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Abuse stirs home-school worry

• Parents defend their choice; critics fear children could become isolated.

STEPHANIE INNES Citizen Staff Writer

Last week’s child-abuse conviction of a Pima County couple illustrates how lax regulations on home schooling can go horribly awry, critics say.

With home-schooled students exempt from testing – including the new AIMS graduation test – officials say people like John Pierre Baker and Betty Jo Miller can wreak havoc with a child’s right to an education.

The couple were convicted Tuesday on a total 31 counts of child abuse, kidnapping and conspiracy to commit child abuse.

Baker’s two eldest grandchildren, locked in their bedroom for six years, testified that lessons were rare after they were removed from public school to be home-schooled in 1991.

”I wish we could get a better handle on our home schoolers,” said Rep. Marion Pickens, D-Tucson. ”This episode shows that kids are falling through the cracks.”

In 1996, legislators eliminated testing of students and parents in response to a strong home-school lobby. And parents no longer need a high school diploma to teach their children.

While this year’s high school sophomores must pass AIMS – the Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards – to graduate, the English and math test applies only to public and charter schools.

Many home schoolers argue that regulations and testing undermine parents’ freedom to teach their own curricula – and they say the Baker-Miller case is an extreme example of abuse.

Tucsonan Mary Jo Keller has home schooled her children for 11 years on the Northwest Side.

Although she didn’t mind the student exams and teacher certification that Arizona once required, Keller understands why some who teach at home oppose testing.

”If your child is dyslexic or has a learning disability, you can pour your heart and soul into that child but a test won’t reflect that,” Keller said. ”Some families really struggled with that when we had the testing.”

Home schooler Rep. Debra Brimhall, R-Snowflake, calls the notion of regulating what occurs in someone’s home ”absurd.”

But Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall, whose office conducts regular truancy sweeps through Tucson, calls the lack of home-schooling rules ”a huge problem.”

”Gaps in the law allow people like John Baker to keep their kids out of school and not educate them,” she added. ”There’s no way in which we can track them and find out about it.”

Rules are not stringent

The Arizona Department of Education doesn’t keep statistics on how many children in the state are educated at home, although the state’s home school group estimates the number is 20,000.

In the Tucson area, about 2,500 students are home schooled – more than double from five years ago – the Pima County School Superintendent’s Office said.

State rules applying to parents and guardians now call simply for an affidavit indicating that their child will be educated at home. The affidavit requires a copy of the child’s birth certificate and a piece of identification.

But the affidavits must be filed only once, and officials with the Pima County School Superintendent’s Office say that not all home schoolers file the documentation.

The local office, for example, has no record of any affidavits from Baker.

Baker notified Tucson Unified School District’s Warren Elementary School in 1991 that he was pulling his grandchildren out of school to educate them at home – an action that did not require him to notify the state.

”The bottom line is that our Legislature determined that education for homeschooled children lies with the parents, and that the state should not have a role,” said Mary Grace Wendel, educational services coordinator for the county school superintendent’s office.

”Our office is basically housing affidavits. There’s no function to manage the files.”

‘Accountability’ sought

LaWall believes the majority of Pima County children are learning from conscientious parents, but ”there needs to be some accountability to the home schooling.”

”Those people who are legitimate shouldn’t object to being held accountable,” she said. ”You can’t practice medicine without a license, you don’t do unauthorized surgery at home.”

Baker has a high school diploma from Texas but no college degree, and Miller has a diploma from California, the couple said.

Miller, who worked in low-level office and eldercare jobs, often was left in charge of the children.

The youths, a boy now 13 and a girl now 14, testified during the 14-day trial that Miller and Baker forced them to stay in a barren bedroom without enough food and water.

And their younger sister never went to school at all while living with Baker and Miller.

Child-welfare advocates are concerned about home schoolers’ potential to be as isolated.

”Part of the way that child abuse and neglect has surfaced is through contact with the community, and certainly schools play a big part in that,” said Dana Naimark, assistant director of the Phoenix-based Children’s Action Alliance.

”When you take that contact away, there’s a risk of bad things happening with no one knowing about it.”

But Tom Lewis, president of Arizona Association of Families For Home Education, said it’s unfair to blame child abuse on the deregulation of home schooling.

In Baker’s case, Lewis noted, Child Protective Services had been alerted about potential problems in Baker and Miller’s home years before the couple’s arrests.

”There are probably home schoolers who don’t do the job, but they are in the minority,” Lewis said. ”And if there’s abuse in the home, it’s not going to show up by giving kids yearly tests.

”Those kinds of parents are just bad parents.”

New legislation unlikely

Ideally, said Sen. Ruth Solomon, D-Tucson, she would like to see yearly registration for home-schooled children – in addition to including them in AIMS.

