In some cases, lax homeschool laws can make it difficult for truancy officers to do their job and easy for public school administrators to use homeschooling to pad graduation rates. While nearly all states require homeschool parents to provide some form of basic instruction, most states do little to ensure that that this education actually takes place. Eleven states do not require parents to provide notice of homeschooling, and only twenty-five states have assessment requirements. The result is confusion over just who is actually homeschooling and who is not—and lost educational opportunities for an unknown number of students.
Unfortunately, we have no hard statistical data on the extent of this problem. Instead, we have a wide variety of anecdotal accounts, accounts that when taken together indicate the existence of a problem in need of a solution. This is a topic that could benefit from more research, regarding both the extent of the current problem and the most effective way to solve it.
Avoiding Prosecution for Chronic Truancy
“The home-school law is abused up and down, left and right,” explained Kalamazoo County, Michigan, attendance officer Jerry Jansma. “I despise the law, because the families I deal with use it as a loophole. Happens all the time. You’ll have a parent who is clearly neglectful and we can’t get resolution, and they’ll say, ‘I’ve decided to homeschool my child’ and there’s nothing I can do about it.” Joseph Piazza, child-welfare officer for the Folsom-Cordova Unified School District, California, also expressed concern about the laxity of the homeschool law. “I call at a house and say, ‘Bobby is not in school,’ and the first word out of their mouths is, ‘Homeschool.’ It’s like an ally-ally-oxen-free.” Piazza went on: “The legislature didn’t finish the law. In order not to embarrass families, they didn’t put in consequences for people who have a lifestyle of avoiding responsibility.”
In some cases school districts may use the lax homeschooling law as an excuse to not investigate or intervene when students are chronically truant or simply disappear from school. A state audit in Missouri found that in one school district officials were sending a letter saying “we assume you have decided to homeschool” to the parents of any child absent from school for more than 10 days.
In Illinois, Williamson County State’s Attorney Charles Garnati told reporters that some parents pulled their chronically truant children out of school to homeschool as soon as truancy proceedings began. “It’s what I call an end around,” he said. “These are parents who have no intention of home-schooling their child.” Bill Smith, director of instructional support services for the Sioux Falls School District, Illinois, said that his district saw around 10 cases each year where parents filed requests to homeschool only when faced with prosecution for chronic truancy. While some of these parents may put in the effort and homeschool their children, it is unlikely that many parents with a history of chronic truancy have the resources and ability to do so.
Homeschool advocates often argue that it should be easy to tell between legitimate homeschooling and fraudulent homeschooling. In theory, this is true. However, when there are no assessment requirements there may be no one checking up on the situation to determine whether claimed homeschooling is legitimate or fraudulent. Former State Senator Ed Maloney of Illinois expressed concern that in his state the law did not give truancy officers any authority to verify whether or not parents claiming to be homeschooling actually were. “The real question is determining the authority to inquire what is reasonable cause of truancy and what is suspicion when it comes to checking on homeschoolers,” Maloney explained. The complete absence of oversight of homeschooling in states like Illinois thus makes it difficult tell who is actually homeschooling and who is not.
Even having notification and assessment requirements may not be enough to prevent parents of chronically truant children from abusing the homeschool law if those requirements are not effective or enforced. Officials in Rapid City, South Dakota, working to crack down on truancy found that some parents used homeschooling as a loophole. “There is sometimes a movement for parents to come in and as soon as truancy procedures start they’ll put in a homeschool application,” reported superintendent Tim Mitchell. “All they’ve done is fill out an application and we’ve sent it to the state and they become homeschooled—that’s all it take[s] in South Dakota.” If South Dakota’s assessment requirement for homeschooled students in grades 2, 4, 8, and 11 is carried out as laid out by law, students being fraudulently homeschooled may be intercepted and returned to school. However, enforcement may be lax in school districts often already overburdened, and by the time the next testing grade arrives several years of school may have been missed already.
Patrick Wilson, Attendance Coordinator for Isabella and Gratiot counties, expressed concern that parents’ abuse of Michigan’s lax homeschool law had a negative impact on the public image of homeschooling. “Sometimes the child does not want to go, and instead of forcing them to go, parents will come with an excuse,” he said. “Some say they will homeschool their child, and it does two things—avoids [giving] me the chance to prosecute them any further, and number two, it ruins homeschoolers’ reps that are trying to do the right thing.” While CRHE supports parents’ freedom to direct their children’s education, we believe that basic oversight of homeschooling would ensure that the homeschooling that takes place is legitimate homeschooling and not fraudulent. This would not only safeguard children’s interest in an education but also help further improve the public image of homeschooling.
Using Homeschooling to Pad Graduation Rates
It is also the case that some schools take advantage of lax homeschool laws to pad their graduation numbers. In Texas, parents are not required to fill out any form of paperwork to withdraw their students to homeschool. As a result, some public school administrators have listed dropouts as homeschool transfers in order to raise their graduation rates. School funding is often tied to graduation rates, and homeschool transfers don’t count as dropouts. This creates a powerful incentive for public school administrators in states without homeschool notification requirements to fudge the numbers.
“This isn’t really about home schooling,” said Children at Risk’s Robert Sanborn when the actions of Texas administrators came to light. “It’s about school administrators’ abuse of home schooling.” Children at Risk called for changing the law to require parents to provide written notice of intent to homeschool. The nonprofit argued that “closing the home schooling loophole will actually increase the stature of home schooling by removing the current cloud of uncertainty concerning dropout rates.” To date, Texas has not yet responded to these calls for legal reform.
Texas is not the only state where lack of notification requirements has led public school administrators to list dropouts as homeschool transfers in order to raise their graduation rates. In 2006, Muncie Community School Corporation (MCSC) in Indiana had 11 homeschool transfers out of high school and 68 high school dropouts. In 2009, MCSC had 143 homeschool transfers out of high school and only 7 high school dropouts. In a five year period, MCSC’s graduation rate went from 68.1% to 90.3%. Local school officials and homeschool advocates disagreed on what and who was to blame, and the reality is that it can be difficult to tell. Were parents fraudulently claiming to be withdrawing to homeschool in order to avoid a truancy prosecution, but without ever intending to provide instruction? Or were administrators fraudulently listing dropouts as homeschool transfers in order to raise their graduation rates, even when parents made no mention of homeschooling?
“With compulsory education laws in Illinois requiring all school-aged children to attend school, parents who are unwilling or unable to respond to truancy concerns may choose to home educate in order to free themselves from that legal obligation and corresponding liability,” wrote Steven Endress of what he called “non-purposeful” homeschooling. Homeschool advocates, in contrast, often place the blame on school administrators. “Over the past few months, Home School Legal Defense Association members have learned that their local school district is forcing public school dropouts to register as homeschool students,” the Home School Legal Defense Association wrote regarding member families in the Muncie Community School Corporation district. It is almost certain that some of both is taking place.
When parents are not required to file notice of homeschooling and have their children assessed for academic progress, it can be difficult to tell which parents are actually homeschooling and which parents are simply using homeschooling to skirt compulsory attendance and avoid truancy prosecutions. This can not only make it difficult for truancy officers to do their job but also makes it easy for school administrators to falsely list dropouts as homeschool transfers, or to urge parents of dropouts to list as homeschool transfers. We need stronger and more effective homeschool laws to safeguard children’s access to an education and prevent homeschooling from being abused to shield what is in reality truancy.