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KALONA, Iowa — The sickly sweet smell of cocoa and cooked sugar hangs in the air at Kalona Chocolates, also known as 15-year-old Whitney Hershberger’s math class.

At the moment, her teachers are in the back room pouring a thick caramel and pecan mix into cooking pans as the bespectacled teen smiles from behind a cash register at the customer who walks in the front door.

Whitney is a homeschool student in what now is a state with some of the most lax homeschool laws in the country.

For homeschool advocates, rollbacks on homeschool regulation in Gov. Terry Branstad’s 2013 education reform bill were a resounding victory that made Iowa a model for the nation.

For those skeptical of the absence of government oversight of homeschool curriculum, testing and teacher qualifications, the rollback smacked of hypocrisy especially because the public education system is entering into a new era of accountability.

“It was about creating a new level accountability for the public,” said House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha, who homeschooled his four children and thinks the critics miss the point. “It wasn’t about empowering the Iowa Department of Education.”

More oversight, then less

The Iowa Department of Education had not collected information from individual school districts about homeschool students until the 2012-2013 school year.

The results: Of the 476,245 school-age children in Iowa, 10,732 were homeschooled, or roughly 2.3 percent of the state’s school-age population. It’s a little more than a third of the 30,000-student official estimate the state had been using at least since 2010.

The 2013 collection also marked the last time the state will be able to get such accurate figures.

The main source of information about Iowa’s homeschoolers comes from a document commonly called the “Form A.” It’s essentially a report homeschool parents fill out about the students, curriculum and teachers in their homeschool that they turn into their local district.

Districts were not required to file the Form As with the state until the 2013 collection.

But the education reform bill eliminated the requirement to fill out a Form A for some homeschool parents and requires others to turn one in only if they get a letter from the school superintendent requesting it.

“At the end of the day, this is about liberty, this is about freedom, this is about me being able to raise my children in the way that I see fit without having to get a sanction from the government upon these studies that the government thinks my children should learn,” said state Rep. Matt Windschitl, R-Missouri Valley.

He's an assistant majority leader in the Republican-controlled Iowa House of Representatives whose formal education consisted of one year at a Christian school, the rest at a homeschool and then the U.S. Marine Corps.

The night he attached his homeschool amendments to the bill — another one allowed homeschool parents to teach driver education — it caught even the most ardent homeschool supporters off guard.

“(The) amendment took us at NICHE and most others by surprise,” Bill Gustoff, head lobbyist for the Network of Iowa Christian Home Educators, would later write in the organization’s quarterly magazine.

Kimberly Ehlers, a homeschool parent and Christian author from rural Bennett, Iowa, said, “A lot of us were totally taken by surprise; it was like a dream.”

Some saw a double-standard.

“This bill was about public education, it was about reforming public education, not making teachers in public schools accountable while making other people not accountable for what they teach their kids,” Rep. Sharon Steckman, D-Mason City, said when the amendments were first debated in February.

She ultimately voted for the legislation, despite her misgivings. So did every other member of the General Assembly.

A national model

“We watched what was happening in Iowa very closely,” said Scott Woodruff, senior legal counsel for the Virginia-based Home School Legal Defense Association, a 30-year-old organization that serves as a legal advocate for homeschool families.

“Iowa was once one of the worst states in terms of homeschool rights," he said. "It’s now, thanks to (the education reform bill), one of the models for the rest of the country.”

For students such as Whitney, the new laws likely won’t change her typical routine much.

She gets class credit for working at the candy store, which her parents opened as a direct-to-business candy shop in 2009 then expanded into a retail storefront on the outdoor Kalona mall this year.

Her duties include running the cash register, helping in the kitchen and helping customers. Put another way, she’s learning math, measurement, science, audio/video applications (she’s been part of the shop’s online commercials) and entrepreneurialism.

She also takes more traditional coursework at home and through the local school district’s Home School Assistance Program. It’s that connection with the school district that, if she continues to keep it, will keep Whitney counted in state records because using district facilities requires parents to file a Form A.

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For Whitney’s mother, Mattie Hershberger, homeschooling was the obvious choice for Whitney and her two older sisters, Krista and Kaylee, after her own experience at public school in Oklahoma.

“I wanted my children to be able to learn in a better environment,” Mattie said. Her husband, Lyndon, added, “Part of it was being able to have a bigger say in the morals and values they learn.”

Accountability

Tammy Wawro, president of the Iowa State Education Association, said she thinks there are valid reasons for homeschooling but thinks the new law goes too far.

“I’m concerned that the accountability isn’t there,” she said. “I believe everyone wants the best education possible for the children, but how are we going to ensure teacher quality? I think we need to have a really hard look at this and see if it’s good for kids.”

Homeschool laws vary from state to state. Some states, including New York and Pennsylvania, have strict policies that require tracking of homeschool test scores and curriculum and make other reporting requirements of parents. Other states, such as Oklahoma and New Jersey, have little oversight in place.

“One of your neighbors, Missouri, has had laws similar to (the education reform changes) for years,” said Woodruff, “and it’s worked out very well for them.”

Kathy Christie, vice president of knowledge management and dissemination at the Education Commission for the States, said the trend in state legislatures across the country has generally been for more, not less, oversight of homeschool programs and curriculum.

“Where we see bills come up, they are typically ones that strengthen oversight, but they don’t make it,” she said. “It’s kind of perennial.”

She said the few bills that do make it, however, are ones that end up helping homeschoolers.

“It’s things like making it easier for them to apply to college, things which remove barriers that were put in place years ago,” she said.

Paulsen dismisses the idea that less regulation is going to be a problem for homeschool parents and students.

“I think you can have problems in any system — public, private, parochial — I worry about all those,” Paulsen said. “Homeschooling is just another system, and it’s one that works well for some families.”

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