How do you monitor homeschooling parents? Welcome to the Wild West of education regulation
Naomi Nix | May 20, 2016
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When school district administrators call parents at home it can often lead to tension-filled conversations. But in the case of Laura and Michael McIntyre, it led to criminal charges and a lawsuit.
In 2004, the McIntyres decided to take their nine children out of private school and homeschool them in an empty space inside a motorcycle dealership owned by Michael’s twin brother.
The twin brother would later tell authorities that while he saw the kids sing and play instruments he never saw them reading books, doing math or using school equipment. He overheard one child say that there was no need to study because they were “going to be raptured,” according to court documents.
The McIntyres’ local school district ordered the family to provide evidence that they were educating their children; the couple refused, prompting authorities to file truancy charges against the youth. Those charges were later dropped but the McIntyres filed a subsequent lawsuit against the school district, claiming their “constitutional educational liberty interests” were violated.
Welcome to the Wild West of education regulation.
In recent years, the share of parents choosing to educate their kids at home has exploded, fueled by their dissatisfaction with public schools, dislike for the Common Core standards, and a desire to impart moral values on their children. Even former presidential hopeful Ben Carson jumped on the homeschooling bandwagon last year when he told The 74’s Editor-in-Chief Campbell Brown in a November interview that, “the best education is home school:”
This new generation of homeschooling parents is a mobilized political force that has successfully advocated for curtailing what they see as onerous state requirements and too much government oversight over what is ultimately, they say, a family affair. But some child welfare advocates say the declining regulation of homeschooling may mean more abused or poorly educated children will slip through the cracks.
“I’m very sympathetic to the idea that part of the value of homeschooling is the flexibility it gives parents. There needs to be substantial modesty on the part of the state on imposing requirements and regulations,” said Robert Kunzman, a professor at Indiana University and managing director of the International Center for Home Education Research.
“At the same time, children have their own interests at stake. A lot of times it goes in line with the parents, but not always. Children have a profound interest in gaining basic skills in literacy and numeracy.”
The modern homeschooling movement was born four decades ago out of the frustration of two groups of parents: conservative Christians who wanted to give their kids a morally instructive education and progressives who held anti-establishment views and thought that kids learn best outside the confines of traditional schools.
“They both emerged in the 1970s, really gained steamed in the 80s, and the 90s is where we started to see growth,” said Kunzman.
The number of students between the ages of 5 and 17 who were homeschooled increased to 1.77 million in 2012 up by about 677,000 from 2003, according to recently released data from the National Center for Education Statistics.
Nowadays, religious conviction is a declining but still significant influence in parents’ decision to educate their children at home. In 2007, 36 percent of parents said their top reason for choosing to homeschool was to provide their children religious and moral instruction while only 21 percent gave either of those reasons as their top choice in 2011. The primary reason parents gave was a concern about the environment at schools outside their home, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics.
The recent passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act preserves any regulation of homeschooling with the states, which impose vastly different requirements on parents teaching their kids at home.
About 14 states only require parents to notify a school district or state office of their decision to teach their kids at home including Delaware, California and Wisconsin. Ten states don’t require any parent notification including Texas, Illinois and New Jersey.
Other states have more stringent requirements for homeschooling parents. In Oregon parents are required to notify their local school district and have their kids tested at the end of grades 3, 5, 8, and 10.
Pennsylvania parents must tell their local superintendent they are homeschooling their kids, have obtained a high school degree themselves, provide at least 180 days of instruction in a set range of subjects and maintain a portfolio of their child’s test results and academic records. Homeschooled students must also be tested in grades 3, 5, and 8 and the local superintendent can intervene if progress isn’t being made.
The Coalition of Responsible Home Education, founded in 2013 by homeschooled alumni, argues that such oversight can help authorities identify a student who is being abused or underserved by their parents.
The group started “Homeschooling’s Invisible Children,” a database of horrifying cases of abused homeschooled children. Their goal was to shine “a light on the dark side of homeschooling,” according to its website. Among the examples the database cites. is the case of 17-year-old Simonne Say, who died late last year as part of what authorities suspect to be a joint suicide with her mother. Say’s mother, Elizabeth Genthner, had a history of mental illness, alcohol abuse and drug-related arrests and contact with the Florida Department of Children and Families but was permitted to homeschool Say.
When there are few regulations, “it is easier for (parents) to hide abuse. It is easier for them to escalate abuse,” said the coalition’s executive director, Rachel Coleman.
But the group faces an uphill battle convincing more states to increase their oversight of homeschooling parents. Over the years, groups such as the Home School Legal Defense Association and other like-minded state organizations have successfully lobbied state lawmakers to walk back some requirements.
Earlier this year, South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard signed a law that eliminated a requirement for homeschooled kids to be tested after the second grade. Now, tests are only required as students finish the 4th, 8th and 11th grades.
In New York, one of the most heavily regulated homeschool sectors in the country, lawmakers have proposed a bill that would eliminate the requirement for homeschooling parents to allow them enough wiggle room to administer their own standardized tests.
“From our standpoint, we are just trying to help kids achieve their high school diploma,” said Tim Ragazzo, the legislative director for state Senator Joseph Robach, R-Rochester, one of the bill’s sponsors.
Coleman is skeptical.
“That’s a terrible idea to let the parents administer the test,” she said. “There is no accountability there at all.”
Ragazzo said the impetus for the proposed legislation came from concerns expressed by LEAH, a Christian-based homeschooling parent organization, that the requirements imposed by the state were too onerous and outdated. He added that state representatives are still open to making changes to the proposed legislation.
“The senator wants to help kids move towards their future in whatever way they need,” said Regazzo.
Despite the controversies brought up by the McIntyre case, which is still pending Texas lawmakers have yet to propose any changes to the state’s homeschooling laws. There, homeschooling parents are required to give their children an education in reading, arithmetic and citizenship but do not have to notify any local authorities of their decision to homeschool—a fact that keeps some of the state’s mobilized parent base happy.
“Texas is one of the more freer states when it comes to homeschooling in general,” said Stephen Howsley, public policy analyst at The Texas Homeschool Coalition. “In Texas, if you want to homeschool you literally pull your kid out of public school.”
This article was published in partnership with The74Million.org.