Home Education and Blended Programming in Alberta
The Early Years
Home education has always been a part of the Alberta education landscape. Historically, the only alternative for students who had no access to a school or were transient or too ill to attend school, was to be educated at home, usually taking the form of correspondence school which was, in actuality, the delivery of the school program at home. The social revolution of the sixties ushered in the rapid secularization of the public school curriculum which, by the late seventies, had eliminated any references to the Bible, Christ or God, under the pretense of being inclusive. Consequently, some parents, most of whom where devout Christians opposing these changes, were convinced that the secularized public school was not what they wanted for their children and either got involved in the creation of private Christian schools or opted out of schools altogether to become the first deliberate home educators. Starting in the early eighties, these pioneers faced a fair amount of opposition, which was mostly based on philosophical reasoning, since at that time, the local school authorities received the same level of funding for home educated students as students attending the local school. Home education was at this time uncommon, with no support, no understanding and no legislation to guide the processes. By the mid-eighties, school authorities were seeing the rise in home education as 'worrisome' and started demanding guidelines from the government. By 1987, legal battles had resulted in home education being declared as a right along with public and private education. This resulted in the doubling of the home educated student population to over eight hundred by the following year. (See "The Progressive Conservative Government and Education Policy in Alberta: Leadership and Continuity" PhD dissertation, Department of Political Science, University of Alberta, Michael Wagner, 1998.)
New Alberta School Act
In 1988, the Alberta Government passed a new School Act which included home education for the first time. Prior to this new School Act, parents were obligated to work with the local school jurisdiction regardless of their approach towards home education. The new School Act now stipulated that home educated students had to be supervised by a board but it did not stipulate that it had to be the resident board, creating the option to choose any board within the province with whom to register (notify) their intent to home educate, if indeed the chosen board was willing to accept non-resident home educated students. However, the advent of the willing non-resident boards did something else besides giving parents an option to escape less home education friendly boards. It gave enterprising school boards the opportunity to increase their student population by increasing their numbers of home educated students taken from other jurisdictions who displayed ambivalence or hostility towards home education. Since home educated students were, at the time, funded at the same level as regular school students, school boards vying for more students, and consequent greater income, started offering parents financial incentives for notifying with them, resulting in bidding wars that so embarrassed the Alberta Home Education Association, that all school boards were banned from further participation in their annual provincial conference. Alberta Government authorities also took notice of what was happening and began taking measures to rectify the situation.
Alberta Home Education Policy And The Creation Of The Blended Programs
By 1994, the number of home educated students in the province was approaching five thousand. New regulations were enacted that saw some important changes to home education funding. Partly in answer to the growing competition between school boards for non-resident students, funding for home education was reduced to 25% ($990.00) of what regular students would receive with a newly regulated mandate that half the funds ($495.00) be made available to the home educating parents for the purchase of instructional materials. (Around this time two more initiatives were taking place in public education. Local school authorities were denied the right to direct taxation for schools and the number of school jurisdictions was greatly reduced through amalgamations). Up until this time, school boards enjoyed the privilege of full funding for students who were not physically in school, and therefore cost less to educate. The new Home Education Regulations changed all that. Having become used to an increased level of funding by incorporating non-resident home educated students in their student count, a new approach was needed to maintain this level of income, now that the per student funding for home education was greatly reduced. A question was asked of the Department of Education as to what would happen if a student was to be only a part time home educated student with the rest of the time spent in school. Department officials determined that if a student was accessing the local school for programs such as music, art, physical education, shop, or for some of the academic courses, the school should be duly compensated for the extra costs. Therefore, in 1996, with the government only wanting to be fair, blended programming was created where the parent-directed and delivered portion of the program would receive the proportionate home education funding, and the school-directed and delivered portion would receive the proportionate regular school funding. Under this new funding formula, with a student home educated half the time, and with the rest of the education program being taken at school, the school board would receive half the home education allotment plus half the regular per student allotment.
Blended Programming Evolves
Blended programming was clearly defined as a combination of parent-provided home-based education and school-provided school-based education. Did the student have to be physically in a school to be part of the school? Originally, the answer was yes. However, as communications technology improved, enterprising school boards started providing home educated students with computers and internet access which was then used to deliver school programs at home. Since school boards could demonstrate that the student was technically in school by virtue of phone, fax and internet connections, full funding for that portion of the student's programming continued. School boards, recognizing that the virtual delivery of programming would be very difficult to monitor, may have taken license with the ambiguities of blended programming and started claiming funding for programming that was not being delivered. The Department of Education countered with ever more specific definitions for what constituted a legitimate blended program. However, modern technology with the possibility of legitimate programming won the day and the definition of the school portion of blended programming was changed from an in-school program to a school-provided program in 2007. Nevertheless, a clear description of the responsibilities of the school providing the blended programming as entirely and exclusively the responsibility of the school, was maintained.
