Left in Limbo: Examining Kentucky’s 2018 Report on Homeschooling

In this post, CRHE’s Dr. Rachel Coleman reviews Homeschooling in Kentucky, a report published by the Kentucky Office of Education Accountability (OEA) in September, 2018.

In November 2017, the Education Assessment and Accountability Review Subcommittee, a legislative committee that advises the Kentucky Board of Education and oversees the Office of Education Accountability (OEA), asked the OEA to conduct a study of homeschooling in Kentucky. The OEA published a 73-page report, titled Homeschooling In Kentucky, in September 2018. While their report focuses on homeschooling in Kentucky, their findings raise a number of interesting questions for homeschooling nationwide. 

The OEA gathered data using a survey and interviews. The survey was distributed in 2018 to every school district’s director of pupil personnel (DPP), the individual responsible for investigating student non-attendance and enforcing the state’s compulsory attendance law. Out of 173 total DPPs in the state, 171 responded to the survey. These surveys provided the OEA with feedback from DPPs as well as data on homeschool enrollment and withdrawals. In addition, the OEA interviewed DPPs and superintendents from eight geographically varied school districts. The OEA also obtained data on homeschool college enrollment, GPAs, and ACT scores from the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education. 

This data allowed the OEA to report on diverse topics, including homeschool transfers’ absentee rate prior to their withdrawal from school; the rate at which homeschool graduates attend Kentucky post-secondary institutions; and DPPs’ feelings about the laws they enforce. The report raised concerns about high truancy rates among homeschool transfers and marshaled data that raises equally important questions about how well the state is meeting the needs of high school students at risk of dropping out.

The report’s key findings are as follows: 

  • Nearly two-thirds of students removed from school to be homeschooled were chronically truant prior to being withdrawn from school. 
  • The number of high school students transferring to homeschooling increased dramatically after the compulsory attendance age was raised from 16 to 18. 
  • Despite consisting of only 4 out of 12 grades, high school students who transfer to homeschooling comprise over half of all homeschool transfers. 
  • Kentucky homeschool graduates attend in-state colleges and universities at less than half the rate of other Kentucky high school graduates. 

This review will begin with an overview of Kentucky’s homeschool law before covering the demographics of Kentucky homeschooled children; truancy rates and what is known about homeschool transfers; DPPs’ concerns about homeschooling being used as a dropout loophole; and homeschool graduates’ rates of college attendance. 

SECTION 1: Kentucky’s Homeschool Law

In Kentucky, homeschooling takes place under the state’s private school law. Parents are required to annually notify the superintendent of the names, ages, and residence of the children being homeschooled, and to make attendance and scholarship information open for inspection by DPPs. However, the OEA noted that DPPs rarely inspect homeschools unless they receive a complaint about a family. In addition, some DPPs told the OEA that they were contacted by the Home School Legal Defense Association when making routine document requests, and told that their actions were in violation of the “Best Practices Document” created in 1997 by a task force of individuals from the Christian Home Educators of Kentucky and members of the Kentucky Directors of Pupil Personnel Association.  

The “Best Practices Document” states that when a question arises about the education being provided a DPP may ask a homeschooling family to provide documentation that they are educating their children in accordance with the law. However, the OEA points out with some concern that “DPPs alone do not have the legal authority to enforce compulsory attendance laws” and that “the ‘Best Practices Document’ does not address the role of CHFS [Kentucky’s Cabinet for Health and Family Services] or the courts.” This, the OEA said, creates confusion. 

According to the OEA, when a DPP investigates a complaint about a homeschooling family and finds reason for concern, their next step should be to report their concern to CHFS. However, the OEA found that what happens when a DPP makes a report of educational neglect depends largely on the CHFS caseworker and the judge: according to some DPPs, judges may refuse to hear cases involving educational neglect unless other forms of neglect or abuse are also present, making it difficult to resolve some cases. 

