Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Home Education in BC: A historical perspective

Choice regarding our children’s education is a topic that is dear to the hearts of parents everywhere. In British Columbia, we are particularly fortunate in the variety of options available to us that support our children’s learning. One of these opportunities, homeschooling, has been around for a long time, although it was not considered a statutory right until the revision of the School Act in 1989.

Correspondence school (pencil and paper work) has existed for almost 100 years (created at the request of a lighthouse keeper). Another home-based option, distributed electronic learning, arrived on the scene in the early 1990s and grew into a booming edu-business for school districts and independent schools.
At one point in the not-so-distant past, every home learning family in BC had a sense of the history behind these home learning options. But as kids have grown up and veteran homeschooling families have moved on to other things, detailed information about the origins of our choices has been forgotten or misplaced. Without that background information, today's home learning parents have lost the ability to make a fully informed choice and may default to the learn-at-home option that seems easiest or most popular, or that provides the most financial benefits.

The following is my attempt to fill in any gaps there may be in our collective understanding and knowledge of home learning in British Columbia so that parents can engage in an informed decision-making process.

Homeschooling Becomes “Legal”

In 1989, the BC government passed changes to the School Act (Bill 67) that gave parents the legal right to educate their children at home as per Sections 12 and 13. The only requirements were that the parent register (not enroll) a child as home educated through either a public or independent school and that the parent provide an educational program, although the program did not have to adhere to the provincial curriculum set by the Ministry of Education. This new law was a result of the findings of the Sullivan Royal Commission on Education (1988), influenced by the submission of a homeschooling mother, Vicki Livingstone, on behalf of the Canadian Home Educator’s Association of BC (CHEA). It is this law that still protects our ability to educate our children at home under our own authority.

During the first year that registration was legally required of home learning families (1989/90), 1695 children were identified as homeschoolers. At that time, public schools received $1200 for each child registered and independent schools received $600. Independent schools quickly became the popular registration option as they provided families with financial reimbursement for learning materials and activities, whereas public school sometimes offered access to school resources but were often not accommodating. By 1992 the number of registered homeschoolers had almost doubled.

The Advent of Distributed Learning

In 1993, School District No. 91 (Nechako Lakes) created the first Distributed Electronic Learning (DEL) program: EBUS Academy. Nechako Lakes covers a vast, sparsely populated area located north and west of Prince George in the BC interior. The school district began their “electronic busing” program because there were children living in isolated areas where no schools existed. Instead of losing these learners to one of the province’s nine Distance Education Schools (DES), electronic busing allowed the school district to provide educational support through computer and resource loans with remote access to a BC certified teacher as required. This was a cost effective solution for the school district as these children qualified for full-time equivalent student funding from the Ministry of Education and the monies stayed within the school district.

This was a different solution than the usual “correspondence school” model that had been operational in BC since 1919 (Correspondence Branch) and was revamped between 1984 and 1990 when the Ministry of Education created the regional distance education schools (DES). All nine distance education schools worked together to provide a similar program and served specific school districts according to geographical location. In 1998, the DES programs (in conjunction with the Open Learning Agency) offered an online component though their joint CoNNect program, but they continued to provide set course materials for enrolled learners of all grade levels.

Comparatively, students enrolled with EBUS were not required to complete packaged pencil-and-paper coursework or even specified electronic assignments. Instead of using a prepared curriculum package, parents could access or purchase the resources they wanted to use to support their children’s learning. The EBUS teachers did not assign specific work, but parents were asked to send in representative samples of their children’s work for assessment purposes.

Homeschooling vs. DL

EBUS soon realized that there was another group of students who could benefit from their distance-learning program: homeschoolers. Instead of registering these children under Sections 12 and 13 of the school act, School District No. 91 enrolled these children as full-time distance learners. The families were provided with a computer, access to the internet, resources (as requested) and a resource allowance. Nechako was able to channel surplus funds from EBUS to other programs in the district that needed an influx of monies. For awhile, it seemed unclear whether or not Nechako would be allowed to enroll students who lived in other school districts around the province, but eventually the Ministry of Education gave them the green light to continue.

That same year, the Ministry of Education began to decrease the amount of money that schools received for registered homeschooled students. The independent schools who registered learners had to decrease the amount of money they could reimburse families for resources and materials. As EBUS did not require a great deal of accountability from families who enrolled with the program but provided access to a computer and funding for resources, some families who were registered as homeschoolers decided to enroll instead.

It is clear that when EBUS opened its doors in 1993, the learners in their program were enrolled (not registered) and they were not considered homeschoolers by the Nechako school district or the Ministry of Education. In 1994, on behalf of CHEA (now BCHLA), Debbie Leroy created a two-sided yellow fact sheet (that was part of the regional representatives package) based on her conversations with the Ministry of Education. The directors of CHEA were concerned that EBUS may be confused as homeschooling and wanted to make sure that everyone understood the difference between enrollment through a DEL and registration as a homeschooler. These terms were clearly defined with the Ministry of Education at that time, although Nechako was not required to differentiate between their students enrolled in a brick and mortar school and those enrolled in EBUS until 1997.

