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Education Reporter

Illinois Homeschoolers Thwart State Registration?
Chicago public schools are generally not known for their academic excellence. That well-known fact left many Illinois homeschooling parents wondering why state senator Edward Maloney (D-Chicago) recently decided to focus his efforts on "more accountability" for children not attending Illinois' often failing and sometimes dangerous public schools. Education specialists estimate there are around 60,000 homeschooled students in Illinois.

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Maloney, a former school administrator, proposed Senate Bill 136 to compel parents of home or privately schooled children to register annually with the State Board of Education. Shortly thereafter, he announced a change to the bill. "We're not after private school students," he said. "We're going to amend the bill's language. What we want is to know where homeschoolers are."

Maloney conceded that most homeschooling parents "do a conscientious job that exceeds standards," but said "there are some out there that aren't. We need minimally to know who the home-taught kids are." The Senator also told the Illinois Review that he didn't understand why homeschoolers were so opposed to bill.

Concerned Illinois homeschooling advocates immediately rolled into action to help Senator Maloney understand by calling, writing and making appointments with him. Pastor James McDonald of Providence Church in Morton reported that Maloney told him and other homeschool supporters that "since the State was responsible for the education of our children, the State should know who was being homeschooled." Pastor McDonald said he tried to help Senator Maloney see that "in the eyes of most home educators, the responsibility to ensure our children receive a competent education belongs to parents, not the State."

Laurie Higgins, Director of the Division of School Advocacy for the Illinois Family Institute (IFI), warned that the bill was a "slippery slope from registration to regulation." She said that although this bill only required registration, "It's naïve to think that our bloated and ravenous state bureaucracy will not expand its purview to dictate curriculum, administer tests, monitor or evaluate student progress, require certification of those who serve as teachers, and/or mandate home visits by state officials - all in the service of protecting children, of course."

Other comments from Maloney seemed to give credence to Higgins warning. "There are virtually no regulations on homeschools. No curriculum, no periodic checks on their progress. Regional superintendents tell me they have no way of knowing whether a home-taught student is truant or not," said Maloney. "We want more accountability."

Current Illinois law requires homeschooling parents to obey attendance laws mandating that every child ages 7 to 17 attend a school that teaches math, English, science and social studies, and that those subjects be taught in the English language.

About 4,000 homeschooling parents and their children descended upon the state capitol in Springfield on February 15th to demonstrate their opposition to the bill during the education committee hearing. Homeschooling families packed the hearing room, then overflowed into the hallways of the second and third floor. As they waited for the meeting to start, the crowd began singing hymns and patriotic songs.

During the hearing, both Senators Kimberly Lightford (D-Chicago) and Iris Martinez (D-Chicago) worried about homeschoolers "falling through the cracks" if government did not take an active role in ensuring they received a quality education. Senator Lightford also questioned homeschool teacher qualifications and lack of certification. IFI Executive Director David E. Smith said Lightford's remark "reveals the true intent of some government employees and points to the 'slippery slope from registration to regulation'" homeschool proponents want to forestall.

In an email sent to constituents, the Illinois Christian Home Educators marveled at the irony of the Senators' comments: "If 'falling through the cracks' means kids ending high school without a diploma, without being able to read, without being able to enter college without remedial classes, and with a juvenile justice record, then 'falling through the cracks' is quite common in public schools . . . Why [should] the least effective system of education supervise the most effective system?"

Homeschooling advocates have the data on their side. A 2009 study provided the most comprehensive picture of homeschooling efficacy to date. The research drew from almost 12,000 homeschooled students from all 50 states who took three well-known tests — the California Achievement Test, Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, and Stanford Achievement Tests — during the 2007-2008 school year. The national average percentile composite score for homeschoolers in reading, math, science and social studies was 86% versus a 50% average percentile composite score for public school students.

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The Progress Report 2009: Homeschool Academic Achievement and Demographics study also revealed that student gender, parents' education level, and family income had a negligible impact on student academic performance. Furthermore, families residing in states with high regulatory demands on homeschoolers had the same average test scores as those living in low regulation states, demonstrating that greater government regulation does not improve academic achievement.

Nonetheless, some remain skeptical of homeschooling parents' commitment and competence to educate their own children. Comments made by truancy officer Bill Reynolds during the hearing proved especially alarming. Reynolds expressed his desire to "help" homeschoolers in his area, but said he could not do so if he did not know who they were. Consider the following exchange between committee member Senator David Luechtefeld (R-Okawville) and Reynolds:

Senator Luechtefeld: "If they register — will you go to any house and see if you can help?"

Reynolds: "Yes, sir."

Senator Luechtefeld: "Even those that are doing a really good job?"

Reynolds: "That's right. And I'll know very quickly as I knock on the door; the ones that are doing a good job won't let me go. They'll want me to come in. The ones that say we don't want you around I'll know to take further action."

Senator Luechtefeld: "I still don't see how this changes things just because they register."

Reynolds: "It gives me the name and the opportunity."

Reynolds' testimony made it clear that he interpreted Maloney's bill as a license to harass homeschool families at will. He seemed either unaware of or unconcerned with the Fourth Amendment right of citizens "to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures" without probable cause. IFI's David Smith lamented the guilty until proven innocent attitude directed towards homeschool families and characterized the bill as "a solution looking for a problem."

Senator Maloney tabled SB 136 the day after the hearing, but left open the possibility of future legislation. Two weeks later he told the Illinois Review that he is working with Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) Superintendent Christopher Koch to discuss how the state can ensure that school-age children are attending some form of school that meets the requirements of Illinois law. He noted that truancy officers complain that their investigations of possible truants are hampered because they have no way to verify that parents who claim to be homeschooling their kids are actually doing so.

The senator said he will continue to discuss the matter with homeschool representatives and Koch's ISBE staff to come up with a registration solution that will be acceptable to all parties. "It could be simply a guideline for truancy officers, or the ISBE may find we need legislation to protect homeschooled students," said Maloney. "We'll determine what's best in the days ahead." (IllinoisReview.typepad.com, 2-8-11, 3-2-11; IllinoisFamily.org, 2-3-11; hslda.org; SouthTownStar.Suntimes.com, 2-9-11)

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