But she’s not optimistic about seeing any changes in the law this session.

”If you look at the makeup of the Legislature, the votes just are not there,” she said. ”But it is not a forgotten issue. It’s one we talk about all the time.

”We hope we can work with the home school associations for some improvements without violating the rights and interests of the home school families.”

Efforts to tighten regulations foundered in the Legislature last session, and Pickens predicts similar proposals this session will be a ”nightmare” – due to the strong home-schooling lobby.

”We never wanted to be part of a state testing mechanism,” Lewis said. ”In order to do well on a test, you have to do their curriculum.”

While home schools don’t award official diplomas, Lewis said children who are educated in the home usually don’t have problems getting into colleges and universities.

His own daughter, educated at home from kindergarten through 12th grade, is a sophomore at Arizona State University, he said.

Keller, on the Northwest Side, has home schooled her 14-year-old daughter all her life.

”You can go at your own pace, and I think learn more than in regular school,” Amy said. ”My family owns a business, and I help out. I’ve learned how a business works and operates.”

Amy, who learns at home with her two younger brothers, plays soccer in a local league and goes on field trips with other homeschooled children.

Last week the group went to the state Capitol, where it took a tour, sat in on some House sessions and met with legislators.

”I like being home schooled. Sometimes I think I’d like to go to regular school, but I think that’s only because I’ve never been,” Amy said.

Few rules govern home education

STEPHANIE INNES Citizen Staff Writer

Arizona is one of the least-regulated states when it comes to home schooling, according to the national Home School Legal Defense Association.

The Purcellville, Va.-based organization, which represents families who face prosecution over home schooling, said the national trend on home schooling is toward deregulation.

The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, for example, on Dec. 16 ruled that school districts cannot demand home visits as a condition of approving a family’s application to home school its children.

In Arizona, home schooling is not regulated.

”The only requirement is (parents) register with the county school superintendent. Beyond that, there’s no oversight,” state Department of Education spokeswoman Patricia Likens said.

”I’m sure there are concerns out there,” she said, ”but really the state Legislature did decide a few years ago to make it the way it is now.”

Arizona leaves all oversight to the parents and guardians, with the exception of requiring that home schoolers file an affidavit with their school superintendent’s office.

Other states with lenient rules toward home schoolers include Texas, Oklahoma, New Jersey, and Idaho, according to the national organization.

Some of the stricter states include New York, where parents or guardians must file an annual notice of intent to home school, complete individualized instruction plans and quarterly reports outlining the student’s hours in school plus the material covered.

Others states with stiffer regulations over home-schooled children have more specific requirements about teacher certification.

In states such as California, Iowa, Colorado and South Carolina, parents and guardians must choose from a menu of options for home schooling their children – including enrolling students in a private school with a home-based curriculum. Other options mandate those parents and guardians to join a home school association.

Regardless of rules, the number of home schools nationwide is growing.

The national Home School Legal Defense Association estimates 1.23 million American children are learning in their homes.

More information about home schooling in Arizona is available from the Association of Families For Home Education’s Web site at www.afhe.org, or by calling the Pima County School Superintendent’s Office at 740-8541.

Practice complicates truant officer’s job

STEPHANIE INNES Citizen Staff Writer

Determining whether a home-schooled child suffers from educational neglect is nearly impossible, Pima County officials say.

When they catch up with parents who have not filed the proper affidavit to home school their child, judges often require only that the document be filed, County Attorney Barbara LaWall said.

Then the case is closed.

With no stringent state rules governing home-school education, ”it makes our job more difficult,” said Michael Burns, supervisor of the community outreach unit of the Pima County Attorney’s Office.

”It would help, for example, if there were certain times of day when children were supposed to be home schooled,” he said. ”How in the world can we tell if these kids are getting a good education if there’s no standard?”

Burns’ unit oversees community truancy sweeps and often finds social problems while picking up kids who are ditching school.

His investigators, who often get the state’s Child Protective Services involved, recently found a 13-year-old girl whose parents were keeping her out of school to care for a younger sibling.

”Students who are not in school and are being home schooled might not be home schooled very well, and they’re just hanging out,” Burns said.

Truancy investigators in Pima County have encountered children skipping school because they don’t own shoes or proper clothing.

LaWall cited one case where a 12-year-old’s parents were keeping her out of school because she was pregnant.

GRAPHIC: Pima County home school statistics 1983-99


Above, Mary Jo Keller works with Andrew, 6, while Amy Keller, 14, works on algebra.

Kurt Keller watches as his son Andrew, 6, works on a geography computer program. At left, Mary Jo Keller gives Andrew some extra attention.

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