In 2004, the Ministry of Education, due to an incident at a DL program and at the urging of the BCHLA, clearly communicated the distinction between registered and enrolled on its website. The terms "home education" (as per the school act) and "home school" (as per MinEd policy) were reserved for Section 12 registration only.

The Numbers Game

Nechako Lakes School District received full per student funding for EBUS learners until 1997 when the Ministry of Education limited it to $3500/per learner and put a cap on the enrollment numbers. By that time, several other school districts either had or were developing programs for home-based students as they could see the financial benefits of applying unused funds in other areas of the school district. Programs for home-based learners were fast becoming a solution for the declining enrollments school districts were experiencing province-wide. The Ministry of Education responded to the increased interest by creating a “pilot” program for DEL and limited the total number of learners who could participate to 2200.

Homeschoolers who were "registered" with a public school district were now “worth” $250/learner to the school. The grant amount allotted to children who were registered with an independent school was $175. It was no longer possible for schools that provided a registration option to compete financially with what a DEL program could offer. Families who chose to educate their children as registered homeschoolers did so for philosophical reasons. Registration numbers began to drop and enrollment numbers began to rise. DEL programs began to offer more incentives for families to enroll and home learning families became an educational market niche.

Some school districts took the “all gain, no pain” route to DL administration. In 2001/02, Gold Trail, School District No. 74, experienced a Ministry of Education funding clawback in the amount $2,549,063 because they enrolled 648 home-based learners under the supervision of one certified teacher. Although they provided a resource allowance of $500 per student, the Ministry determined that they did not provide adequate oversight for the learners’ educational programs. In addition, most of the enrolled learners resided outside of the school district, so the Ministry re-classified these students as registered homeschoolers and deducted the enrolled per-learner grants from the following year's funding.

At some point, the “E” in DEL was dropped (likely as a way to bring the DES programs under the same umbrella) and in 2000/01, EBUS and other public Distributed Learning (DL) programs had their enrollment caps removed. Provisions of Bill 34, The School Amendment Act, 2002, allowed school districts to enroll non-school district learners in their DL programs. This meant that school districts were now competing for DL enrollments and started to structure their programs accordingly. Also in 2002, an independent school DL pilot project was initiated with 6 independent schools and 500 students participating. In 2003/04, all public school DL programs received full DL funding ($5308) for their learners and the five remaining independent DLs received 50% funding ($2654).

It seems important to note that thirteen years later, the grants for registered homeschoolers remain the same ($250 for public schools, $175 for independent schools), although public school districts now receive the same amount of funding per DL learner as they do students who attend their brick and mortar schools. EBUS may have received $3500 for a home-based learner in 1997, but in 2009/10 they received $10,111 for each DL student enrolled. As EBUS currently enrolls over 1000 students, this means that their program budget for 2009/10 was over $10,000,000 for a staff of 35 (administrators, counsellors, teachers, and support staff). An independent school receives half of the amount of the funding for the school district they are located in. This means that an independent DL program located in the Nechako Lakes area would receive $5,055.50 per student. If that program happened to have an enrollment of 1000 students, that program would be receiving over $5,000,000 in public funds.

It is easy to see the financial benefits that a DL program enjoys once enrollment reaches a certain number of students. If a DL program pays their staff approximately 1/3 of the total budget, and provides each child with a resource allowance of $1000 to $1200, then it is reasonable to assume that most of the large DL programs will have anywhere from 35% to 50% of the funding left to use for program infrastructure and other “related projects”.

NOTE: In 2012, the Ministry of Education changed the way that DL programs are funded. All public school DLs in the province now receive the same rate of $5851 per FTE student and all independent schools receive 62% of that amount per student ($3628), regardless of where they are located. In addition, the province has capped the learning resources allowance at a maximum of $600 (a DL does not have to provide this amount). A DL is not allowed to reimburse a family directly, but may use a purchase order system or a reloadable credit card to get around that problem.

Bill 33

In 2006, Bill 33 (Education (Learning Enhancement) Statutes Amendment) was introduced to the BC Legislative Assembly. It contained guidelines for Distributed Learning programs, including the new policy that the per student grant amounts had to be used within the DL program and could not be used for other schools or programs in the school district (or umbrella organization, in the case of an independent school). Bill 33 also made it illegal for parents to be reimbursed directly for resource purchases, so all DL programs had to create different ways to allocate the money set aside as a resource allowance. Some went with a purchase order system and some introduced re-loadable Visa cards. Regardless of the system the DL chose, there was an increase in the amount of administrative work involved, and due to this and the restriction in how the funding could be used outside the program, some school districts decided it was no longer worth their while to continue operating their DL programs.

