September 3, 2019

What is Legal Homeschooling...and Why Does It Matter?

Choice is a good thing. And, in contrast to the sad state of affairs in many other countries, American parents currently have a plethora of options when it comes to how and where they'll see to it that their kids are educated. I fully support parental rights in this regard...but we cannot forget that with choice comes responsibility. In this case, the responsibility to speak truth.

Homeschooling was actually the norm in America up until the post-Civil War era. At that point, political "progressives" teamed up with captains of industry and academics such as Horace Mann and John Dewey and - for less than altruistic reasons, as described in Milton Gaither's Homeschool: An American History and John Taylor Gatto's magnum opus, The Underground History of American Education - essentially outlawed home-based education and severely limited the reach of private schools. Thankfully, choice eventually returned, first for conventional private schools and then - beginning in the 1970s - for those who wished to educate their kids at home. It took too long, but by 1993, every state had again acknowledged parents' legal right to homeschool.

And our choices have greatly expanded since then, such that I've been able to identify 16 different approaches of which parents might avail themselves. Each option has its own perks, challenges, and legal ramifications, and parents must carefully vet them all to determine which best matches their values and will most effectively meet their kids' needs. The problem is that many don't understand the important distinctions between the different options. And some persist in blurring the lines between them - especially when it comes to referring to some non-homeschooling options as homeschooling - even when they do know better.

With that in mind and after spending years trying to help parents understand the various approaches, I decided (with the help of my graphic artist husband) to create this infographic with its accompanying explanations, below. For the sake of full disclosure, I admit that I advocate (not arbitrarily, but when asked my opinion) for one particular approach - i.e., wholly independent parent-directed private home-based education (i.e., legal homeschooling) - but my goal here is not to put homeschooling on a pedestal or convince everyone to homeschool. Rather, I aim only to share the actual legal reality for each option, taking "feelings" and judgment out of the equation, to explain the actual facts about the different options as they stand today. In so doing, I hope to help parents understand the objective, legal distinctions between what is actually defined as homeschooling and what is not, so they can make well-informed decisions for their kids and understand what the choices they make really mean.

Download a PDF version of this chart HERE.
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As you can see, the chart has four quadrants - just like a punnett square - based on where funding comes from (public or private) and an entity's base of operation (brick & mortar institutional - i.e., a physical building other than a child's home - or home-based). These two important factual realities, coupled with a parent's level of authority over day-to-day instruction, combine to designate the objective and legal nature of each educational option. 

PUBLIC BRICK & MORTAR INSTITUTIONAL OPTIONS
  • Conventional (Neighborhood) School: This is the sort of school that most readily comes to mind when someone mentions "public school." It is funded with "public money" (i.e., taxpayer funds collected at the local level as well as federal funds distributed by state governments to local districts) and operates out of a specific physical building. For the most part, kids who attend this sort of school are assigned to it based on living in relatively close proximity to the building; hence, its nickname of "neighborhood school." Parents do not influence the nature of daily instruction. Clearly, children who attend conventional public schools are not homeschooled.
  • Charter / Choice / Magnet School: A charter, choice, or magnet public school is also funded with public money and operates out of a specific physical building in a local community. However, this sort of school differs from a conventional public school in at least three ways: First, though it is funded by taxpayers, it is often operated by a private, for-profit company contracted by a local school district and, therefore, is usually not subject to collective bargaining agreements with teachers' unions. Second, kids who attend need not live in proximity to the school; instead, they apply for admission regardless of where in a community they live. Third, it often has a special focus (i.e., on the arts or STEM or by using alternative means of learning and evaluation) that differentiates it from a conventional public school. Because a charter/choice/magnet is publicly-funded, its students are still required to follow the state's public school requirements; they simply do so in ways that differ from their peers in a neighborhood school. Similarly, though parents may be more involved than is common in conventional public schools, they still don't have much influence over day-to-day instruction. Children who attend charter/choice/magnet schools are not homeschooled.

