Education , Family & Community

Ray Carter | March 9, 2022

Parents support homeschooler inclusion in school-choice bill

Ray Carter

In the ongoing debate over allowing state education funding to follow students to any provider, including homeschooling or private schools, some homeschoolers have objected, leading lawmakers to recently strip those parents from the bill.

But other parents say the legislation, Senate Bill 1647, would greatly benefit their families’ efforts to homeschool after bad experiences in local public schools.

“I would say the majority of us would definitely be helped by that kind of money,” said Robin Castro, whose daughter previously attended Moore Public Schools. “I mean, we can definitely do things with that money that we’re not able to do otherwise on our own.”

“This was going to be a really good bill for us,” said Brent Beachly, a father of four whose children previously attended Inola Public Schools. “We go to the biggest church in Inola ... and probably three-quarters of the families homeschool their kids. And we’ve thrown around ideas. ‘Hey, if this gets passed, our church could have a school, basically, with as many kids as we have, and it would be very, very good.’”

He said several families in the church use the Classical Conversations homeschool curriculum and that families had discussed how they could use OEAs to cover the associated cost.

“I was 100 percent behind it (SB 1647) when it came out and thought it was going to be really good,” Beachly said.

SB 1647, by Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat, would create the Oklahoma Empowerment Account (OEA) Program. Under the program, most students eligible to enroll in a public school would be eligible for an OEA, which could be used to pay for a range of education services, including private-school tuition. As originally filed, the bill included homeschool families.

Money deposited into the account comes from the per-pupil allotment of state funding already dedicated for education of a child. The base funding provided will be $3,619 per child, although some students will receive more based on a variety of factors.

Some opponents have argued the funding provided through an OEA is insufficient to address a child’s education needs. Castro disagrees.

“That pays the entire tuition fee for Classical Conversations, plus the book, and a few extras like science experiment kits,” Castro said.

“We go to the biggest church in Inola ... and probably three-quarters of the families homeschool their kids. And we’ve thrown around ideas. ‘Hey, if this gets passed, our church could have a school, basically, with as many kids as we have, and it would be very, very good.’” —Brent Beachly

In the past year, both Castro and her husband have lost their jobs, although her husband has since found new employment. Castro lost her job two weeks before she delivered a baby, and she has been at home with the newborn and her older daughter since.

That has made covering homeschool costs for her daughter a challenge, Castro said.

“That money is, at least to me, that’s like, ‘Holy cow, I can do things without asking my parents for help,’” Castro said. “Because I have amazing, supportive parents who actually have helped us with the expenses to be able to homeschool our daughter, because they know the history and they agree that it’s in her best interest to be homeschooled like this.”

SB 1647 does not alter the Oklahoma Constitution’s protection for homeschooling, and it includes several provisions that restrict regulation of homeschooling or private schools.

The proposed law states, “Nothing in this act shall limit the independence or autonomy of an education service provider or make the actions of an education service provider the actions of state government. Education service providers shall be given maximum freedom to provide for the educational needs of empowerment students without governmental control.”

It also states that an education service provider—a category that includes both private schools and homeschoolers—shall “not be required to alter its creed, practices, admissions policy, or curriculum to accept payments as directed by parents from an Oklahoma Empowerment Account.” And the legislation states that nothing in the act “shall be construed to expand the regulatory authority of the state” or “impose any additional regulation of education service providers” beyond those necessary to implement the Oklahoma Empowerment Account Program.

Those protections have not stopped some homeschool entities from opposing SB 1647.

The Constitutional Home Educators Alliance recently signed onto a letter declaring participation in any government program that provides parents with funds to educate a child “entails surrender of the ultimate parental authority to oversee such.” The letter stated that programs like those provided through SB 1647, which would allow parents to use a student’s per-pupil allotment for homeschool or private school, will result in “elimination of meaningful choice” for families. The letter claimed that programs like SB 1647’s Oklahoma Empowerment Account will make it harder “for families to choose private education.”

Those arguments make no sense to Castro and Beachly.

“This is more of an opt-in than an opt-out, first of all, so if you don’t want to do it, you don’t have to,” Castro said. “Secondly, there’s extensive protections from government screwing with people’s homeschooling just because of this money built into the bill, so I don’t understand why you would be opposed to it. You don’t have to do anything with it, and there’s protections built in, so why wouldn’t you want to let people choose for themselves? That’s the whole point of homeschooling is being able to choose for yourself what’s right for your family. So why would you kill that?”

“On a voluntary program to where they can still have things the way they want it, why are they even trying to attack this because it’s not going to affect them at all?” Beachly said. “I don’t understand the logic of it.”

They note the needs of many families are very real. Both the Castro and Beachly families encountered significant challenges when their children were in a traditional public school.

“You don’t have to do anything with it, and there’s protections built in, so why wouldn’t you want to let people choose for themselves?” —Robin Castro

Castro’s daughter has medical challenges, including prolonged asthma-like symptoms that cannot be resolved with traditional treatments—and one medication that did aid the child produced significant side effects.

Two years ago, the girl’s symptoms were so severe Castro was called to pick her up from school most days to get treatment. At one point, Castro said staff at the Moore school accused her daughter of faking the severity of her symptoms to get out of school.

Castro also questioned the quality of education in the district after her daughter’s grades remained unchanged even as she missed significant class time.

“I’d probably say 75 percent of the time she was missing her afternoons, and she still had A’s,” Castro said. “She still managed to have A’s in all of her classes. So she clearly was not being taught anything new or challenged.”

The following year, her daughter stopped turning in assignments and school officials did not notify the family until the first report card was issued. When Castro met with school officials, she said they only complained that her daughter had a bad attitude and offered no suggestions on how to address any underlying root problem.

Castro said her daughter is in the process of being evaluated for Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and autism. The child has also experienced anxiety, depression, and insomnia, making homeschooling the best option for her, Castro said.

Beachly encountered similar problems when one of his sons began exhibiting signs of high-functioning autism.

The school did not conduct an Individualized Education Program (IEP) meeting with the Beachly family until November, and nothing was finalized until March. He said there were many bureaucratic delays along the way. When his wife attended one IEP meeting alone, Beachly said school officials “really, really bullied her” and she “left crying.”

At one point, school officials tried to dispute their son’s diagnosis, citing a test done by the school psychometrist.

“Two doctors said he was autistic,” Beachly said. “The school wasn’t even going to accept his autism diagnosis from a doctor.”

The family encountered similar challenges when another son suffered a brain injury in a “freak” accident and dealt with physical rehab and migraines afterward, Beachly said.

Both Castro and Beachly ultimately chose to remove their children from the local public school, first shifting to online public charter schools and then augmenting lessons through homeschooling curriculum.

Opponents of SB 1647 have argued that allowing homeschool families to receive OEA funds would drain funds from other students. But both Castro and Beachly’s children previously attended public schools with taxpayers covering the full cost, which averaged $10,087 per pupil in the 2020-2021 school year.

Both families are baffled that opponents argue it is fine for taxpayers to spend more than $10,000 to educate their children in one setting, but not to spend a lower amount of money educating the same children in another setting.

“If we are willing to pay that much money for a child to get a public education, regardless of their income, wouldn’t it honestly be the most fair that this bill do the same thing?” Castro asked. “Honestly, you’re getting a lot more bang for your buck with homeschooling than you are going to with public school. Public schooling is less efficient and less able to individualize for a student who doesn’t fall into that ‘average’ group.”

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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