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Pressure Pays Off for Home-Schooling Families

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Pressure from small but impassioned lobbies for home schooling is moving a growing number of states to reconsider both their compulsory-attendance laws and their regulations governing private schools.

With financial support from advocacy organizations, parents seeking the right to educate their children at home, unthreatened by state regulation, have increasingly taken their complaints to the legislatures and the courts--with such success that more than a third of the states have in the last five years modified education laws to make them more permissive toward home schooling.

"There is a network of home-schooling people around the country who want that alternative, who see the nationwide push toward excellence and say, 'The schools are bad, maybe I can do better at home,"' said Mary K. Albrittain, chief of pupil services for the Maryland education department, which recently relaxed its regulations on home schools. "We're responding to a request by folks for that choice--it's not too unusual to be pressured by society."

Developments in recent months confirm that, as one home-schooling advocate puts it, "the trend is toward more freedom for home schoolers.'' Christopher J. Klicka, executive director of the Home School Legal Defense Association, added that although a few states are attempting to place tighter restrictions on home schools, "the court cases are going against them."

Since the beginning of the year, advocates have won battles in seven states over the right to teach children at home.

Numbers Are Unclear

Estimates of the number of children in home instruction nationwide are ambiguous, ranging from only 120,000 to as many as 1 million, but state education officials and home-schooling advocates alike say the practice is becoming more common.

As a result of the growing popularity of home schooling, advocates say, more parents are challenging state compulsory-education laws that were designed in the early part of the century to prevent child labor. Often, these laws call for mandatory school attendance or "equivalent instruction," but fail to provide a clear definition of what constitutes a school or its equivalent.

Because the laws are vague, decisions over whether to allow a home school are typically left to local superintendents--whose decisions in individual cases can vary widely within one state, advocates point out.

"States can't totally restrict parents from exercising the home-schooling option, but they can put parameters on it," said Cheryl M. Karstaedt, first attorney general of Colorado, who has studied the issue for the state board. "Part of the problem has been that the parameters haven't been well defined."

The Home School association has filed federal suits in four states--North Dakota, New York, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina--challenging ambiguous laws, Mr. Klicka said. Charging that school districts with particularly strict requirements are violating the civil rightsof home schoolers, the suits ask that the laws be overturned.

Need To Rewrite Laws

"Ultimately, legislatures will have to rewrite their compulsory-education laws" to set clear guidelines for home schools, Mr. Klicka said.

In the past five years, courts in Georgia, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, and Wisconsin, citing vagueness, have thrown out parts of those states' compulsory-education laws, according to Patricia M. Lines, a policy analyst for the U.S. Education Department.

All but Iowa have passed new laws allowing home schools, but a recent Iowa Supreme Court decision and pressure from home schoolers may force the issue this year.

A Texas statute that allowed school officials to bring truancy charges against parents who taught their children at home was overturned in April by a state district court. The court ruled that because the statute did not specify standards for private schools, home schools qualified as private schools under state law. (See Education Week, April 29, 1987.)

But in Ohio, the state supreme court in March upheld the requirement that parents seek local district approval for a home-study program; the court held that the statute was not unconstitutionally vague, as home schoolers had argued.

In addition, the court said the state's actions did not infringe upon the family's right to freely exercise its religion. The U.S. Supreme Court has been asked to review the state high court's decision.

State education officials have a responsibility to ensure that children taught at home are receiving an adequate education, said Gwendolyn H. Gregory, deputy general counsel for the National School Boards Association.

"Our members want to be assured that the state's interest in having an educated populace is maintained through some sort of standard," Ms. Gregory said.

The association does not have a specific policy on home schools, but a resolution adopted last year urges that private schools, including home schools, be "held to the same standards" as public schools.

Home schools should be subject to formal state accreditation, said Brad B. Ritter, spokesman for the Texas State Teachers Association, which opposed the recent Texas ruling on the issue.

"We believe people can educate their children any way they want, but if there are minimum accreditation standards that apply to public schools, then they ought to apply to home schools as well," Mr. Ritter said. In Texas, private schools are required to be accredited by the state or a private-school association.

While most states could not legally require home schools to be accredited by a state agency, there needs to be some specific form of oversight, such as standardized testing, said Ms. Lines of the Education Department.

"As the number of home schoolers grows, we have an increased chance of seeing some abuses, such as parents keeping kids at home and not offering an educational program," Ms. Lines said.

