It's not home schooling, but it's not traditional school either: There is a range of arrangements parents can make to enroll kids in public schools while keeping them at home.
With help from the Internet and oversight by teachers, parents in many of the so-called Alternative Learning Experiences, or ALEs, have wide authority to chart their children’s course. But state officials are taking steps to rein in activities seen as inappropriate for taxpayers to fund.
A rule Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn’s office has developed would stop school districts from reimbursing parents of at-home enrolled students for what they buy. Instead, districts would pay directly for equipment and activities.
Reimbursements, also called stipends or parent accounts, can be used to pay for textbooks and basic supplies or for instruction in areas such as fine arts and physical education. A 2005 state audit found it was common for schools to pay for opportunities most students don’t have: private gym memberships; music or horseback-riding lessons; ski rentals, lessons and lift tickets.
“Stipends can give the impression that ALE programs are essentially publicly financed home schooling,” the superintendent’s office said in a February description of concerns about the present rules.
Dorn’s staff could hand him the rule change for consideration later this week after a public hearing Tuesday at which no one spoke against it. Assistant Superintendent Martin Mueller said it would add accountability to the public-school-at-home programs.
The rule is being pushed from opposite directions by home-school organizations that are critical of the programs and see them as ripe for further cuts, and by supporters of online learning who hope to protect the programs from the Legislature’s cuts by making reforms that eliminate abuses and save money. The rule will lower ALE costs by 10 percent, saving more than $26 million, supporters say.
Reimbursements to a family range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. Dorn’s office said in the February notice. The accounts have climbed over the past five years and in one recent instance have grown to as large as $3,700 per school year.
There are concerns that reimbursements are used to recruit families into the programs, Dorn’s office said in the notice. Districts have an incentive to recruit students; they draw down state money based on their enrollment numbers.
“It’s kind of predatory,” said Ron Mayberry, principal of Federal Way’s Internet Academy, which he said doesn’t offer reimbursements.
A district that does reimburse parents, Valley School District near Spokane, said it uses the money to support student learning through fine arts, physical education and vocational training.
The money goes only to activities included in a student learning plan approved by teachers, district Chief Learning Officer Keith Lambert said.
Lambert said the district supports an overhaul of the rules, even though it would have to change its practices.
Take the student who takes classes from the Eastern Washington district but lives on the other side of the state and participates in the Everett Symphony. Instead of reimbursing that family for the cost, school officials will contract with the symphony.
The new rule would require more specific details in a student’s individual learning plan. School districts could pay only for costs that fall under the plan.
Some home-school advocates would prefer districts stop altogether the practice of paying for services that aren’t offered to regular public school students. The services could be incentives for parents to move away from home schooling.
“We are concerned that these programs are redefining ‘homeschooling’ as something now offered through the public school,” Scott Brannan, president of the Christian Homeschool Network, wrote in a letter to the superintendent’s office.
Meanwhile, as administrators move to restrict the reimbursements, the Legislature is considering cuts to the overall ALE program. House budget writers have proposed cutting per-student money by 20 percent, saying the at-home programs need less money per student than do traditional brick-and-mortar schools with secretaries and custodians. The Senate countered with a 10 percent cut.
But Rep. Kathy Haigh, a budget writer and Democrat from Shelton, said the 10 percent cut being considered by Dorn may satisfy lawmakers.
If lawmakers do go through with the per-student cuts, they might face a lawsuit. Supporters of online programs and their ALE umbrella say the alternative programs are part of a student’s right to basic eduction under the state constitution and can’t legally be reduced.
Former Tacoma state Rep. Gigi Talcott of the group Washington Families for Online Learning warned in a news release that cutting the basic education of more than 50,000 students in ALE programs is “unprecedented and sets the state up for another legal challenge.”
Talcott was in Olympia last week to warn that the cuts threaten staff at districts including Federal Way and Steilacoom that have made online education of kids statewide part of their mission. She showed off an analysis by the attorney she has retained, Steve O’Ban, saying the cuts violate the constitution.
State officials think it’s more complicated. Haigh sees the at-home programs as distinct from constitutionally protected basic education. Cal Brodie, Dorn’s director of school apportionment and financial services, said the issue is unresolved in the courts and not spelled out by laws about basic education.
O’Ban said a lawsuit is “on the table” if the funding cut goes through.
Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826 firstname.lastname@example.org, blog.thenewstribune.com/politics