Blended Programming as Defined by the Alberta Funding Manual
BLENDED PROGRAM means an educational program consisting of two distinct parts:
1. A school-provided program where a teacher employed by a school board, or an accredited-funded private school, is responsible for providing the planning, resource selection, instructional delivery, assessment and evaluation of student progress in selected courses that follow the Alberta Programs of Study; and
2. A Home Education Program that meets the requirements of the Home Education Regulation.
A quick study of part one makes it abundantly clear that the school-provided portion must be the Alberta Programs of Study (not a facsimile) delivered entirely by an accredited teacher (not a parent representative of the teacher). One must also bear in mind that there are limitations on the resources approved to deliver the curriculum, so not just any resource or curriculum can be used to follow the Alberta Programs of Study. Furthermore, it is stipulated that a minimum of 50% of grades 1-9 and 20% of grades 10-12 be provided by the school to constitute a blended program.
(One should also note that nearly all providers of blended programming are fully funded public and/or separate schools who have little chance of being monitored or visited by provincial authorities in any given year. Private schools are increasingly accessing the augmented funding for blended programming even if monitored every year, while receiving only 70% of the funding alloted public/separate schools.)
Blended Programming Exposed
Is blended programming indeed being delivered as clearly stipulated by Alberta Education? How can the authorities accurately monitor the delivery of blended programming or home education for that matter? The entire system is established on a premise of trust and honesty, both of which are often quickly sacrificed on the altar of avarice. One cannot assume that all cases of blended programming are suspect. However, there is legitimate concern regarding the proper application of the guidelines by which it is to be delivered. It is commonly reported, for instance, that students in blended programs are doing nothing different than their traditional home educating neighbors. Other reports indicate that parents are often required to meet objectives set out by their facilitators for programming that is clearly mandated to be delivered by the teachers, exclusively. Whereas the rules make it abundantly clear that the school provided program is to be nothing other than the Alberta Programs of Study, many of the blended providers are not doing so. Some boards even offer "fully aligned" programs, which has no reference in legislation. By definition these programs should be 100% Alberta Programs of Study which must be 100% delivered by certificated teachers, yet are being "delivered" at home! Some blended parents even claim they never or rarely hear from or see their assigned facilitators, the very persons who should be delivering the school provided portion of the blended program. There is even evidence of families who are not, nor may ever have been, residents of Alberta, registered and accessing provincial funding for their children by simply providing the board with an Alberta address to legitimize the board's claim to funding.
One can certainly question the integrity of blended providers generally as these reports are not restricted to just one board. One can also question how blended program providers can indeed justify the blatant contravention of the well defined rules of blended programming. One explanation would be that in spite of the attempt to very clearly define the two parts of the blended program, differing interpretations of the words used can result in different applications of the rules. For example, one must determine what the term 'follows' means in relation to the Alberta Programs of Study. Government officials insist it means 'doing' the Alberta Programs of Study, that is, following the provincial curriculum using approved resources which can only be delivered by a certificated teacher. Blended providers have taken a much more liberal interpretation of the words in the definition of a blended program and of who can deliver that program. Indeed, blended programming providers seem to purposefully avoid making reference to the actual wording of what constitutes a blended program as outlined in the funding manual when describing the school provided component in their literature. Instead, they use various combinations of words like 'addresses', 'meets', 'reflects', 'within', and 'associated' to replace the word 'follows', adding 'outcomes', 'student outcomes', 'learning outcomes' or 'student learning outcomes' to the 'Alberta Programs of Study'. The reworking of words results in an end product that nowhere resembles the original wording or obvious intent of the school-provided component of blended programming. This process has resulted in many providers now publicly claiming that one can meet Alberta Student Learning Outcomes without following the Alberta Programs Of Study. In fact, it is the home education component of the blended program that is to meet the student learning outcomes as prescribed in the Home Education Regulations. The school provided portion is also to meet these outcomes but only through the application of the prescribed programming, not some agreed upon facsimile. Furthermore, the definition makes it abundantly clear that the school-provided portion is to be entirely and completely delivered by the teacher assigned the responsibility by the school, not some combination of parent and teacher collaboration where the parent does some or all the work and reports to a teacher, who then makes an assessment of what is being learned, determining without involvement whether or not the student learning outcomes have indeed been achieved. One should, in cases such as these, question the certificated teacher's knowledge of the student learning outcomes to determine whether or not the assessment is indeed legitimate, as few if any would be able to claim a knowledge of all outcomes in all subjects in all grades, an obvious requirement for facilitating home based learning.
