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Task force hits mark with home schoolers

Home schoolers and public education leaders Monday agreed on recommendations expected to ease contention and home schoolers' concerns about state intervention.

A home-school task force, commissioned by the State Board of Education, recommended notifying home-school parents of complaints against them and the source of those complaints.The state school board also would have to hold public hearings via satellite before making decisions affecting home schoolers.

The recommendations were applauded by some 400 home-education advocates and children packing a State Office of Education board room and spilling into adjacent halls and offices.

The task force is made up of home school and public education representatives.

"All issues were addressed and left home schoolers with the freedom they now enjoy," said Coni Nielson, member of the Utah Home Education Association's board of directors. "This is not a threatening thing . . . to me, it's progress."

Associate State Superintendent Steve Laing, task force chairman, agrees. "As a state agency, we're here to support those laws and help in any way we can."

The Utah Home Education Association lists 7,600 families, but officials say more home schoolers exist.

The notification recommendation for handling home-school complaints could prevent students from landing in juvenile court without their parents' knowledge and ex-spouses from making such complaints in attempts to regain custody of children. It would also allow home schoolers a response time before renewing applications for exemptions from compulsory attendance laws, home-school advocates said.

"We have the right to know who our accusers are," said Gayle Ruzicka, task force member and president of the conservative Utah Eagle Forum, aiming to clarify rules. "Let's ask the school board to adopt this so it becomes clear and we don't walk around feeling guilty because we home school."

Ruzicka's arguments were based on attorney Matt Hilton's interpretations of a 1986 state attorney general's opinion. The home-school expert also represents a citizens' group suing Spanish Fork volleyball coach Wendy Weaver, a lesbian, accusing her of encouraging same-sex romantic relationships.

Hilton's interpretation differs from that of State Office of Education attorneys.

But the task force voted 4-3 to tell the state school board that its position reflects Hilton's. The task force's four home-school representatives favored the move.

Home-school applicants must annually request an exemption from compulsory attendance requirements from local school boards. The task force recommends complaints against home schoolers be filed and considered in the renewal process but expunged once renewal is granted.

At renewal, some boards require student-progress documentation. But Laing believes most districts assume a more passive role, granting exemptions based on the parents' vow to comply with state requirements.

State testing director Barbara Lawrence expressed concern that local school boards cannot measure home schoolers' educational progress and recommended examining rules on the local boards' oversight of home schools.

Interest and concern summoned home-school advocates to the meeting. Some were concerned with the possibility of state testing requirements, but none are in place or recommended by the task force.

Some say their numbers helped forward discussions in their favor.