Despite tighter regulation on the part of the Ministry of Education, enrollment numbers for DL programs were relatively unaffected. After a slight enrollment dip in 2006/07, numbers continued to climb. As of 2009/10, there were 22,481 full-time enrollments in DL programs provincially and a total of 44,042 children participating in some aspect of a DL program.

In stark contrast, the number of registered homeschooling children peaked in 1996/97 with 4925 home-educated learners and has decreased in number each subsequent year, with a total of 2463 for 2009/10.

Table 1
DL public
DL Ind.

DL public
DL Ind.
DL Total

*FTE. There are currently 44,042 students (total) who are accessing courses through DL programs either on a full-time or part-time basis. High school DL programs are funded on a per course basis.

The Future of Homeschooling

When we look at the decreasing numbers of registered homeschoolers and the increasing numbers of enrolled DL learners, some of us worry about the future of homeschooling as defined by Sections 12 and 13 of the School Act. It’s easy to let a little paranoia slide into our ruminations over the future of educational choice and to wonder if, perhaps, there is a conspiracy "out there" to turn the remaining handful of homeschoolers into school-at-homers, supervised by a BC Certified teacher.

It’s my opinion that we can relax and take a deep breath. And once we’re relaxed and calm, we need to act.

The first thing we need to do is inform ourselves of the importance of Sections 12 and 13 of the School Act. We have it so good right now that most of us are a bit complacent. Sections 12 and 13, however, allow us the ultimate freedom of choice in education in our province, and it’s worth the effort to preserve and protect them. We need to make sure we know why it’s important to do so.

Once we are convinced that these sections are important, we can casually share this information with other home learning families within our sphere of influence. If they are enrolled in a DL program and are happy with their choice, that’s fantastic. But it doesn’t hurt for all parents who have their children learning at home to understand how things got to the place they are now and to value our current laws.

The last thing we need to do is keep our ears to the ground. We need to be listening and watching for any signs that change is in the wind. If change does come, we need to be prepared to meet it with an informed and reasoned response. And we need to have a way to come together as a group so that we can speak with one voice in support of registration, regardless of whether our children are registered or enrolled.

The Office of the Inspector of Independent Schools has an overview document that contains this section on “Choice in Education”:

Government strongly supports a public system of education that provides a publicly funded quality education for all. However, parents have a right to choose from various educational alternatives for the education of their children, such as distributed learning, homeschooling and independent schools.

• Partial funding of independent schools recognizes the contributions these schools have made to the education of children in our province. It also impacts tuition fees set by authorities, thereby increasing options for more parents to select schools of their choice. These choices often reflect the goals, educational pedagogy, culture/religion and values parents desire for their child(ren).
• Parents are increasingly demanding more choices regarding their children's education. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 26), cosigned by Canada, states: "Parents have the prior right to choose the kinds of education that shall be given to their children." First Protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights, co-signed by Canada states: "No person shall be denied the right to education. In the exercise of any functions which it assumes in relation to education and to teaching, the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure that such education and teaching is in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions."
• The Sullivan Royal Commission concluded that, "We therefore deem it proper that nonpublic schools should continue to receive provincial financial assistance, such aid we believe to be a normal tangible manifestation of the freedom of thought, belief, opinion, and expression guaranteed by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. To assume otherwise would be to deny accommodation of social diversity and multiculturalism, the recognition of individual differences and the rights of parents to participate in educational choice - all principles which remain fundamental parts of the democratic system we hold dear."

This is the assurance we need that there are laws and provisions in place that support our continued freedom of educational choice for our children. And, as reassuring as that is, we still need to be vigilant in monitoring these rights and freedoms, as we cannot take them for granted.

In addition to the resources linked above, I am indebted to Colleen Erzinger, past-president of the British Columbia Home Learners’ Association (BCHLA), and Ernie Mannering, past-principal of EBUS Academy, both of whom I spoke to in June, 2008 regarding the development of DL programs in the province of British Columbia. Marty Layne and I have had a number of conversations where she clarified that homeschooling has never been illegal in BC, even if it wasn't specifically mentioned in school law prior to 1989. I have also drawn from my own experiences working as an independent school administrator from 1993 to 1996 (when Nechako EBUS was flexing its wings) and as the director of Special Education for an independent DL program from 2004 to 2009.

Please note that there may be some minor errors in dates and numbers. The dates and numbers provided by the different sources I accessed did not always match up exactly, although they were usually very close. If you have accurate information to add to this history of home-based learning in BC or you have a suggested correction, please feel free to let me know. I welcome your input.

Further information about homeschooling and DL programs from the BC Ministry of Education:

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