Archive for October, 2019

An Open letter about ESA and AFHE

October 18, 2019

October 17, 2019

To the Board of Arizona Families for Home Education, Peter & Allison, Scott & Sherry, Shawn & Cindy, and Joshua & Stacey,

Hello friends! Rick and I treasure the times we have spent together serving on the board, travelling, co-oping, attending homeschool events, support group, fieldtrips, celebrating our children’s accomplishments, and fellowshipping in each other’s homes. We appreciate each of you and the time, energy and love you expend on behalf of homeschoolers in Arizona. Thank you for serving!

As some of you are aware, after six and half years on the AFHE board, Rick and I were told that we would no longer be allowed to serve AFHE as board members due to the fact that we accepted the Empowerment Scholarship Account to meet the needs of our daughter. Our dismissal was never discussed at a board meeting. We were told that we were no longer homeschooling even though I was still at the kitchen table in my pjs with two of my kids all year, just like the previous 15 years! I was told that I could no longer speak at convention nor write articles for the AFHE magazine because we accepted financial help to cover expensive therapies. At that time, we resigned. We chose the freedom to educate our daughter how we best saw fit, instead of staying for the remainder of the year working alongside people who were not supportive of our choice of freedom.

I realize several board members from 2016 have left the board and the Gentalas and the Sugatas joined since we have been gone. With this new board, I’m hopeful that the heart of my writing can be heard and bring change.

Rick and I have not really spoken about our circumstances with the general public for three years now and still frequently get asked, “Where have you been?” However, the time has come for us to speak up for what it right, bring awareness, and ask each of you to search your hearts.

I’m writing this open letter in response to the article “Homeschooling and the ESA” that was published in the Fall 2019 Homeschool Arizona magazine by an unnamed author. While the article is a mix of true and false information, the opinion that it slants, that ESA is not an option that homeschoolers should be participating in, is disappointing and misleading.

The legislature of Arizona provided an avenue for families to educate their children at home who, for one reason or another, need assistance. This program serves the needs of the most marginalized people in society: those with special needs, military families, those with parents who are blind and/or deaf, those in a D or F school, foster kids, those who live on Indian reservations, their siblings, and on top of those categories, those who additionally can’t afford special therapies and treatments. This program has blessed and changed the lives of thousands of kids, our daughter being one of them. It is a legal, viable option for many homeschooling families who have qualifying kids.

While the article stated that AFHE supports the freedom of choice for all parents, this is not what many have experienced or felt in dealing with the organization. When military families have called AFHE to ask about their eligibility for an ESA, it was discouraged, and the families were not empowered to make a choice that was right for their family. I spoke with a woman this week who pulled her daughter out of public school because of bullying and did the only thing she knew to do: K-12 online public school at home. She then called AFHE and asked where she could find other families to meet and get encouragement. She was told, “You are not homeschooling. This group is not for you.” That was it. She was crushed. No help was offered. Why has the scope of AFHE’s influence become so narrow?

When did AFHE as a ministry turn into AFHE as a school choice policing organization? There are so many families reaching out for help that don’t fit into the “homeschooling according to the law” category, who are simply uninformed about their options. These families are being turned away with a bad taste in their mouths, under the guise of “this has been our mission 30 years.” I beg to differ. I believe the original intent of AFHE was to be a Christian witness and help families in need while supporting those who educate at home. Times are changing in the education realm: school options are growing, the percentage of kids needing special education is growing. Please have a look at how AFHE can best serve families, instead of discouraging their options.

The author failed to mention that AFHE includes ESA families in their membership, while discouraging support groups from doing the same. The AFHE convention welcomes ESA families to pay to attend but then discourages the vendors from advertising that they accept ESA payments. This is disparaging not only to ESA parents but also to the vendors who pay for a booth! ESA students are welcome to participate in graduation, but AFHE discourages chess clubs, debate teams, and STEM clubs from including ESA kids. AFHE welcomes ESA parents to volunteer at convention but makes them sign a gag order so they won’t mention ESA to anyone, no matter how much another family could benefit from knowing about the program. Then AFHE prints an article solely talking about ESA and how they support all school choice. Why is AFHE continually practicing double standards?