The most consistent request the OEA received from DPPs was a need for more clarity about the state’s compulsory attendance law and their role in enforcing it. 

SECTION 2: Homeschool Demographics 

The OEA found that 26,536 students, or approximately 3.6% of school-aged children in Kentucky, were homeschooled in 2017. This number is slightly higher than the national average of 3.3% estimated by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) in 2016. 

URBAN VS. RURAL

The Kentucky homeschooling rate varied dramatically by school district, from less than 1% to greater than 10%. The OEA identified no correlation between district poverty and homeschooling rate, but it did find a somewhat higher homeschooling rate in county districts (4.5%) than in independent districts (2.3%) (county districts are drawn along county lines while independent districts are drawn along city lines). This suggests that homeschooling in Kentucky is more prevalent in rural areas than in urban ones. This finding aligns with the 2016 NCES finding that homeschooling was more common in rural areas (4.4%) than in urban areas (3.0%). 

RACE & INCOME

While demographic data was not available for all homeschooled students, it was available for homeschool transfers who were previously enrolled in public school. The OEA found that these students were “more likely … to be eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, less likely to be eligible for special education services, and less likely to be black or Hispanic.” 

This data does not include homeschooled students who had never attended public school, so we cannot know whether these findings hold true for all homeschooled children in Kentucky. However, these numbers are in line with the 2016 NCES finding that children who were poor or white were disproportionately likely to be homeschooled (3.9% and 3.8% of these students, respectively, were homeschooled, compared with the overall homeschooling rate of 3.3%). 

HOMESCHOOL-PUBLIC SCHOOL MOVEMENT

The OEA identified substantial movement between homeschools and public schools. Of the 4,463 students who transferred from public school to homeschool in 2012, nearly half (43%) re-enrolled in public school the following year. Of those who re-enrolled in public school, 15% had transferred back to homeschool again by 2017. In 2017, school districts reported 6,874 homeschool transfers and 26,538 homeschooled students total. This means that at any given time as many as one in four homeschooled students is a new homeschool transfer. The majority of homeschool transfers in 2017 were high school students. 

The OEA reported that students who transfer to homeschools are “likely to be, on average, lower performing on reading and math tests than their peers who do not transfer.” Where testing data was available, the OEA found that students who transferred into public schools from homeschools “achieve, on average, similarly to their public school peers in reading and below them in math.” This is consistent with a finding in nearly all extant research that homeschooled students experience a math gap relative to their performance in reading. 

STUDENT AGE

The OEA noted that high school students were more likely than other students to be homeschooled. This finding is in line with the NCES estimate that 3.8% of high school students were homeschooled in 2016, a homeschooling rate higher than that of students in middle school (3.3%) or elementary school (2.9%). 

 

SECTION 3: Homeschool Transfers & Truancy

The OEA found that public school students who transferred to homeschooling had a large number of absences prior to being withdrawn from public school. Nearly one-third (30%) of students who transferred to homeschools in 2017 were previously absent for 20% or more of enrolled days, a rate 11 times higher than that of public school students not transferring to homeschools. Nearly two-thirds (62%) were previously absent for at least 10% of enrolled days, a rate 4 times higher than that of non-transfers. 

The OEA remarks that, in many cases, parents may have similar motivations for keeping their children home from school and withdrawing them to homeschool. 

DPPs noted an increasing number of students who withdraw from public school for reasons that might also explain prolonged absences from school prior to withdrawal. These include mood disorders (such as anxiety), negative peer relationships, bullying, or families’ safety concerns after media reports of school shootings (p. 19).

However, according to the OEA, DPPs were also “concerned that truancy often represents a lack of commitment to education by a child or parent” (p. 35). 