PUBLIC HOME-BASED OPTIONS
  • Homebound Instruction: Homebound instruction is typically reserved for children with chronic illnesses that preclude them from attending local neighborhood schools. A child in that situation is visited on a regular basis by a teacher employed with the local district who monitors the child's progress through the same lessons he'd receive if he were in the school. Though the child is at home and may be given modified assignments to account for his health needs, he is enrolled in the local public school district as a public school student, and the teacher's services are taxpayer-funded. A parent may help as a sort of teacher's aide but has no authority over the educational content. Those on homebound instruction are not homeschooled despite receiving instruction in the home.
  • Conventional Virtual Charter Public School at Home: A conventional virtual charter is what typically comes to mind when someone mentions public school at home (PSAH). In this scenario, a local district contracts with a for-profit company (K12 and Connections are the two most well-known entities) to provide online instruction for students whose parents want their children to receive a public school education while remaining in the home. The company is paid with taxpayer funds and must see to it that its students abide by the public school regulations of the state in which it operates; in fact, the students are counted for enrollment purposes as public school students. Families are given books and computers for "free" (i.e., paid for with taxpayer funds), and each must follow the schedule and procedures decided upon by the state-certified teacher assigned to work with them. A parent may act as a sort of teacher's aide but does not have ultimate authority over the content a child is taught or the pace at which he proceeds. Those enrolled in conventional PSAHs are not homeschooled even though parents of these kids "feel" as if they're homeschooling - because the children are counted (by law) as public school students and also because they are taking taxpayer funds and do not control their children's instruction.
  • Choice / Independent Study Public School at Home: In a choice/independent study PSAH program, a parent is given a generous (taxpayer-funded) stipend for each child with which she may purchase curriculum and resources and pay fees for community-based enrichment classes, and the parent directs the child's daily instruction. However, the sponsoring school district limits what may be purchased with the stipend (i.e., it may not be used for "sectarian" material or activities), and (in every state other than California and Alaska) the child is counted for enrollment purposes as a public school student. In every state, a child enrolled in a choice/independent PSAH must meet the same public school requirements as those enrolled in brick and mortar schools, and the parent must provide evidence of the child's progress to a state-certified teacher assigned to supervise the family. Ultimately, the family is under the authority of the sponsoring school district because of the public funds it is using. Thus, those enrolled in choice/independent study PSAHs are not homeschooled even though parents of these kids "feel" as if they're homeschooling (and despite the odd labeling situation in California and Alaska) - because the children are almost always counted (by law) as public school students and also because they are taking taxpayer funds and are bound by public school regulations.

PUBLIC "GRAY AREA" OPTIONS

  • Hybrid Charter School: As schooling options proliferate, one of the latest twists to enter the market is the public hybrid charter. A student in a hybrid charter attends a local public school - either conventional or charter/choice/magnet - two or three days a week and works from home the other days. He is enrolled as a public school student and is subject to all public school regulations; he is simply completing school-assigned work at home two or three days a week instead of going into the school. A parent may act as a sort of teacher's aide but has no authority over the content or pacing of instruction. Hybrid charter students are not homeschooled because they are counted (by law) as public school students and follow public school regulations.
  • Homeschool Partnership: A homeschool partnership is when a local public school district offers classes and enrichment programs within district buildings to groups of homeschool students. Such partnerships ostensibly resemble private co-ops, but the classes are taught by state-certified teachers (who use public school parameters within the classes) and districts receive taxpayer funds for providing the "free" or low-cost service. Parents do not have influence or authority over the content of the classes, but these children retain their legal status as homeschoolers if parents continue to direct and control the rest of their children's education beyond the partnership classes - unless a family is actually enrolled in one of the aforementioned PSAH options, in which case they're not homeschoolers to begin with. It's also important to note that districts collect a great deal of personal information about each child, usually far above and beyond that which is mandated by a state's homeschool law.
  • Part-Time Public School Enrollment: Under the precepts of some states' homeschool laws, homeschooled children may enroll in public school part-time - and/or participate in public school sports and other extracurriculars - and still be legally defined as homeschoolers; for example, in Wisconsin, those filing with the state as homeschoolers may take up to two classes per semester at a public school and/or join in on select extracurriculars. However, enrollment is not guaranteed - it is at the discretion of building principals, contingent upon whether or not space is available. And, of course, a family using such an option puts itself under the authority of the school and is obliged to follow the school schedule, calendar, and rules. Districts also collect a great deal of personal information on such students and may also require them to comply with public school regulations - i.e., taking standardized tests, reporting grades, taking certain coursework at particular ages - above and beyond the parameters of the state's homeschool law. And if a child enrolls in "too many" such classes, he will lose his legal status as a homeschooler and may then be subject to truancy charges unless he enrolls in the school full-time.

