ unions would have amended it at the last minute on the House or Senate floor, once it was too late for Rep. Rohrer to get it tabled.
A practical incremental bill that would expand parental rights while respecting the child’s rights and interests could, perhaps, have passed, but now it is too late. The homeschooling community is much too divided and distrustful of each other to pass anything that reopens the current home education law. Now it is time to leave such legislation alone and allow the homeschooling community to heal.
Susan and I thank all the many, many homeschoolers who voiced their very real concerns about this legislation and those who have encouraged other homeschoolers to take a thoughtful look at the good aspects of homeschooling in PA that we were in danger of losing. We look forward to everyone working together now to make the current law work and to preserve the freedom, recognized diplomas, good reputation, and safety that we have under the current law.