“Forty-six percent of DPPs reported that they often observe families that withdraw their children from public school to be homeschooled because they are trying to avoid consequences of truancy; an additional 36 percent report that they sometimes observe this. DPPs report an uptick, for example, in parental requests to transfer students to home school in the week after the district has sent truancy notices to students’ homes.” (p. 35) 

Some DPPs who visited the homes of truant students who were later withdrawn to be homeschooled reported that homes lacked educational materials and parents lacked educational skills. Other DPPs expressed concern about homeschool families “based on documents submitted by home school families who appear to have difficulty with basic written communication” or based on the families’ home situations (p. 34). 

DROPOUT LOOPHOLE?

In 2013, the Kentucky legislature passed a bill that would gradually raise the compulsory attendance age from 16 to 18. At first the change was voluntary, implemented by individual school districts, but once enough districts signed on the change became mandatory. The majority of school districts raised their compulsory attendance age during the 2015-2016 school year. This meant that 16- and 17-year-old students who might previously have dropped out of high school could no longer do so without facing legal consequences for truancy. 

The OEA report identifies a possible link between this increase in the compulsory attendance age and the higher rate of chronic truancy among homeschool transfers: 

“It is possible that the alleged misuse of home school laws to avoid public school truancy is associated with the increase, beginning in 2015, in the number of public school students in grades 9 to 12 who transferred to home school. Several DPPs and superintendents noted that the increase in the minimum dropout age from 16 to 18 put pressure on schools to accommodate students who were no longer interested in attending school and would have dropped out had the dropout age not been raised to 18.” (p. 36)

The increase in the number of public high school students transferring to homeschool, beginning in 2015, is shown below. 

The spike in high school students transferring to homeschool was driven by students in grades 11 and 12. Between 2012 and 2017, the number of homeschool transfers among students in grades K to 8 increased by 34% percent; and the number of transfers among students in grades 9 and 10 increased by 31%. Meanwhile, the number of transfers among students in grades 11 and 12 increased by 63%. This is what we would expect to see if students aged 16 and 17 who would previously have dropped out instead began transferring to homeschooling after the compulsory attendance age increased.  

New homeschool transfers make up a far larger percentage of children being homeschooled during the high school years than they do in earlier grades. In any given year, as many as one-third of high school students being homeschooled are recent transfers. 

As the graph below shows, public high school students who transfer to homeschool are chronically truant at a slightly higher rate than homeschool transfers overall: 

While truancy rates were high for all homeschool transfers — over 40% of those transferring to homeschooling in any grade were previously chronically truant — the rate was highest among high school transfers: nearly 70% of high school transfers were chronically truant prior to withdrawing to homeschool. 

SECTION 4: Homeschool Graduates & College 

The Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education maintains data on college classes taken by students homeschooled in Kentucky, including dual-enrollment courses taken during high school. The OEA analyzed this data and found that homeschool graduates make up a smaller portion of Kentucky high school graduates attending Kentucky postsecondary institutions than would be expected based on the proportion of K-12 students in Kentucky who are homeschooled: 

Home school students were 1.5 percent of Kentucky high school 2016 graduates enrolled in Kentucky PSIs [postsecondary institutions] in school year 2017 and were thus a lower percentage of the Kentucky PSI population than they were of the school-aged (5 to 17) population (3.6 percent). This suggests that Kentucky home school students may be enrolling in college at lower rates than their public school peers (p. 21).

According to the OEA report, approximately 18% of 2016 Kentucky homeschool graduates enrolled in Kentucky postsecondary institutions in 2017. In comparison, 53.5% of Kentucky public school graduates enrolled in Kentucky postsecondary institutions that same year.  

“Caution should be used in interpreting these data,” the OEA notes, “because they are from Kentucky PSIs only and the proportion of public versus home school students who attend college out of state is not known.” It is possible, in other words, that Kentucky homeschool graduates are substantially more likely than other Kentucky high school graduates to attend postsecondary institutions out of state, which could explain their lower rate of in-state enrollment. However, there is no compelling reason to think that this is the case, and college attendance data from at least one other state — Virginia — is in line with the data the OEA analysed: in Virginia, 1.8% of college students are homeschool graduates. 

