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For Homeschooled Students in PA, a Change in the Evaluation Process

Erika Beras
90.5 WESA

Lynn Lightfoot’s kids have an easy commute to class.

It's down a flight of stairs and onto couches in a room crammed with everything from books to DVD’s to board games. Her teenagers, Aleeshyah and Noah, aren’t just her children — they’re her students. They are two of about 21,000 children who are homeschooled in Pennsylvania. Lightfoot made the decision to homeschool her children when her oldest of four was about to go to school. A teacher, she didn’t like what she saw in schools and felt that school curriculums didn’t tend to things she thought were important. For one, she was worried her kids wouldn’t learn cursive.

"How are they going to understand when Grandma writes them a letter and they can't read it? How are they going to sign their names?" she said. 

Lightfoot has homeschooled all four of her children, a process that when she started 16 years ago consisted of notifying her school district, Wilkinsburg, and letting administrators know what they’d be doing.

At the end of every year, an evaluator, whom the family picked, looked over the student’s work and then it all went to the school district’s superintendent for approval. 

That was according to the 1988 law that established homeschooling. A change made to that law in October says superintendents don’t need to review the portfolios anymore.

"By taking them out of the picture, that obligation is reduced and they are little concerned that their children will slip through the cracks, sometimes there will be cases where parents will not be taking their responsibility to educate their child at home in a serious manner," said Jim Buckheit, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators.

His group opposes this law, saying it essentially removes official oversight from a homeschooled child’s education.

"Unless there is a complaint or some reason for the school district to believe that an education is not taking place without having a direct oversight of that, there would be no ability to intercede on the child’s behalf to make sure they are going to be properly educated," he said. 

Homeschooling is regulated state by state. Until this law passed, Pennsylvania had one of the stricter laws in the country. There are other provisions to the law, such as ensuring none of the adults in the home have criminal records. And while homeschooled students only have to take three state tests in 3rd, 5th and 8th grade and choose from a menu of exams in high school, Buckheit said students in brick-and-mortar schools are increasingly being subjected to a more rigorous testing schedule.

"At the same time, as we’re increasing the requirements for public school diploma we’re sort of decreasing the requirements and oversights for diplomas issued by home education parents," he said. 

The new law also allows homeschool parents to issue their students a high school diploma. Before they had to go through an outside agency that would confirm the child was ready to graduate.

Again, this worries Buckheit.

"It's not the same benchmarks against which the public school students are measured, the PSSAs and the Keystone Exams," he said. 

Years ago, Mary Alice Newborn of Murraysville, wrote part of the legislation that is now law. She then spent years pushing for less state oversight of homeschooling.

An engineer turned homeschool parent, she educated all five of her children over the past 21 years. When her oldest son started school, school wasn’t quite what she remembered.

"And I really rediscovered what school was like," she said. "And it seemed like they didn’t really teach them to think anymore they taught them to the test."

Newborn encouraged her kids to pursue their interests, so when one was interested in animals, she got her a dog and set her up at a horse stable. She also involved them in lots of cooperative and group learning activities. That was important to her — not how they did on a standardized test. 

"I think they can learn something else. I just think the love of learning should be the end result," she said. 

That paid off for them. Her oldest son is a lawyer, her youngest is in her first year of college.

Although her kids are all done now, she is still involved with homeschooling. She’s on the state advisory board. And as a certified evaluator, she assesses other homeschoolers at the end of the school year. In fact, one of the families she evaluates is the Lightfoots.