Idaho District to Provide Online Courses Free to Homeschool Families

Published September 19, 2017

The Twin Falls School District announced a partnership with Harmony Educational Services to offer homeschooling families the opportunity to enroll in online classes beginning with the fall 2017 school year. Homeschooling families pay nothing for the classes. The district pays Harmony for each student enrolled in the program, with varying costs for different grade levels and other services, including mentoring.

For each student enrolled, the district with receive additional state funding, reported in August.

Twin Falls’ contract with Harmony will expire in June 2018.

Aligning to State Standards

Robert Muhlestein, Harmony Educational Services founder, says aligning curricula to state standards is key.

“Harmony partners with schools to offer students a combination of online, blended, and direct instruction curriculum because we know no one type of curriculum works for all students,”  Muhlestein said. “What is unique about Harmony Educational Services, LLC is that we offer curriculum that aligns to each state’s core standards, not just one set like many curriculum companies, but thousands of curriculum options all aligned to each state’s core standards.”

Addressing Taxpayer Concerns

A 2014 Utah State Board of Education audit criticized the state’s online learning programs. Two Utah charter schools ended their contracts with Harmony that year. “One of the school leaders called the company ‘predatory’ during a meeting with the Utah State Charter School Board, saying taxpayer money wasn’t used wisely,” reported in August 2017.

Muhlestein says Harmony’s mission is to provide the same education found in public schools, but in a customizable way.

“All students are required to learn the state standards,” Muhlestein said. “Why not be innovative and allow those who have been having difficulty or just want something different another option to learn? What we have built over the years is a combination of curriculum options that give families and students just that: options to succeed that work for them and strong curriculum that helps the schools achieve their mission of educating students.

“Since 2014 we have focused exclusively on providing curriculum that is overseen by public schools and administered by those schools,” Muhlestein said. “Of course we believe it is a good use of tax dollars. Why would a school not offer more options for their students? Why would we not keep trying new and innovative ways to help students learn?”

‘It’s a Horrible Idea’

Wayne Hoffman, president of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, says the contract with Harmony goes against what homeschoolers stand for.

“It’s a horrible idea,” Hoffman said. “There are a plethora of resources out there for families of homeschool students. It’s another example of the government trying to expand its influence into the arena where it’s not wanted. There was a time when you couldn’t homeschool kids, and now you can, and there’s a very big and very robust homeschooling community [in Idaho]. They enjoy their autonomy, and they prefer not to be in any way, shape, or form under the control or observation of the government system.”

A Matter of Autonomy

Hoffman says even if the program is cost-free to homeschoolers, rejecting the online courses is a matter of family autonomy.

“It’s diverting money away from public school kids who, for whatever reason, chose to be in the public school system,” Hoffman said. “A lot of the homeschool families that I know don’t even want a tax credit [for homeschooling their children]. They just want to be left alone. They recognize that they are paying for a service they’ll never utilize.

“There’s a reason they’re not in the public education system,” Hoffman said. “They prefer their autonomy, and the less they have to do with that system, the better. I have yet to hear a homeschool family lament the fact they don’t have a closer relationship with their local school system, or [say], ‘I sure wish the local school district would provide us curriculum or materials.’ I’ve never, ever, ever, in the 25-plus years I’ve been working in public policy, ever heard that sentence uttered.”

Tori Hart ([email protected]) writes from Wilmette, Illinois.