WVEA head says homeschool vouchers could bode ill for many

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WVEA head says homeschool vouchers could bode ill for many
By Jessica Farrish, Register-Herald Reporter

Speaking to members of the Raleigh County Education Association Monday, West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee told teachers that paying parents to homeschool their children is not a good move for education in West Virginia. He urged educators to contact United States Senators Joe Manchin and Shelley Moore Capito to ask them to vote against confirming Michigan billionaire Betsy DeVos as secretary of the U.S. Department of Education.

DeVos, who has no background in public education, but if confirmed, would set policy for public education in a department that administers and coordinates most federal assistance to education and enforces federal educational laws regarding privacy and civil rights.

DeVos' proposal to give families thousands in school vouchers to allow homeschool or private school may not work well in southern West Virginia, where drug problems, an overall lack of education and homeschool legislation could combine to hurt children, according to teachers at the meeting.

West Virginia is the least educated state in the nation, according to a recent survey by WalletHub, and leads the nation in the rate of opioid overdose deaths.

Counties have enacted strict truancy laws to encourage education.

"The one thing that the last two legislatures have shown us is that they act quickly," Lee said, referring to the Republican-majority state legislature. "They do it, boom!

“If we sit around, and we have to wait for a weekly update to get out, it'll be over. They don't want the input, so we have to make sure we provide it.”

Lee made his comments during a teachers’ meeting at Woodrow Wilson High School auditorium in the wake of a discussion on proposed cuts to teacher and service personnel jobs in Raleigh County.

Citing a projected gap of more than 700 state classrooms that will not have a certified teacher this upcoming fiscal year, Lee told teachers to call and email state lawmakers constantly.

Lee said he expects Governor Jim Justice to be a strong advocate of education, but he's anticipating a "difficult session" for education, pointing to the fact that freshman Sen. Kenny Mann (R-Fayette) is chairman of the West Virginia Senate Education Committee.

"This will be a difficult session, I believe," he said. "Because the education chair is a brand new senator, which is unheard of."

Mann's vice-chair, Sen. Robert Karnes, R-Upshur, has a history of homeschool advocacy, and West Virginia House Education Committee Chairman Paul Espinosa, R-Jefferson, is a supporter of legislation that removes the high school diploma requirement for a homeschool teacher, allows parents to administer standardized tests, lets parents maintain assessment records for three years and defines acceptable progress as within or above the fourth stanine or improvement from the previous years.

The controversial bill also mandates that homeschool students may not be classified as habitually absent.

"You get paid to homeschool your kid," said Lee.

He told teachers to consider truant students. 

"Think about that. If they get a letter from the magistrate or attendance director saying, 'Your kid has to go to school or there's going to be repercussions,' and if they know the state will pay you $6,000 to homeschool your child, what are they going to do?

"And that $6,000 is going to come from public education funds."

Lee said some homeschooled students perform beautifully, but he's also seen less successful cases. He cited the case of a 12-year-old McDowell County child who had been homeschooled for four years. When he entered Mercer County public schools, he performed on a first-grade level. The parents told teachers they were "not real sticklers for grades," Lee reported.

Teachers reported that in some situations, parents prefer their children to attend the public "alternative school" in Raleigh County for students with behavioral problems because the parents are given gas money for the trip.

"I would say that $6,000 paid for parents to homeschool their children could be an incentive for them to take on more than they're able, more even than they know they're able to handle," said Lisa Shrewsberry, an English teacher at Beckley-Stratton Middle School. "There are some parents out there who are qualified to homeschool their kids.

"I don't think the vast majority of parents know how to educate their kids," she said. "Do they know mathematics? Could they pass the content area exams in literature and history?

"At some point, their kids are going to be out in the world competing with kids who have had very knowledgeable educators. Will they still be competitive with those students?"

Lee urged teachers to call and email Capito and Manchin, adding that he believes Capito will support DeVos but that Manchin needs to hear from constituents.

DeVos, whose confirmation is reaching its final stages, is opposed by teachers' unions, progressives and some evangelical Christian groups. In her confirmation hearing before Congress, she declined to say she wouldn't privatize public schools, seemed unfamiliar with federal laws that protect students with disabilities, would not commit to aggressively pursuing sexual assault cases and opposes a ban on guns in schools, saying that those in rural schools may need guns to protect themselves against grizzly bears.