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States Send Home Schools Back to the Drawing Board

Georgia's college requirements for home schoolers are the first in a wave of regulations to be debated in statehouses next year.

Seth O'Hara thought he had his route to college all planned out.

After being home schooled for 10 years, he took the SAT college-entrance test and scored a stellar 1,480. He then began working for Coca Cola as one of the company's youngest computer programmers, and Coke even offered to pay to send him to the college of his choice.

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But when Seth picked Georgia Tech, he hit a snag. New regulations at state universities say that home-schooled students will be considered only if they take four SAT subject tests and score higher than most of the students who take the tests - the top 15 percent of state public-school students.

These regulations represent a significant reversal, not only for Seth, but for the home-schooling movement nationwide. It is the first time in nearly two decades that a state has imposed stricter laws on home schooling. And as more rules are proposed in upcoming legislative sessions here and in other states, parents and administrators are increasingly debating the merits and perils of teaching children at home.

People in the public-education system have always wanted more control over home schooling, says Brian Ray, president of the National Home Education Research Institute in Salem, Ore. "But as far as some of these proposals are getting, [it] is relatively new. The general trend over the past decade has been to leave parents alone."

The change is being driven mainly by home schooling's phenomenal growth. Begun in the 1980s by a handful of devout Christians, home schooling has today penetrated every region, and every socio-economic and racial group. The movement has been fueled by parents who are dissatisfied with the public schools as well as the proliferation of home-school teaching materials and support groups.

The Home School Legal Defense Association in Purceville, Va., reports that nationwide 1.5 million students are home schooled, up 15 percent since 1990. But certain states are seeing an even more rapid acceleration.

During the past several years in Texas, the number of home schoolers has grown by 40 percent annually. Kentucky has seen its number of home schoolers jump 140 percent between 1991 and 1996. And Georgia has had a tenfold rise of home schoolers since 1984, when home schooling became legal.

Authorities have taken note. "What's happening in Georgia and other places is that states didn't realize there were so many people who wanted to home school," says Scott Somerville of the Home School Legal Defense Association. "What you're dealing with are very surprised governments saying, 'This can't be right, we must do something.' "

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The largest push for new regulation is in Georgia. In addition to this summer's decision to require home schoolers to pass SAT subject tests, a new bill will be introduced in January asking parents to take further steps in alerting authorities if they plan to home school.

Kentucky is also struggling with home schooling, and there, as in Georgia, superintendents and social workers say the rules governing home schooling are so loose that neglectful parents may claim they are teaching their children when they are not.

"We have hundreds, if not thousands, of children that have used the lack of regulation, lack of guidelines in Kentucky as a way to drop out of life and society," says Woodie Cheek, superintendent of the Jenkins Independent School District. He says teens who misbehave often convince their parents to send a note to school saying they are being home schooled. Those students are free to roam the streets.

"We have serious problems in education in Kentucky, and the only way to deal with this is to increase regulations," he says. A bill requiring stricter oversight of home schooling is expected to be introduced next year.

But all of these initiatives face stiff resistance from home schoolers. For his part, Seth O'Hara plans to apply to Georgia Tech without the SAT II test scores. When turned down, he will likely file a discrimination suit.

"We could have probably used Coke politics to get Seth into Georgia Tech," says Kay O'Hara, Seth's mother. "But we made a family decision not to do that.... Home-school students should not have to use politics to get into school. They should be able to present their body of work and be admitted like anybody else."

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