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Open Letter to Florida Representatives & Senators

We write today regarding the 2023 passage of HB1, the expansion of “school choice” in Florida, and the implementation of the Personalized Education Program (PEP).

It is clear that there is something inherently problematic with the current state of public education. COVID-19 had a negative impact on K-12 education that children are still in the process of recovering from. During the pandemic, there was a sharp increase in parents who withdrew their children from public school and began remote, virtual, and/or distance learning, which has been confused with “homeschooling.” Many have demanded that state funding follow their students, leading to HB1. This has been touted as “school choice.” However, home education is a parental right and has been a legal education choice in Florida since the 1980’s. HB1 does not represent “choice.”

It is extremely important to highlight the benefits of home education for children. Home education can have great implications for academic achievement, social development, and post-homeschooling success.

Several studies have concluded that home education is positively related to academic performance. This is likely related to individualized and more student-centered instruction as well as home educated students having the freedom to study subjects that interest them the most. Home education is also flexible, allowing students to study at times that best suits their schedule and needs.

Home education has great advantages for the socialization of students despite the claim that the public school system is needed to teach skills and norms for interacting with others. The average home educated student interacts with a large number of people each day. While they spend more time with siblings and adults compared to public school students, home education restructures the social world encouraging mixed-age interactions. Peer connections are based on common interests, rather than proximity. Peer associations are more robust among homeschoolers, exposing them to cultural diversity and providing opportunities to interact with people from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, ages, religions, abilities, and ethnicities. Homeschoolers are frequently involved in a wide variety of social, sporting, co-curriculum, government, work, educational, religious, and service activities outside of the home. Additionally, homeschoolers tend to have a better self-concept and higher self-esteem than do public school students. And, because of their diverse social environment, homeschoolers tend to have much better social skills than public school students.

In terms of success after graduating, homeschool students prove to be well prepared to handle the rigors of college academics and score equal to or higher than public school students on academic preparedness related to verbal, writing, and critical thinking skills. Homeschool students repeatedly are well prepared to enter the workforce, moving easily into entrepreneurial and professional positions. They are also more likely to be involved in their community and to report satisfaction with their education, life, and economic conditions.

The above benefits of home education are based on traditional parent-led independently funded home education. Parents serve as the principals, teachers, assistants, administrators, etc. of their own “school.” No two home “schools” look the same as they are tailored specifically to their children. These are home educators who want to educate their children, they are intrinsically motivated to do so. 

With the passage of HB1 and the implementation of the PEP, it has become clear that what some are doing in efforts to educate their children are NOT the same and should not be compared to or used to represent, traditional, independent home educators. There has been an increase in those who enroll their children in various drop-off programs, called by many different names, to have a “teacher” educate their children, rather than the parent educating their children, which is the hallmark of home education. The teachers, many of whom left the public school system, select the courses, curriculum, teach, and grade the assignments. Parents only need to ensure their children complete homework assignments that were assigned by the teacher. Many who are “helping” parents educate their children at home, under the guise of “choice navigator,” have little to no experience in home education. This is NOT home education. This is PART TIME in person school.

With public funds going to parents for education, it makes sense that state representatives would want accountability for the use of such funds. Presently, that includes recipients of the PEP taking standardized norm-referenced tests at the end of the school year. Traditional, parent-led independent home educators rarely take such tests and never “teach to the test.” Instead, they customize the education their child receives specifically to them. Generally, these children’s first experience with testing is the college entrance exam and they do quite well compared to public educated students. The requirement of such annual testing is a limited and incomplete method of comparing academic achievement across different educational options. Such tests do not appear to demonstrate appropriate academic achievement in public schools, hindering their ability to be applied to home educated students. In fact, such tests, when used to compare educational options, provide no evidence that educational options improve the average test scores of students. There is evidence, however, for improvements in nonacademic outcomes, such as fewer disciplinary actions and fewer encounters with law enforcement.

