The V.I. Board of Education and the Department of Education will not be allowed to regulate home schooling curriculum or testing if a bill approved in committee Monday is enacted into law as currently written.
Another bill approved in committee Monday would require all V.I. government entities and companies that receive V.I. tax benefits to offer two hours off from their jobs each month, with pay, in order to visit their children, teachers, counselors or other school-related officials.
The home schooling bill [Bill 31-0191], sponsored by Sen. Novelle Francis, does say parents must submit a detailed notification to the Department of Education and a portfolio of 10 or more examples of school work performed by the student in the last year. It explicitly declares the Department of Education may not adopt any regulations at all regarding home instruction, except the few outlined in the bill itself.
The bill says a "parent retains full control over a home instruction of a child, including the teaching and testing methods, the selection of curriculum, the instructors, and the location of instruction," but also that all V.I. government institutions must recognize the "diploma" issued by the student’s parents.
It is looser than regulations on home instruction proposed by the V.I. Board of Education, which would require parents to list the number of days and hours of instruction and the qualifications of teachers. Those regulations would also mandate instruction in reading, language arts, mathematics, science and social studies.
It is also looser than the requirements in place since 1998, which require parents to give information on the subjects to be taught, days of instruction and teacher’s method of instruction.
As he introduced the measure to the Education and Workforce Development Committee on Monday, Francis said the bill was "on behalf of families across the territory who are choosing to home school their children." He said it is not about learning centers which teach multiple students. Learning centers have become controversial in the territory, with some arguing they are operating as unlicensed private schools. By contrast, this bill only affects actual home schooling by a parent or guardian, Francis said.
He also said "it is not a condemnation of public schooling," but an attempt to create a solid framework for home schooling in the territory. Home schooling is legal in all 50 states, but the level of regulation varies by state, he said.
"More families are choosing to home school – the key word being choice," Francis said.
Assistant Education Commissioner Chermaine Hobson said the department supports elements of the bill and the V.I. Board of Education’s home education policy, but wants more regulation and oversight. She supplied several detailed recommendations. She said the Education Department wants the bill to specify that parents who want to home school have at least a high school diploma themselves and for it to include more demographic and academic details in the application filed by parents. Also, instead of 10 samples of work in total, they want 10 samples per year in each subject area listed in the notice of intent for home instruction filed with the department.
Appearing via Skype, Kathryn Brightbill of the Coalition for Responsible Home Education testified against the current form of the bill, also arguing for much more regulation and oversight of home schooling. The CRHE is a group, largely composed of former home-school students, advocating for tighter regulation and supervision of home schooling.
Brightbill shared anecdotes of domestic abuse that was hidden from authorities by home schooling the children and of home schooled students who found themselves severely behind in basic educational and work skills and later had difficulty getting employment and taking care of themselves. Brightbill said one the most consistent findings in research on homeschool academics is persistently poorer performance in math, citing a large array of peer-reviewed studies and academic journal articles.
Several V.I. home-schooling parents testified in support of the bill. Some, including Dana Mackay and Eliza Combie, said they could accept more regulation to prevent neglect.
Mackay said she agrees with Department of Education concerns about neglect, and would concede to the portfolio review the department is asking for.
Several others opposed any increased regulation or oversight of homeschooling and any requirements on parents. Those included St. Thomas home schooler Amy Rose Herrick and Andrea King, both with U.S. Virgin Islands Homeschoolers, a pro-homeschooling group that opposes regulation; St. Thomas home schooling parent Lori Edwards, and Scott Woodruff, senior counsel for the Home Schooling Legal Defense Association.
Woodruff, Herrick and King all cited studies by Dr. Brian Ray of the National Home Education Research Institute claiming that home schooled students outperform public school students, regardless of the education level or qualifications of the parents. Herrick provided links to those studies on the Home Schooling Legal Defense Association website. In the academic world outside of religious home-school advocacy organizations, Ray’s studies have been widely criticized for a lack of rigor, lack of statistical validity and consistent bias in favor of unregulated homeschooling. (See: How to Mislead With Data in Related Links below)
Herrick and Woodruff both cited a 1998 study by Dr. Lawrence Rudner of the University of Maryland that they asserted demonstrated that home homeschooled students perform as well or better than those in public schools. In her testimony Herrick provided a link to a HSLDA website version of the study. However CRHE says the HSLDA version leaves out portions that make clear Rudner warns against making that assertion and several academic sources critique that study on the grounds that the sample is limited, wealthy and self-selected.
Those who testified in opposition to any regulation of home schooling appear to be connected by a specific religious and political perspective. The parents who opposed regulation all cited the importance of their faith in their lives and their desire to incorporate it in all aspects of their children’s education as a major factor in their desire to home school.
Woodruff is senior counsel for the HSLDA. His bio at the HSLDA website lists his religious conversion in 1971 as its first item, then his employment for John Ashcroft, the attorney general under George W. Bush, and work in insurance.
The liberal watchdog organization Right Wing Watch has an archive of material on the HSLDA and regards the group as an entity dedicated to promoting a right-wing political agenda.
Herrick cited the HSLDA several times in her testimony. Herrick’s LinkedIn page says she works with Altrua HealthShare. Several online sources describe Altrua as one of a number of conservative Christian faith-based alternative to commercial health insurance, based on paying the company low monthly fees, in exchange for a promise of assistance in case of an emergency, but no coverage of preventive care, annual checkups and the like. Altrua’s website says "Altrua HealthShare is an affordable alternative to expensive health insurance. We are NOT insurance, we are a non-profit faith based alternative."
Edwards testified about some of her children’s work with Youth With a Mission. YWAM founder and leader Loren Cunningham has spoken publicly of his vision for world control by his version of Christianity by taking over key sectors of society like education, government, media and the military. (See: "Reclaim 7 Mountains" in Related Links) It owns or owned a building in Washington D.C., that served as a sort of prayer house for members of Congress, run by a Washington ministry known as The Family, or The Fellowship. The Fellowship runs the weekly Senate Prayer Breakfast, attended by many members of Congress and other political figures. The prayer breakfast itself has been uncontroversial, but its connections with an organization that promotes a sectarian takeover of government institutions have generated some controversy in the media.
Some senators expressed concern that the V.I. Board of Education was not represented at the hearing. Francis said amendments addressing concerns raised by testifiers are being prepared. The committee voted to send the bill on for consideration in the Rules and Judiciary Committee. Sen. Kenneth Gittens, who chairs that committee, said the committee would hear testimony from the Board of Education and others and would vet the proposed amendments.
The bill [Bill 31-0010] to provide time off with pay for parents, sponsored by Francis and Sen. Jean Forde, is a revised version of a measure approved in the Senate in 2014. At the time, Gov. John deJongh Jr. vetoed the measure because it had a drafting error that would have accidentally changed several other provisions of law by citing an entire act of the Legislature instead of a specific provision of that act. (See: DeJongh Vetoes Changes to RT Park Tax Breaks in Related Links below) The new version clears up the drafting error.
Voting to send both bills on for more consideration were: Forde, Gittens, Sens. Myron Jackson, Positive Nelson, Tregenza Roach and Kurt Vialet. Sen. Justin Harrigan was absent.