Possibly the biggest justification for continuing infringement of blended program rules lies in the historical fact that even if rules are being broken there is little chance of discovery. Government authorities are expending an inordinate amount of time monitoring private schools, while trusting boards that have made an art of bending or ignoring rules for the ignoble purpose of increased funding. It should be noted also that a great many "Christian schools" also provide "blended" or "fully aligned" programs ostensibly for the same reasons. Parents unaware or uninformed are being led to believe that such programming is in the best interest of the students when, in fact, it is more in keeping with the best interest of the blended providers, who often seem willing to be very 'resourceful' when motivated by revenue.
Blended Programming Warning
Christian home educators should be careful of involvement in blended programming for two reasons. If blended programming is being delivered as prescribed by the Alberta educational authorities, then it must follow the Alberta Programs of Study. When considering that choosing home education is largely due to disappointment with the public school and/or curriculum, whether that be mediocre standards or the inclusion or exclusion of certain topics, one would wonder why home educating parents would want to bring the public school programming home at all. One would certainly question why any provider claiming a Christian base would even consider the delivery of such programming or any facsimile thereof! Aside from being told that there are no other options, parents usually get involved as a consequence of not knowing all the facts or the options regarding traditional home education.
The second reason that principled home educators should be wary of blended programming is that if the Alberta Programs of Study is not being delivered in its entirety by a certificated teacher, then the rules are not being followed, and the parents, knowingly or not, are therefore complicit in the questionable, perhaps even unethical, practices.
As more and more parents choose blended programming, whether for the increased funding or lack of knowledge about alternatives, an environment is being created where it is possible that future home education regulations could require all home educating parents to follow government programming, a direct blow to home education freedom. When the majority of today's providers either offer direct or indirect compliance to public programming or are themselves involved with schools who have compromised in this manner, one does not have to think long about the future plight of traditional home education in this province. When considering the modern tendency for providers to push and parents to agree to public curriculum alignment, traditional home education could just slowly disappear as parents are lured into the public programming with the promises of greater funding and/or meeting the status quo. In either case, blended programming is having a very serious negative impact on traditional home education by slowly eroding its very foundation of Christian ethics.
The Alberta Home Education Association (AHEA) and Blended Programming
The Alberta Home Education Association (AHEA) was formed in 1988 by parents concerned about the plight of home education in the province. When first established, home education was simply comprised of students being educated at home by their parents, predating virtual schools, online programming, blended programming, fully aligned programs and government funding. As home education increased in popularity and numbers of students, AHEA grew correspondingly. This, along with the fact that Alberta home educators had money to spend due to the provision of government funding for curricular supplies, resulted in AHEA having one of the biggest, most successful home education conventions in the country. As mentioned earlier, because funding was available, school authorities got involved in bidding contests to entice home educating parents into registering their students with them. This became so blatantly hostile and shamelessly presented as to result in the long term eviction of school boards from the convention.
Alas, as time dulled the memory and parents started demanding the inclusion of boards so that they could be better informed of their options, school boards were once again invited to attend the convention starting in 2004. Blended providers must have seen this as a golden opportunity to get excellent exposure for their blended programs. The AHEA leadership failed to see that given no real information on the differences between blended and traditional home education, most parents would simply make decisions regarding notification based primarily on levels of funding. As blended providers became more aggressive in presenting more money, AHEA determined to set some ground rules as to what could and should not be presented at the convention. Rules, of course, are only as good as the will to enforce them, so blended providers continued to provide the blended options at the convention in spite of being told not to by inventing more innovative ways of presenting the blended option, including simply passing out brochures or business cards, having private meetings with potential clients and the most brazen of approaches, the renting of a room in another venue at the same time as the convention so that potential clients could be sent to get all that was needed to encourage registration.
Past and present AHEA representatives have made it very clear that The Alberta Home Education Association is a Christian organization that is interested in advancing traditional home education and is not a supporter of blended programming. Bearing in mind that AHEA decisions are not necessarily agreed upon by all board representatives or supported by the membership at large, one would legitimately question the continuing inclusion of blended education providers with a known history of breaking the rules, to participate in the convention, as well as the continuation of advertisements and brochures advancing blended programming in the AHEA newsletter. Had there been consistency between the stated philosophical position and the actions of AHEA decision makers, blended providers would have been expelled from the convention and the newsletter years ago, if not for pedagogical reasons, by reason of acceptable Christian standards. By not doing so, AHEA has become the complicit encourager of blended programming, effectively subverting the very foundation upon which The Alberta Home Education Association was founded. It should further be noted that as time advances, so does, once again, AHEA tolerate compromising home education providers. A quick check of most provider's website or of the sponsoring school should indicate that nearly all the present boards attending the AHEA convention should be expelled if and only if AHEA is true to its original mandate.
In the end, advancing blended or public programming by not opposing it is to support it outright.