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Bill bails out home schooling program.

Byline: Anne Williams The Register-Guard

Local school district officials say they'll move as quickly as possible to interpret last-minute legislation meant to bail out the troubled HomeSource education center and determine whether they'll allow home-schooled children to attend once again.

House Bill 2040, passed in the waning hours of the 2007 Legislature after a push by Sen. Vicki Walker and Rep. Chris Edwards, both Eugene Democrats, allows HomeSource to continue receiving public education dollars and enrolling home-schooled students with a simple referral process through a contract with the Bethel School District.

Unlike a similar Walker bill that met with opposition earlier in the session because of its statewide implications, this one applies only to HomeSource, essentially grandfathering it in under the state's private alternative education law. It passed overwhelmingly in both the House and Senate.

Proponents said the legislation - written hastily in consultation with representatives from the Bethel district, the Oregon Education Association, the Confederation of Oregon School Administrators, the Oregon School Boards Association, the Oregon Department of Education, HomeSource and The Ulum Group, a Eugene public relations firm that lobbied for HomeSource - should restore HomeSource to the popular, thriving program it once was.

"I'm overwhelmed with gratefulness," founder and executive officer Paula Praus-Williamson said. "What this has brought is clarity. It's now in law, and it's not ambiguous to districts, so we think it puts us on sure footing."

Officials in the Eugene and Springfield districts, both of which intended to terminate their contracts with HomeSource this year, said it's too soon to say that's the case.

"Right now we're in the process of reading the law itself to make sure our interpretation is the same as Paula's," said Bruce Smolnisky, Springfield's director of education. "Then we'll need to have some discussion with the board."

Barb Bellamy, spokeswoman for the Eugene district, said the district's lawyer is reviewing the bill. Whatever determination he makes, the matter will go to the school board, she said.

Neither board meets until next month, so HomeSource families can't rest easy yet.

Under the private alternative education law, programs receive 80 percent of the state's per-pupil allocation, with the contracting district keeping the rest. For most of the 12 years HomeSource has been operating, it had just such an arrangement with the Bethel district. Neighboring districts would sign releases, and the dollars flowed through Bethel.

But in September 2005, the state rescinded a 1995 letter to Bethel officials that signed off on that process. Under a more stringent interpretation of the law, department officials determined that the money had to flow through home districts. It also held those districts accountable for determining appropriate placement and monitoring progress of any student referred to a private alternative education program.

Districts started to balk. HomeSource lost contracts with the Junction City, Fern Ridge and Pleasant Hill districts, and both Springfield and Eugene planned to terminate theirs, effective this month. HomeSource enrollment fell from a high of nearly 700 three years ago to fewer than 350.

Soon after it rescinded the letter, the department announced that school districts had to apply a different - and far less generous - funding formula for students who are home-schooled than the one they use for other students at private alternative programs. The change slashed HomeSource's annual budget by half.

HomeSource officials sought a legislative solution, but at the same time pursued charter status, receiving a $25,000 federal charter school planning grant and turning an application in to the Bethel district. On June 15, the Department of Education issued a ruling that said, because its students attend part time, HomeSource could not be a charter school.

Based on earlier discussions at public meetings, the new legislation should satisfy the concerns of many districts. It relieves them of any responsibility to channel funds, make placements or be accountable, requiring them simply to release children to the Bethel district, which remains staunchly behind HomeSource.

"Bethel's really feeling positive about it," Superintendent Colt Gill said. "We feel like it's a lot better solution than a charter school."

The bill also restores HomeSource's earlier funding levels.

However, some local school board members have cited deeper, philosophical concerns about taxpayer dollars going to a program that serves children whose parents have largely opted out of the public school system. Several have questioned some of HomeSource's arts- and recreation-related offerings, pointing out that many are unavailable in public schools.

The bill says HomeSource can receive public funds only for courses for which the state has adopted content standards, but that list is broad. It includes physical education, the arts, second languages and health. Only one additional topic, computer technology, was added just for HomeSource.

Gov. Ted Kulongoski is expected to sign the bill by the end of the month.
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Title Annotation:Schools; The embattled HomeSource program receives legislative aid as districts study the law
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Jul 16, 2007
Words:790
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