While data from additional states is needed to determine national trends, the OEA report’s findings suggest that Kentucky homeschool graduates are attending college at a far lower rate than other Kentucky high school graduates, as illustrated in this graph: 

In addition, homeschool graduates who do attend postsecondary institutions are more likely to attend two-year public institutions and less-likely to attend 4-year public institutions. (While 2.1% of Kentucky high school graduates enrolled in 2-year public institutions are homeschool graduates, at 4-year public institutions only 1.1%  are homeschool graduates.) This finding is consistent with data from Virginia. 

FIRST YEAR GPA

Kentucky homeschool graduates who attend Kentucky postsecondary institutions maintain a higher GPA than other Kentucky high school graduates: 61% of homeschool graduates have a GPA of 3.5 or above, compared with 41% of public school graduates. 

Given that fewer than 20% of Kentucky homeschool graduates attend these institutions (compared with over 50% of Kentucky graduates overall) it is likely that those homeschool graduates who do attend these institutions are those who are best prepared for college — the best of the best, among homeschool graduates. This makes any comparison of the GPAs of homeschool and those public school graduates attending Kentucky postsecondary institutions — who represent a broader swath public school graduates — essentially meaningless. 

ACT SCORES

Kentucky homeschool graduates who attend Kentucky postsecondary institutions also have higher overall ACT scores than other Kentucky graduates attending these institutions (the OAE does not appear to have performed significance testing). Homeschool graduates attending these institutions had an ACT score of 23.9, compared with 22.5 for public school graduates attending these institutions.

There are two things worth noting in the chart above. First, while homeschool graduates attending 4-year public institutions had higher English and reading ACT scores than public school graduates attending these institutions, their ACT scores were virtually identical. This finding is in line with research suggesting that homeschooled students experience a “math gap” relative to their attainment in other subjects. 

Second, the gap between public school and homeschool graduates’ ACT scores is nearly twice as large for students attending 2-year public institutions than for those attending 4-year public institutions: homeschool graduates attending 2-year public institutions have substantially better ACT scores relative to their peers than do homeschool graduates attending 4-year public institutions. The explanation for this finding is currently unknown. 

While every public school student in Kentucky is required to take the ACT, homeschooled students are exempted from this requirement

DUAL ENROLLMENT

In a similar pattern to college attendance, homeschooled high school students maintained a higher GPA in in dual-credit courses relative to other students, but enrolled in these courses at a far lower rate than other students. 

As shown in the table above, 73% of homeschooled high school students who enrolled in dual-credit courses earned a GPA of 3.5 or above, compared with 57% of public high school students. However, the table below shows that while homeschooled students made up 3.6% of all K-12 students in Kentucky, they made up only 1.6% of all high school students enrolled in dual enrollment courses.  

In 2017, 400 homeschooled high school students enrolled in dual-credit courses; that same year, there were roughly 8,000 homeschooled high school students in Kentucky. Based on these numbers, roughly 5% of homeschooled high school students were enrolled in a dual-credit course in 2017. In contrast, over 10% of students enrolled in a public high school in Kentucky took at least one dual-credit course that same year. 

Homeschooled students who are college-bound frequently use dual-credit courses taken during high school to provide external verification of their education, in lieu of access to a state-issued diploma. The outsized importance that dual-credit courses can have for homeschooled students makes the low rate of enrollment among these students concerning. 

The Dual Enrollment Scholarship Program, created by the Kentucky legislature and enacted in April 2017, allows juniors and seniors enrolled in a Kentucky high school to take up to two dual-credit courses at no cost. It is unclear whether homeschooled students have access to this program. Efforts should be made to increase homeschooled students’ access to and enrollment in dual-credit courses. 