PRIVATE BRICK & MORTAR INSTITUTIONAL OPTIONS
  • Faith-Based / Parochial School: A parent desiring a faith-based education within the structure of a conventional school building may enroll her child into a private religious school. Most such schools mirror the organizational structure of conventional public schools but integrate sectarian material and activities. If such a school does not take public funds, it is not subject to public school regulations; however, it must still comply with state laws specifically pertaining to institutional private schools. Parents who use these schools usually do not use taxpayer funds to pay a school's tuition; instead, they pay out of their own pockets. Because they pay the school directly, they have a bit more influence over the nature and content of the school's instruction. But de facto control over what a child learns is decided by the school administrators and teachers. Those attending faith-based private schools are not homeschoolers.
  • Non-Sectarian Private School: Other private schools do not operate from a faith-based perspective but, rather, have a "secular" approach. They sometimes employ the structure of conventional public schools but may also use "alternative" approaches. As with faith-based schools, these schools are not subject to public school regulations if they don't take taxpayer money, but they must comply with state laws pertaining to institutional private schools. And, as with faith-based schools, parents generally pay tuition out of their own pockets and may have some influence on the administration but do not have final authority over what the children study. Those who attend non-sectarian private schools are, of course, not homeschoolers.

BRICK & MORTAR INSTITUTIONAL "GRAY AREA" OPTIONS
  • Voucher School: In recent years, many states have instituted a program that provides taxpayer-funded vouchers for kids to attend participating private brick and mortar schools. Parents apply for one of a limited number of voucher slots at a school and, if accepted, the state will pay for a child's tuition. In return for being given public funds, though, the private schools come under added regulation - i.e., to be accountable for the use of taxpayer money. This may limit a faith-based school's ability to incorporate parochial material into its classes and activities and subject either sort of private school to other rules and restrictions. Obviously, those attending private schools using taxpayer-funded vouchers are not homeschoolers.

PRIVATE "GRAY AREA" OPTIONS
  • Hybrid / University Model School or Part-Time Private School Enrollment: As with public hybrid charters, those using private hybrid or university model schools attend classes in a designated physical building two or three days a week and work on school-assigned work at home the other days. A parent may act as a sort of teacher's aide when the child is at home, but she does not control the content or pace of instruction, And, though parents pay for these programs with their own funds, students enrolled in a private hybrid or university model school are not designated by law as homeschoolers. This is because the schools maintain a presence in a physical building and must register with the state as a type of institutional private school; thus, those attending such schools are counted as conventional private school students. In terms of part-time private school enrollment, states generally treat that the same as part-time public school enrollment. Where it is allowed under a state's homeschool law, students using that option - with parents paying tuition out of their own pockets - can be designated as homeschoolers if they follow the parameters of the law because parents direct the children's instruction at home when the child is not attending class at the school.
  • Learning Center: Private learning centers are another educational option available to parents, most notably for those who prefer an "unschooling" approach. These centers operate as either for-profit or non-profit community organizations, not as private schools, and, therefore, need not register with the state. For that reason, children who frequent the centers are not designated as private school students but can, instead, be legally classified as homeschoolers. Parents pay any fees associated with attendance from their own funds and kids go to the centers when they want to - not on assigned days or for a mandated amount of time. Some attend for several hours a day and others only visit now and then. While a child is at a center, its "learning coaches" or "facilitators" supervise his self-directed activities and sometimes help him develop and implement short- and long-term learning goals; when a child is at home, his parents direct his learning endeavors.
  • Co-Op Based Learning: A private co-op is generally an arrangement among a small group of private homeschooling parents to, in essence, pool their resources. They find a place to meet - in members' homes or at a local church, community center, or library - and parents take turns volunteering to teach group classes to all of their kids in particular content areas. They usually meet for part or all of just one day each week and, because homeschooling parents themselves deliver this group instruction for free for just a few hours a week (with parents directing their own kids' learning on non-co-op days) and pay for any costs associated with the co-op from their own funds, kids participating in these sorts of arrangements are legally designated as homeschoolers. This is a gray area, though, because some co-ops grow very large, begin to meet several days a week, and/or decide to pay non-parents to teach some or all of their courses. While kids in these programs will still be ostensibly labeled as legal homeschoolers, it's possible that the programs may draw the attention of city or state officials, who may question whether or not such a co-op is really operating as a private school and try forcing it to register as such. Parents utilizing co-ops should be mindful of this possibility in order to maintain their homeschool designation with integrity.

