The diversity of homeschooling law has a significant impact on how failure to educate in a homeschool setting is approached from a legal perspective. As I struggled last week to explain this to a colleague, I found using a concrete example helpful. That was the genesis of this post.
John and Stacey homeschool their daughter Grace, who is 10. Grace is struggling with reading and doesn’t know any math past basic addition. John’s sister, Nancy, is worried about Grace. She has tried to reach out to Grace, but she lives out of state and only sees her a few times each year. She has tried speaking with John and Stacey, but neither sees a problem with the current situation. Concerned, Nancy would like to report her niece’s situation so that she can get help.
But Nancy faces a dilemma. Who can she report her concerns to? Can she call the local school district, or should she instead call social services? How are situations like Grace’s handled? The answer depends on which state John and Stacey live in.
Who Has Jurisdiction?
Homeschooling law varies widely from state to state, as does which body has jurisdiction over homeschooling. Most states have homeschool statutes that place homeschooling under the jurisdiction of state or local education officials. In states where homeschooling takes place under the private school law, jurisdiction may be more confusing. Further, many states have educational neglect provisions which give social services some jurisdiction over homeschooling in cases where a concerned citizen makes a report.
In Louisiana, parents may choose to operate under either the state’s homeschool statute or its private school law. In the first case, they must submit annual assessments of their children’s progress to the Louisiana Department of Education. In the second case, they must file an annual form with the Louisiana Department of Education. In either case, the local school district’s only involvement is to receive notice from the Louisiana Department of Education of which students in their district are being homeschooled and which are attending private schools.
In Wisconsin, neither state nor local education officials have the authority to monitor homeschooling. Parents need only provide annual notice of homeschooling the Department of Public Instruction. However, should someone report a family for failure to educate, the local school district may ask them to provide evidence that they offer 875 hours of instruction per year as required by law.
As a result of the huge diversity in homeschooling law, some states do not technically have “homeschooling” on the books. In these states, homeschooling takes place under a different legal term. For the purposes of this post, however, I will use the term “homeschooling law” to refer to any provision that allows for education to take place in the home, whether that be a homeschool statute, an alternative instruction provision, or the private school law.
Reporting to School Officials and Social Services
Now that we know that jurisdiction over homeschooling varies, how does this impact Nancy’s options for getting help for Grace?
States without Educational Neglect Provisions
Twenty-six states do not give social services jurisdiction over educational matters. Because these states do not include failure to educate in their neglect statute, they leave enforcement of compulsory attendance statutes solely in the hands of the school districts and the state department of education. If John and Stacey live in one of these states, Nancy should not contact social services unless she has other concerns, such as abuse or neglect. Instead, Nancy can contact local or state education officials, depending on which has jurisdiction over homeschooling.
If John and Stacey live in Arizona, Nancy can contact the family’s local school district to report her concerns, but the school district will only ensure that John and Stacey submitted the proper paperwork when they began homeschooling. Nancy can also contact the local police to report that John and Stacey are breaking the law by not providing the required instruction in reading, grammar, mathematics, social studies, and science. If local law enforcement is able to prove this that they are not providing the required instruction, John and Stacey may be charged with a misdemeanor.
If John and Stacey live in North Carolina, Nancy can contact the Division of Non-Public Education to report her concerns. The DNPE will contact John and Stacey to ensure that they are homeschooling legally and complying with the requirements of the state’s homeschool law. If John and Stacey are not homeschooling legally, the DNPE will report the situation to the family’s local school district. At that point, the local school district will take over and ensure that Grace attends school.
States with Educational Neglect Provisions
Twenty-four states and the District of Columbia do give social services jurisdiction over educational matters. In these states, failure to educate is included in the neglect statute, though the specifics of the statute may vary from state to state. In these states, social services may become involved in cases of chronic truancy or may investigate to ensure that homeschool parents are in compliance with their state’s homeschool law. If John and Stacey live in one of these states, Nancy can contact either social services or local education officials, or both.
If John and Stacey live in Indiana, Nancy can contact social services to report her concerns. Social services will investigate to ascertain whether John and Stacey are providing Grace with “instruction equivalent” to that in public schools, as required by law. Social services may work with John and Stacey to improve the education Grace is receiving and bring it in compliance with the law. Ultimately, if John and Stacey do not comply with the law Grace may be reported to the local school district as truant.