The Education Department considers home schooling a state issue, said Edward Anthony, a special assistant in the office of private education.

"Home schooling represents a form of parental choice, and the Secretary [of Education William J. Bennett] and the President have supported parental choice, but the department has not taken a formal position on the issue," Mr. Anthony said.

Teacher Licensing

About 90 percent of the Home School Association's 6,000 members educate their children at home for religious reasons, said Mr. Klicka.

Parents have been most successful in getting states to relax teacher-licensing requirements, because most parents would not qualify for certification, said Mr. Klicka. About half the members of his association do not have more than a high-school diploma, he said.

Maryland and Colorado, two of the last five states requiring teachers in home schools to be certified, dropped the regulation this summer and relaxed curriculum requirements. Only Iowa, Michigan, and North Dakota require home teachers to hold a license.

Colorado's board of education this summer concluded a year-long debate over standards for home schools by eliminating the requirement that home-school teachers either be certified or use a state-approved correspondence course.

Pressure to change the regulations came from a flurry of lawsuits and lobbying by home-schooling advocates, state education officials said. One legislator estimated that 12 home-schooling families were involved last spring in court cases, including some in which districts brought criminal charges against parents.

In April, a bill that would have allowed parents to operate home schools without oversight by school officials, as long as students were tested every two years, was passed by the state Senate, but killed in a House committee.

Then, in May, a court decision favoring one family provided additional impetus for change, according to Mr. Klicka. The Gunnison County District Court dismissed truancy charges against a Lake City couple who said their religious beliefs required them to teach their children at home. The court ruled that the state-approval requirements were not the "least restrictive means" of seeing that the children were educated properly and recommended yearly standardized testing instead.

Under the state board's new rules, home schools automatically obtain state "approval" by sending notification to their local school district that includes the number of hours of instruction and subjects that will be covered. Students must be tested every year, and if they fall below the 14th percentile, the district may force them to attend a public or private school.

Pupil 'Portfolio' Required

The Maryland state board voted in June to eliminate the certification requirement for parents and home visits by school officials. Parents need only file a form notifying the district of their intent to keep children home, and provide a portfolio of each child's work twice a year.

Previously, the board had required that parents follow the public-school curriculum closely, including its mandated textbooks.

"The guidelines were set up with much care about children, but it often made it difficult for a parent teaching at home," conceded Ms. Albrittain of the state education department. "Sometimes, counties got really stiff with [the regulations]."

The board's action was precipitated by the attempts of home-schooling advocates to legislate the changes, Ms. Albrittain said. Several hundred people attended hearings on proposed legislation last year to eliminate the requirements. Although the bill was defeated, state education officials felt pressure to allow parents more freedom, she said.

Other State Actions

In other developments:

Minnesota's new compulsory-education law went into effect in August, repealing vague language that required "school" attendance but failed to define acceptable forms of schooling. The law gives parents several ways to educate children at home, and no certification or college degree is required of parents as long as children are tested yearly and score above the 30th percentile.

The Iowa Supreme Court has overturned on a technicality the convictions of a couple charged with not having their children taught by a certified teacher. Since state law requires 120 days of instruction, Greg and Karen Trucke of Mapleton were wrongly prosecuted "before the fact," after only 30 days into the school year, the court said.

The ruling does not alter the certification requirement, but home- and church-school supporters said it will prevent other convictions this year and give them time to push the legislature to pass a bill that was introduced last year. The bill, supported by Gov. Terry Branstad and endorsed by a commission he set up to study the problem, would substitute yearly testing of students for the teacher-licensing rule.

This summer, Gordon M. Ambach, at the time New York's commissioner of education, held in an advisory opinion that home schools do not need to seek state approval, because the law requires only that students who are not taught in public or private schools receive "equivalent instruction." Districts had varied in their enforcement of that provision, with several requiring approval by the superintendent.

Mr. Klicka said the opinion is "somewhat of a victory" and would help his group defend home schools in the state that he said had been "harassed" by districts. The association's case seeking to strike down the compulsory-education law will continue, he said.

The Nebraska attorney general, in a July opinion, said a resolution passed by the state board of education that would have required inspection of home schools and testing of home-schooled children violated state law. The opinion also held that the state education department's authority over home and church schools was "highly limited." The state board repealed the resolution in August.

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