PRIVATE HOME-BASED OPTIONS
  • Private Pay Online School: Private pay online classes and schools operate in a way similar to the conventional virtual charter PSAHs described above: A student enrolls in classes taught online by teachers working for the program or (private pay) school in question. Those teachers - not the child's parent - control the content and pace of instruction for the online classes. If a child is enrolled in an online program on a part-time basis, the parent controls the rest of his coursework, but if the child takes all of his courses through the program, the parent doesn't actually direct any of it. The difference, of course, between private pay online programs and PSAHs is that parents pay for the courses themselves, not with taxpayer funds. This means that those using private pay online programs are legally defined as homeschoolers. That may seem odd since the parents don't direct their children's instruction. But the reason for this designation goes back to the fact that, when current state homeschool laws were written - between the mid-1980s and 1993 - the internet as we now know it had not yet been born. Thus, homeschool laws could not address the legal status of private pay online courses and have not been revised since then to take them into account. For that reason, the current consensus in every state is that children who take online courses delivered to their homes and paid for out of their parents' own pockets are classified under the law as homeschoolers.
  • Wholly Independent Parent-Directed Homeschooling: When modern homeschool laws were written near the end of the last century, they were drafted with wholly independent, parent-directed instruction in mind. These laws have not been changed in measurable ways since, so this model remains the "classic" definition of homeschooling. With this option, parents research and purchase with their own funds educational material they believe will best meet each child's needs. While they may utilize some community resources and occasional private-pay online classes and co-ops, they personally direct the vast majority of instruction, serving as their children's primary instructor/facilitator. And - importantly - they do not accept taxpayer/public monies. 
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In addition to the infographic above, I've also created this summary chart of what I've just detailed, a PDF version of which is available HERE.
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I know some folks will take issue with my explanations, continuing to insist that they "feel" like homeschoolers even when current legal realities say otherwise. But the truth we must speak is still there, like it or not. Though both are fruit, a pear is simply not an apple and never can be, no matter how much we might wish it so; likewise, an educational option that isn't legally defined as homeschooling is not homeschooling, regardless of our "feelings." Simply put, state homeschool laws were written - and have not been altered very much over time - to reflect an educational option in which instruction is led directly by a child's parents from a base of operation in the home, paid for the parents' own privately-held income and assets. Some gray areas have developed over time which, perhaps, need to be addressed legislatively. However, until/unless that happens, we have to accept reality as it really is.

That doesn't mean, though, that the non-homeschooling options are somehow less valid. As mentioned above, I'm an advocate for wholly independent, parent-directed education, but I'm also an advocate for parental rights - as every homeschooling parent should be. And that means I support every parent's right to choose an educational path he or she deems best - as long as those parents tell the truth. Thus, if you've decided to send your kids to one sort or another of brick and mortar institutional school, embrace your choice with confidence. If you're involved in some of the gray area options that are currently defined as homeschooling, own what that means in terms of both strengths and challenges. And if you've enrolled your kids in either PSAH option or a hybrid/university model school, celebrate the truth about your decision rather than insisting that you're homeschooling when (under the law) you are not. Be a proud PSAHer. Be a rabid university model school parent. Go all-in for what you're really doing, not according to your feelings but according to factual, legal reality.

Why does this matter? Why can't people self-identify as they want? Well, first, that would be lying; a pear is not an apple. Second, the homeschool laws in every state came to us after very long, hard-fought battles just a few decades ago, and we homeschoolers realize that activist legislators could sweep them away in pretty short order if they wanted. We must keep the lines between what is actually homeschooling and other educational options as firmly drawn as possible - not to be on guard with other parents but, rather, to protect ourselves from overzealous bureaucrats, who have demonstrated that they will take advantage of blurred lines to try stealing freedom from homeschoolers. We must be ever-watchful of them.

It's unfortunate when that necessary vigilance feels like a slam on parents using non-homeschooling educational options, especially one of the "blurry" ones. That's not our intention. We really do want to support your parental rights as much as we fight to keep ours. But the current state of affairs means that we homeschoolers must insist that we all keep the fruit in distinct piles as much as possible. So, if you're using one of the educational options that is not legally defined as homeschooling, please be proud of and tell the truth about your real choice, and please try to understand our position as homeschoolers. When we're honest and hold fast to necessary distinctions, we all benefit.

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