If John and Stacey live in Minnesota, Nancy can contact social services to report educational neglect or the family’s local school district to report lack of compliance with the homeschool law. The school district will ensure compliance with the paperwork aspects of law, including both notice and testing, and will refer noncompliance to the Minnesota Department of Education and ultimately to the county attorney. Should the school district suspect that the family is not providing instruction required by law, they will lodge a report of educational neglect with social services, which will then investigate.
Summary on Reporting
When parents are not following the legal requirements for homeschooling, a child may be considered absent from school without a valid excuse and thus truant. When a homeschool program fails to meet state requirements, the parents may be charged with a misdemeanor or the homeschool program may be terminated, after which the child will be required to attend school or be considered truant. In states that include educational neglect in their abuse and neglect statutes, parents who fail to provide their children with education required by law may be charged with educational neglect. Thus cases of failure to educate in a homeschool setting may involve charges of truancy, violating the homeschool law, or educational neglect.
Regardless of whether the local school district, the state department of education, or social services investigates, and regardless of whether the term used is truancy or violation of the homeschool law or educational neglect, the main question will be whether John and Stacey are meeting the requirements of their state’s homeschool law.
When the Law Is the Problem
Unfortunately, in some cases Nancy may find that even reporting her concerns does little to fix Grace’s problems. In many states the homeschooling law is so lax that parents can legally provide their children with an inadequate or nonexistent education. Whether Nancy were to relay her concerns about Grace to social services, the family’s local school district, or the state department of education, these officials might ensure that John and Stacey are filing any required paperwork, but would not be legally allowed to take other measures to ensure that Grace receives an education. In these states, children like Grace can slip through the cracks.
If John and Stacey live in Arkansas, Nancy can report her concerns to the family’s local school district. The school district will ensure that John and Stacey have filed their annual notice of intent and that Grace takes an annual standardized test as required by law (there is no minimum score). If John and Stacey have filed the paperwork and are having Grace tested annually, there are no further requirements—the law does not actually require homeschool parents to educate their children.
If John and Stacey live in Alabama, Nancy can report her concerns to the family’s local school district. The school district will ensure that John and Stacey have enrolled Grace in a church school as required by law. These church schools generally take the form of minimalistic online enrollment programs designed only to provide homeschoolers legal cover and rarely have any actual requirements. Provided Grace is enrolled in one of these programs, John and Stacey meet the requirements of the law.
Some states require some form of assessment to ensure that students like Grace are making academic progress. In these states, Grace’s lack of academic progress may be noticed even without Nancy reporting her concerns. However, even in these states assessments are often limited and children like Grace may go unnoticed.
If John and Stacey live in Florida, they must document that Grace has made academic progress “commensurate with her or his ability.” However, Stacey can ask her sister, a certified teacher, to sign off on Grace’s progress regardless of her severe deficiencies. If this is the case, Nancy may have little recourse. Read Kierstyn King’s story for an example of this occurring.
If John and Stacey live In Oregon, they must have Grace tested every three years. Grace will need to score in at least the 15th percentile to avoid a remediation process. If Grace can make the 15th percentile nothing more is required, regardless of how far behind she is. If this is the case, there is nothing Nancy can do. Read Mary D.’s story for an example of this occurring.
Regardless of what state John and Stacey live in, Nancy should use her best judgement and do what she can for Grace. It’s important that she understand that many states rely on concerned citizens like her to report educational deprivation in homeschool settings. Many states leave homeschoolers alone and do not verify that they are providing adequate instruction unless prompted by a worried friend, neighbor, or relative. In many cases, reporting concerns about a homeschooled child may lead to the child’s family being given the support and accountability they need to step up the education they provide.
If Nancy decides reporting her concerns is in order, she should find out whether her state includes failure to educate in its neglect statute. If it does, she can report her concerns to social services; if it doesn’t, she can only report to education officials. In the latter case, she should determine whether state or local officials have jurisdiction over homeschooling. If she is unsure, it doesn’t hurt to call one or the other and ask.
Whatever the outcome, Nancy should also be prepared to be there for Grace and support her. Even if nothing changes as the result of reporting her concerns (or if she decides not to report them), Nancy can encourage Grace’s interest in academic pursuits and provide her with gifts that encourage her to foster her interests. Nancy can also be there for Grace when she gets older, helping her to take the GED or enroll in remedial classes at a community college as needed. Such support can make a great difference for a child in Grace’s situation.