By SARAH R. CRAIG/Associated Press Writer
HELENA - Home-school parents and children sang a thankful prayer in the Capitol rotunda on Monday after lawmakers killed a measure that would have imposed new state regulations on home education.
Cheers erupted through the building when the Senate Education and Cultural Resources Committee shelved the bill within minutes after a 2-hour hearing ended. The bill drew about 800 opponents to the building, far too many for the large hearing room, so they scattered throughout the Capitol halls - camped out on all four floors in front of monitors airing the hearing on closed-circuit TV.
''It was a surprise,'' said Florence resident Kathi Mapledoram, who opted to educate her children at home, rather than in private or public schools. ''We expected it to go on longer ... never expected that it would just be tabled.''
Opponents, from Senate Minority Leader Bob Keenan, R-Bigfork, to Miss Montana Evangelina Duke, said home educators are dedicated teachers who do not deserve what Keenan called a ''legislative assault on families and on freedom.''
The measure, sponsored by Sen. Don Ryan, D-Great Falls, would have required students to register with local school districts. Parents who have high school diplomas or the equivalent would be monitored for two years by someone licensed to teach in Montana.
The measure also would have required home-school children to take standardized tests at the fourth, eighth and 11th grades, the same as mandated in public schools.
A similar measure by Ryan was killed three days after a hearing in the same committee during the 2003 session.
Ryan said his bill is still necessary because some parents keep their children home without giving them any instruction. The state has a responsibility to identify and help those children, he said.
While most home-school parents do an excellent job, some are lazy and neglect their children's education, Ryan and a handful of supporters said.
Dee Black with the Home School Legal Defense Association said Ryan's bill is a ''draconian solution to a problem that does not exist.''
Home-school students routinely score above national averages on college entrance exams and generally excel, she said. ''Home schoolers are doing well enough to be left alone.''
Ryan challenged opponents to offer their solutions to the problem of children being kept home under the guise of home schooling but receiving inadequate education.
''It is my hope that the home school community could come to some conclusion as to how they could help us prevent this,'' said Sen. Jim Elliott, D-Trout Creek, just before he proposed killing the bill.
Ryan was the only committee member to vote in favor of his measure.
The bill is Senate Bill 291.