The paragraph about the “unique education option” (ESA) has several misleading tidbits. It states that students must be enrolled in a public school for 100 days to qualify. It neglected to mention that the 100 day requirement does not apply for military kids, kindergartners nor pre-K kids with special needs. It also suggests exemptions exist for siblings. This is not true. Siblings apply just like everyone else. It also states that the family “may” access up to 90% of state funding. “May” should be “will.” The 90% the family will get is for typical kids ($5,200 -$6,200/yr.) and then additional funding is added for special needs categories ($10-$34,000/yr.) Where the article incorrectly said ESA families can use the funds “for some curriculum”, it should just say “for curriculum.” ESA is simply a financial vehicle and parents still have the same educational and religious freedom to purchase WITH ESA FUNDS things like Bibles and religious curriculum. Parents should have all the facts to make an educated decision for their family.

The author implied that homeschoolers cannot apply for an ESA because ESAs are only for public school students. This is true in part. However, any parent with a qualifying homeschooling child who decides to apply for funding with an ESA can enroll in online school at home beginning in August to meet the 100 days requirement. When the 100 days equivalent in hours is completed, they withdraw their child and go back to homeschooling. When they are awarded an ESA, they sign a contract changing their student designation from homeschooling to home educating. The simple question was asked, “Can you homeschool with an ESA?” and the answer was no. The simple question that was left out is, “Can you home educate with an ESA?” And the answer is yes. The intended bias was obvious.

The article hailed the praises of the Arizona homeschool community that has a “multi-decade history of creating support networks”… the same networks it is now encouraging to discriminate against children who need assistance. The article stated that ESA parents should make their own support groups. WHY? There is already a plethora of support groups in place. The insensitivity of AFHE on this topic is disheartening. Whoever came up with the idea that parents who have children with special needs should start their own groups is obviously out of touch with these families. They are overtired, overworked, stressed out, in desperate need of five minutes of alone time, not always welcomed at churches, … and now AFHE says, “they are pioneering a new movement in the Arizona education landscape and have the opportunity to create support and enrichment for their families.” This is not true. Of the hundreds of ESA families I am in contact with, not one has the time nor energy to start a support group. And why should we have to?

Under AFHE influence, the support group that our family belonged to for nine years, Christ’s Family Homeschool Ministries, decided that we could no longer be members when we got an ESA for our daughter’s therapies. The friends at park day on Fridays were my daughter’s only friends. I was heartbroken, not only for her, but that a Christian organization suggested that a Christian homeschool support group disqualify members based on who funds their therapies and curricula. My daughter asked the following week, “Are we going to the park on Friday?” I couldn’t even look her in the eye, and just responded, “No.” She asked why. I briefly explained that we use ESA money to pay for reading therapy, and because of that, we are no longer allowed to go to that park. She took a long while processing before she asked, “Are they still called Christ’s Family?”

I applaud AFHE’s writer for getting some of the facts straight about ESA, but another correction needed would be that ESA kids are NOT required to take standardized tests as the article incorrectly states. The only requirement is that ESA families turn in receipts for our spending, which should be expected for accountability. If articles are going to be written about a certain designation of students in Arizona, please use due diligence to have the facts checked by someone in that group. On that note, please have corrections to the article’s false claims included in the next magazine edition to undo the misleading information (enrollment, siblings, curriculum, testing, etc.)

There are six distinctions of students in Arizona: public, online, charter, private, ESA and homeschooling. Each is clearly defined in the statutes. There is no confusion in the law between any of them. If a distinction is obvious regarding the designations of students, it is that the public school system is backed by large organizations (I.e. Save Our Schools, the teachers unions, ACLU, the Secular Coalition for Arizona, etc.) The remaining five designations, where governmental control is limited, are attacked repeatedly by these organizations who do not support the rights of the parents nor students. This boils down to school choice: public school VS the other five distinctions. At any legislative session, a bill could be introduced harming any or all the five other school options. We all must be vigilant. The truth is the five designations where parents have school choice rights need to support each other in the name of freedom for all. Division has only caused harm. It’s time to link arms.

AFHE has the mistaken notion that opposing another school choice option somehow protects them in the future. This misnomer has been fed to support groups, sports organizations, and clubs across our state who exclude home educated students because they take an ESA. The ESA program has been fully functioning since 2011 and no organization has ever been threatened nor investigated because they include ESA families. ESA funds cannot be used for AFHE membership, support group membership, sports clubs, etc. It is the ESA families who are responsible for their use of the funds appropriated to them, not the groups with which they are involved. Why is there a fear of governmental overreach to a homeschool organization or club that can’t even accept the ESA funds?

The author states there is evidence of “increased legislation popping up in various states,” however, the truth is in the six states that have ESA-similar legislation, none have seen an increase in regulation of homeschooling. ESA does not jeopardize homeschooling freedom. ESA families pose no threat whatsoever to homeschooling in Arizona, to AFHE, to support groups, to sports teams, to clubs, etc. ESA is a program providing freedom. It actually removes control from the government and gives freedom to the parents.

