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Home-Schooling Guidelines: A Study in Confusion

By Jay Mathews
Thursday, April 23, 2009

Dear Extra Credit Readers:

A home-schooling parent said that I could share her letter to Montgomery County School Superintendent Jerry D. Weast. It reveals that the misinformation home-schoolers have to deal with can sometimes come even from the county officials who are supposed to supervise them.

Dear Dr. Weast:

My husband and I have home-schooled our youngest son since kindergarten. Adrien is now in 10th grade and, for the past two years, we have opted for a county review of his educational portfolio. The three reviews I have had so far at the Spring Mill Field Office in Silver Spring have been a very pleasant experience, and my reviewer, Mrs. Karen Gross, could not be more professional and delightful.

At the end of my last review on Dec. 20, however, Mrs. Gross told me of a memo she and her fellow reviewers had received reminding them that home-schooled students could not receive more than 20 percent of their education from sources other than their parents. Mrs. Gross expressed relief that Adrien was learning so much at home with me that the two classes he was taking in college (one at Montgomery College in Takoma Park and the other at the University of Maryland in College Park) could be considered less than 20 percent of his instructional program. She said that she would hate to find us out of compliance with the state law, but would be forced to do so if we exceeded the limit stated in the memo.

When I came home after my appointment with Mrs. Gross, I called the Department of Student Services and asked to be provided with a copy of the memo. The secretary transferred my call to Ms. Kristin Leary, who confirmed that home-schooled students could not receive more than 20 percent of their instruction from individuals other than their parents. In fact, she warned me two or three times that I would be "found out of compliance" if my son took more than 20 percent of his classes from outside sources. Although I repeatedly asked for a copy of the memo, she refused to even acknowledge my request, and in spite of my repeated requests, never cited the language in Code of Maryland Regulations (COMAR) in support of her position.

After I reminded her that COMAR 13A.10.01.01(F) specifically bars local school systems from imposing "additional requirements for home instruction programs other than those in these regulations," she said that what was presented to me as a rule was, on second thought, a mere guideline.

I take my responsibilities as a home-schooling parent very seriously, and I am familiar with the pertinent COMAR regulations (13A.10.01), the purpose of which is "to establish a procedure to be used by the superintendent of each local school system to determine if a child participating in a home instruction program is receiving regular, thorough instruction during the school year in the studies usually taught in the public schools to children of the same age." COMAR will be my guide -- not "rules" or "guidelines" from a memo that I am not even permitted to see.

As his mother, I have been my son's primary teacher. In no way does this mean that we both sit down at the kitchen table while I "teach" him all day. I do not view myself as a purveyor of facts charged with filling his head with knowledge. Instead, I make resources available to him, based both on his personal interests and my conception of what a solid liberal arts education should be. Visits to museums, lectures at the National Geographic Society, the National Archives or other venues, field trips to wetlands sanctuaries, plays at the Folger or the Shakespeare theaters, concerts at Strathmore and operas at the Kennedy Center or (until recently) the Baltimore Lyric Opera House, and constant offerings of books, books and more books are among the activities that he and I have shared over the years.

This is what home schooling is about, Dr. Weast. I am Adrien's primary teacher because I am the one who directs his education, not necessarily because I actively "teach" him. The only exceptions are in French (my native language) and Latin (a bit rusty) For the rest, my son either teaches himself or gets his instruction from other adults with appropriate qualifications. In either case, I provide supervision to make sure that the work gets done.

Patricia Z. Downey

Kensington

Montgomery public schools spokesman Steve Simon discussed Downey's complaint with Steve Zagami, director of the Department of Student Services. Zagami acknowledged that his field staff member "did make an inaccurate statement in referencing an '80-20' rule or guideline," Simon said. That would seem to clear that up, except Zagami then sent a letter to Downey with language that seems to me designed to confuse parents and make the home-schooling experience more bureaucratic and annoying than it ought to be. This is the sentence that got me: "MSDE has provided local school systems guidance that while a parent may use a tutor or college course to supplement instruction, the tutor or college course would have to be in addition to the instruction that the child receives from the parent in the home, not in lieu of the home instruction program provided by the parent."

Huh? I thought the idea was to help kids learn. I don't understand how worrying whether additional instruction is "in addition to" rather than "in lieu of" parental teaching fulfills that admirable desire. Maybe somebody out there can explain it to me.

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