Efforts to Regulate Home Schooling Rekindle Controversies
A Michigan lawmaker's push to regulate home schooling in the wake of a horrific case of child abuse is stoking anew a broader debate over the rights of parents to educate their children at home with little oversight from school and government officials.
The bodies of 9-year-old Stephen Gage Berry and 13-year-old Stoni Ann Blair were found in late March in a Detroit freezer in what authorities believe was the result of abuse that had gone unnoticed for years, in part because their mother, Mitchelle Blair, had pulled them out of school and claimed to be teaching them in their home.
Like Michigan, few states obligate home-schooled students to meet regularly with mandatory reporters—people such as doctors, certified teachers, or clergy members—who might catch signs of abuse and report it, according to the advocacy and research group Coalition for Responsible Home Education.
"A lot of policies to protect children from abuse, are based on the assumption that children are in school," said Rachel Coleman, the coalition's executive director.
And when it comes to the overall regulation of home schooling, some experts and advocates say that oversight across the country has softened over the last several years, especially in terms of academic accountability.
While tracking the size of the nation's population of home-school students is difficult because of wildly different reporting requirements state by state, national estimates put the number at more than 1.5 million.
Michigan is almost entirely hands off when it comes to oversight of its home-schooled families. That's why legislation proposed by Democratic state representative Stephanie L. Chang would require parents to notify the local school district of their intent to home school and to have some contact with adults outside the family who are mandatory reporters.
Until news broke about the deaths of the two children in Detroit, which Ms. Chang represents, she said she didn't have a good grasp of her state's home school laws. Ms. Blair, the mother of the two deceased children, has been charged with premeditated murder, child abuse, and torture.
"We realized that Michigan was one of only 11 states that doesn't require parents who home school to notify the state and the school district about their decision," she said.
Ms. Chang said her bill is aimed at the small number of people who use home schooling as a means to isolate their children and perpetuate abuse, not the majority of responsible home-schooling families.
But her bill is receiving pushback locally and nationally from those who see it as a too-broad assault on the rights of parents.
In recent years, some efforts to more tightly regulate home schooling have tended to follow extreme, albeit tragic events like what happened in Detroit.
After the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., a special commission convened to issue policy recommendations to Gov. Dannel Malloy.
Among the recommendations were proposals to more closely regulate home-schooled students with special needs—a direct response to Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook shooter who was not home schooled,but had been a homebound student due to his debilitating anxiety, said Scott D. Jackson, a former mayor of Hamden, Conn., who served on the governor's commission.
Mr. Jackson said that the commission's examination of Mr. Lanza's isolated status exposed a hole in the state's home-school laws with regard to children who have individualized education programs, or IEPs.
The panel recommended that school officials have some authority to check in on students with IEPs who withdraw to be home-schooled, he said, provoking strong opposition.
"What the commission said was this: 'If a child leaves a school district with an IEP, there should be some check-in mechanism until that IEP is no longer valid or necessary,'" said Mr. Jackson.
"I think it's fair to say that the reaction was certainly overblown. The tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary was so significant that no group of actors want to be identified with it."
Society at large, Mr. Jackson said, has a vested interest in making sure home-school students are learning core academic subjects, as well as developing socially and emotionally.
The commission's home-school proposal has not yet been adopted, he said.
Some home-schooling advocates argue that such proposals following on the heels of high-profile cases of abuse or violence both tarnishes the reputation of healthy home-schooling families and unfairly punishes them. Others worry that what appears to be a single, benign law will lead to government overreach.
"It's a slippery slope, but it's also just the notion that when one person commits an illegal act, that millions of others should be subjected to checking in with officials," said James Mason, the director of litigation at the Home School Legal Defense Association, which opposes the Michigan bill.
"There's something repugnant about that idea."
The association was founded in 1983, in part to provide affordable legal services to home-schooling parents when the movement was in its infancy and the rights of parents to educate their children at home were not recognized in many states.
"We started in the days when it was illegal to home school in Michigan, and people were getting arrested and thrown in jail," Mr. Mason said. "We're pleased that home-schooling freedom is continuing to move in the right direction, toward more innovation and more freedom, but our whole mission here is to be vigilant."
Other advocates argue that Mr. Mason's way of thinking is outdated and that home schoolers are no longer under constant threat.
"We live in an atmosphere of increasing school choice," said Ms. Coleman, of the Coalition for Responsible Home Education. "In this atmosphere, home schooling is not going to be banned."
Ms. Coleman, who was home-schooled, said her organization supports the Michigan bill and others like it because a lot of policies to protect children from abuse are based on the assumption that they are in school and in contact with mandatory reporters—particularly classroom teachers—on a daily basis.
"We're not trying to say that home-schooling parents are abusive, but when there are problems, there are fewer things in place to catch that and help these children," she said, adding that in the push to protect parents' rights, children's rights are sometimes sidelined.
According to the coalition, 48 states do not require background checks before parents remove their children from public school, and no single state has rules to monitor families who start home schooling during an active child abuse or neglect investigation.
That lack of oversight dovetails with a broader trend toward removing states' oversight roles in other areas such as academic standards and assessment, Ms. Coleman said.
Since 2012, New Hampshire, Iowa, Utah, Pennsylvania, and Arkansas have all rolled back requirements for teaching certain subjects or assessing home schoolers, according to the coalition.
Despite those examples, other observers say home-schooling regulations across the country have remained largely unchanged.
"There is a trend, but I wouldn't call it a sweeping trend," said Micah Ann Wixom, a policy analyst with the Denver-based Education Commission of the States. "What's more interesting is the difference in state policy—there's such wide variation from one state to the next."
Take Michigan and Pennsylvania, she said. In addition to keeping portfolios of school work, home-schooling parents in Pennsylvania have to have a high school diploma, teach certain subjects, have their children immunized, and notify the district annually that they're home schooling.
Nearly the reverse is true in Michigan.
However, analysts with both ECS and the National Conference of State Legislatures say that just because there isn't a state law on the books, that doesn't mean there's no accountability for home schoolers.
For example, some states, especially rural ones, leave that task up to local school districts—a nuance that is not captured in a simple comparison of state laws.
But even as some members of the home-school community protest any increased government involvement in their children's education, in other ways the lines between home and public schooling are being blurred, said Josh Cunningham, a senior policy analyst with NCSL.
"There is evidence that a number of home-school students are registering with the online schools, which then brings them under the umbrella of state education policies," he said.
In addition, Mr. Cunningham said, as assessments and education materials align to the new Common Core State Standards, they could, to some degree, affect what is being taught in the home.
And that, along with virtual charter schools, may well pull more home schoolers further into the fold of public education without direct legislative action.
Vol. 34, Issue 30, Pages 1, 15Published in Print: May 13, 2015, as Rules for Home Schooling Rekindle Controversies