Other pleas have been made to AFHE in the past to bridge the gap in the homeschool community created by the exclusion of ESA kids. To my knowledge, they were not acknowledged by the board because a direct answer was not requested. This came across to the ESA families that AFHE doesn’t care about them nor their concerns. On behalf of thousands of ESA families, I am directly asking you to respond to this letter. ESA families deserve to have their concerns voiced and responded to by the organization that has hurt them. The attitude that AFHE has taken to disregard ESA parent’s choice has only harmed the unity of the homeschooling community in Arizona. I understand that not all of you on the board have negatively affected others, but when one of you speaks on behalf of the organization, it is taken as AFHE’s stance.

James 1:27a says, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans … in their distress.” Many families have followed this biblical truth and adopted from the foster care system. Those children often need therapies and counselling to overcome their rough beginnings. However, taking ESA to meet those needs will exclude these families from support groups who have been persuaded by the Christian based home education organization to leave them out. What proof is there that harm can come to the groups by including ESA kids? None.

The most damage I have witnessed by AFHE’s influence against the inclusion of ESA kids has been to the cause of Christ. I have heard countless comments from non-believers regarding this exact scenario. I have been embarrassed, as a Christian, that an organization proclaiming Christ would persuade people to refuse to help families with disadvantaged kids. What biblical basis is the board using to only support those who have enough money to homeschool according to the law?

Hear my heart. I’m not against AFHE. I’m against people being treated unfairly. It brings me to tears when I encounter families who struggle to meet the needs of their children, who have reached out to the Christian homeschool organization, and have been turned away, discouraged, told they’re not “true” homeschoolers, and banned from getting the encouragement and support they need. These families are the least of these that Jesus speaks of in Matthew 25:40, “And the King will say, ‘I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!’” I ask, what would Jesus do?

The devil’s plan is to cause division. He has succeeded with pitting AFHE against families who are schooling their children at home with an ESA or with an online program, regardless of what this article says about AFHE supporting all school choice. If ESA families felt supported, their hearts wouldn’t hurt. If online families found some encouragement when they call AFHE, they wouldn’t be crying their eyes out after the conversation.

Just as you have, Rick and I have listened to the opinions and theories of national homeschool organization about how homeschooling families should avoid government oversight at all cost. In September 2016 I spoke with Dr. Brian Ray of the National Home Education Research Institute about a family in Arizona who was able to bring home their son who has autism from a school setting where he wasn’t thriving. ESA made this possible with $32,000 per year awarded to the family to hire tutors and therapists to meet the needs of their son. I asked Dr. Ray what he would say to the family. His response was, “They should find the money elsewhere.” I replied, “Where does a single income family find $32,000 a year?” He shrugged his shoulders. He had no answer. In theory, yes, homeschoolers should avoid government funds. In reality, sometimes state funds are necessary to meet the needs of a child. ESA is available for the protection and freedom for families who had no prior option but public school. Because of ESA they can provide a Christian education in the safety of their home. National organizations, like N.H.E.R.I., have great intentions and valuable information, but are not on the battlefield fighting with the parents who need help and have few options.

Please reexamine the heart behind the organization. Search your own hearts. Ask God for wisdom in dealing with those who don’t exactly fit in the “homeschooling according to the law” box. I’m not asking you to change AFHE’s mission. I’m not implying that homeschooling should mix with government funds. I’m asking you to broaden your scope to include families who are also at home, discipling and teaching their kids according to the law. The mission of AFHE could impact far more people for generations if you included thousands of families who don’t exactly fit into privately funded homeschooling. Please look for the bigger picture of the freedom and unity you could be encouraging by truly inspiring all families to do what they feel is best for their children. AFHE is the first homeschool organization in the nation who can engage and set the precedence of working together with families who use an ESA. What an awesome opportunity you have to look beyond the rules and see the relationships that can be built! Please reach out and extend a hand of grace toward those affected by the breach in the homeschool community that has been caused by AFHE saying they support all choices but acting otherwise. Please remember that people are more important than policies.

No truer words have been said than Founding Father John Dickinson’s in his pre-Revolutionary War song, “By Uniting we stand. By dividing we fall.”

We love you all and support you in your leadership positions. God has you eight specific individuals in your influential role at this time for His purpose. Our prayers are with you all that you would see the need before you and respond with God’s direction.

With justice for all,

Linda Ann Crosby