Traditional, independent home educators are free to choose to have their children take such tests, or not. This testing mandate that accompanies the PEP severely limits or even eliminates the choices of parents. The very act of testing itself can distort what is intended to be measured. Such tests can also lead to strong incentives to parents and others. PEP parents are forced to “teach to the test,” completely eliminating one of the most beneficial aspects of traditional, parent-led independent home education - tailoring and customizing education to the child. Such tests will drive what PEP parents teach, when it is taught, and how it is taught. Such tests are not the only way to measure learning and academic achievement, provide little to no evidence about the performance of educational options, and instead reduce diversity and innovation in personalized education (see Why School Choice Programs Should Not Require Testing | Cato at Liberty Blog and Should We Use Test Scores to Determine School Choice Success or Failure? (edchoice.org))

Home education must remain independent, parent-led, and family funded. We ask legislatures to immediately defund the PEP. We ask that funds used for the PEP program instead be used to correct issues within the public school system that have led parents to leave that system. Parents should not be forced, pushed, or nudged into home education, where they are not intrinsically motivated to guide the education of their children, have no previous knowledge of home education, and rely on providers and choice navigators who have little to no knowledge of home education to participate in what is essentially part time in person school. That is not home education.

We understand that our initial goal may be too lofty. If representatives are not receptive of ending the PEP, we then ask the following:

(1)    The PEP should not be confused with traditional, parent-led independent home education. The Florida Department of Education provides the PEP scholarship as a district resource to home education. However, legislation is clear that home education laws do not apply to PEP recipients. PEP recipients are NOT home educators and the term “home educator” or related terms should not be used by state representatives, the Florida Department of Education, school districts, etc. to refer to PEP recipients. Instead, the legislation refers to a “personalized education program” which is a “sequentially progressive instruction of a student directed by his or her parents to satisfy the attendance requirements….while registered with an eligible nonprofit scholarship-funding organization (i.e., private school run by the state).” The PEP and information shared about the program should refer to it based on legislation as “personalized education” and NOT “home education.”

(2) The PEP should be kept separate from the Florida Empowerment Scholarship-Unique Abilities (FES-UA), as they are two very different scholarships. The FES-UA is for unique ability/special needs students that allows parents to target education and therapies to their child’s specific needs. The FES-UA is designed for students who could not be educated in a traditional education setting. We believe that the UA scholarship must be preserved and protected. Any regulations or requirements for PEP recipients should not extend to FES-UA recipients, the PEP should have its own State Funding Organization (SFO) and NOT have the same SFO as FES-UA recipients, and FES-UA recipients should have priority in terms of funding and reimbursement, FES-UA wait lists should be funded first, and  funding for the PEP scholarship should be less than funding for the FES-UA scholarship as FES-UA funding is based on matrix scores based on student need and diagnosis. Our request here ONLY applies to the PEP scholarship and in no way should be extended to the FES-UA scholarship. 

(3)    Eligibility requirements to participate in school choice programs should be based on family income.

(4)    Considering the improvement in nonacademic outcomes related to educational options, we ask that eligibility requirements to participate in school choice programs also be based on evidence of negative student nonacademic experiences in a public-school setting for a minimum of two academic years prior to entering a school choice program. Previous attendance in a public school for a minimum of two academic years would be a requirement prior to being eligible for a school choice program.

(5) The PEP should develop a matrix score based on negative student nonacademic experiences in a public-school setting for a minimum of two academic years and funding per student should be based on such matrix scores.

(6)    Legislation should be revised to ensure that current and future requirements to receive the PEP and current and future oversight and accountability related to the PEP (declaring a grade level for students, submitting and maintaining a Student Learning Plan annually, taking a state-approved national norm-referenced test annually) never be applied to students who are home educators.

(7)    Legislation should be revised to remove requirements of taking a state-approved national norm-referenced tests annually from the PEP, considering the ineffectiveness of such tests in demonstrating academic achievement. If such testing is not removed from legislation, we then ask that legislation be revised to clearly state that any results from state-approved national norm-referenced test scores of PEP recipients never be used by any means to “represent” home educators (they represent PEP recipients only). Such test scores should never be used to make comparisons between any education option and “home educated” students as the PEP is NOT home education. If future legislation is revised to apply additional oversight and accountability to PEP recipients, which we oppose, provisions should be set in place to ensure that any additional oversight and accountability measures never be applied to students outside of the PEP program, particularly students who are home educated. 

In conclusion, we ask that you help us in preserving traditional, parent-led independent home education and advocate as such. Thank you for your consideration!

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