Concluding Thoughts

In 2011, Stephen L. Endress completed a dissertation on what he termed “non-purposeful homeschooling.” These were cases where parents “pull their children out of public school for non-academic reasons, thereby by-passing compulsory education laws.” Drawing on his own experience as a public school administrator, Endress wrote that families engaged in non-purposeful homeschooling were “often single-parent households, have inadequate incomes, are less able to be actively involved in their child’s education, and do not have access to the same resources for networking and support.” Endress sent surveys to hundreds of principals in Illinois and Iowa and found that his respondents reported that, in their view, approximately 26% of parents who withdrew their children to homeschool them were motivated by a desire to avoid negative consequences related to truancy. 

While the OEA report does not use Endress’ term, “non-purposeful homeschooling” is their focus as well. In their own survey, they found that 46% of DPPs reported that they “often” see families withdraw children due to truancy, and another 36% of DPPs reported that they “sometimes” see families do this. These families, as Endress noted, are often unprepared to educate their children. “Nearly half of DPPs (48 percent) reported that they often encounter home school parents who do not understand that they are responsible for identifying and obtaining curriculum and instructional materials,” the OEA noted. 

In 2018, the Connecticut Office of the Child Advocate released a study finding that 36% of students removed from school to be homeschooled lived in families subject to a past child welfare report; 90% of these cases involved either founded reports or multiple reports. CRHE has been in communication with a county attorney in Kentucky who carried out an unpublished study in an independent school district, with findings similar to those in the Connecticut report. While the OEA did consider the role Kentucky’s Cabinet for Health and Family Services played in prosecuting educational neglect, it did not look at the overall role this agency may have played in homeschooling families’ lives. This area of inquiry should be included in future reports.

Over the years, CRHE has collected a number of anecdotal reports that support a narrative of “non-purposeful homeschooling.” One woman contacted CRHE concerned about her nephew. The child’s mother had a history of domestic violence and drug use; due to this instability, the child was frequently tardy or absent from school. The mother later withdrew this child from school to homeschool him. In another case, a relative contacted CRHE concerned about a girl whose mother withdrew her from school in order to prevent anyone from learning about her (i.e. the mother’s) drug habit. One woman told CRHE that she was withdrawn from school to be homeschooled after her sister reported their father’s sexual abuse to a teacher. In another case, a single mother was encouraged by her son’s high school to homeschool her son — who dealt with anxiety and other mental health programs — using an online program. The mother worked full time; her son, lacking the support he needed, failed all of his online classes. 

In a growing number of states, homeschooling has served as a loophole for public school administrators seeking to pad their schools’ graduation rates and families looking for ways for a student to dropout. Cases in Florida, Indiana, and Texas reveal just how easy misuse can be. In a recently published article, a reporter spoke with a mother who had unknowingly signed a homeschool transfer form, filled out by school officials, when she went to her son’s Indiana charter school to sign paperwork for him to drop out. In its class of 2018, the school reported 83 graduates, 6 dropouts, and 60 students who left to homeschool at some point during high school. (Because they count as transfers, students who leave school to be homeschooled are removed from a school’s cohort when calculating its graduation rate.) Last year, the Indiana legislature passed a law creating an additional review for high schools that reported a suspiciously high number of homeschool transfers.

In 2017 alone, 3,632 Kentucky students in grades 9 through 12 were withdrawn from public high schools to be homeschooled. At any given time, as many as one-third of homeschooled high school students in that state are new homeschool transfers. Some of these families may be motivated by student anxiety or bullying, and others by a desire to avoid prosecution for chronic truancy, whatever its underlying cause. Some parents may have been encouraged to transfer to homeschooling by district officials looking to unload “problem” students. Many of these students will differ from what one might think of as a “traditional” homeschooling student. The low rate of homeschool enrollment in both dual-credit courses and in-state postsecondary institutions in Kentucky suggests that many of these students are not receiving the support and guidance they need to ensure that they will finish high school with a diploma and a path to college or the workforce. Instead, they are being left in limbo. 

 

Rachel Coleman

Dr. Rachel Coleman is the Executive Director of CRHE. She was homeschooled K-12 and is an instructor at Indiana University.
Rachel Coleman