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Legislators look at tightening homeschool regulations

Advocates say proposals burden parents and don’t help children

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Legislators look at tightening homeschool regulations

Copper Webb and her husband moved to Oklahoma in 2021, in large part because of its lower regulation of homeschooling. Webb remembers growing up homeschooled in Idaho in the 1980s. “Homeschoolers operated underground—it was a very gray area legally,” she said.

By 1992, every U.S. state recognized homeschooling. But earlier homeschoolers, like Webb’s family, faced unclear laws or outright prohibition of the practice. “At that time, parents were literally being thrown in jail for homeschooling their children,” she said. “If for some reason we had to be out during the day, my mom would coach us on how we should answer people who might stop us and ask why we’re not in public school.”

Webb and her husband wanted their children to experience the individualized education that homeschooling can provide without worrying about the scrutiny and uncertainty Webb’s parents faced. “Oklahoma was on the top of our list,” she said. The couple and their five children now live in Broken Arrow, Okla.

Last month, Webb received a legislative alert from the advocacy group Homeschool Oklahoma. The email warned parents about a bill proposed in the state legislature that would require parents to notify the government of their intent to homeschool and submit to background checks and periodic visits from the state Department of Human Services.

Legislators and government officials in the United States and Great Britain have proposed increasing homeschool regulations—in some cases, in response to high-profile or even fatal child abuse cases. Homeschool experts say that existing laws already criminalize child abuse and that further regulating homeschooling only saddles families with bureaucratic burdens that don’t improve outcomes for children.

“The number of students that are educated at home continues to rise rapidly. Of course, we saw it during the pandemic, and it’s continued to rise,” said Kevin Boden, director of the Home School Legal Defense Association International (HSLDA). He said this growth has prompted some legislators to raise concerns about homeschooling.

Homeschooling requirements vary across the country. A majority of states require homeschooling families to submit some form of notification, though it may not always be called a “registry.” Some states don’t require any level of notification, Boden said.

“If you want to homeschool in Alaska, the statute simply says that you’re exempt from compulsory public school education if you are educated at home. And that’s it,” he said. Other states require initial notices when a family begins homeschooling. States with more regulation such as Pennsylvania or New York may have mandatory assessments, subject matter requirements, or regular check-ins with local officials.

A 2018 National Home Education Research Institute (NHERI) study compared abuse statistics among low-regulation and high-regulation states. The study found no statistically significant correlation between the degree of state regulation of homeschooling and the number of abused homeschooled students.

In 2022, NHERI released results from a study of 1,253 adults who described their childhood homeschooling and traditional schooling experiences. The study identified multiple risk factors for child abuse, including alcohol or drug abuse, domestic violence, housing instability, poverty, or even the disability of a caregiver. The study found that the effect of the type of schooling on a child’s risk for abuse and neglect was a “non-issue.”

In Oklahoma, state Rep. Amanda Swope introduced the bill that would require prospective homeschool families to write a letter to state officials. The letter would include their reasons for homeschooling and list the parents’ social security numbers, the family’s home address, the names of everyone living in the home, and the organizations assisting with the children’s education. The bill also required the Department of Human Services to conduct initial background checks on every adult who lived in the home or would assist with homeschooling. The proposal did not receive a hearing in committee and will not move forward.

“If you read the bill, you would think that there was a problem in the homeschooling community,” said Jonathan Bartlett, vice president of Homeschool Oklahoma. He said his organization spoke with several state legislators who assured him the bill was “dead on arrival.”

HSLDA lists Oklahoma as a “no notice, low regulation” state, with no requirements for assessment, teacher qualifications, or class subjects. Bartlett called his state “the freest state in the nation for homeschooling.”

The Oklahoma Constitution, ratified in 1907, includes a provision that says school attendance is compulsory “unless other means of education are provided,” a phrase that many homeschoolers point to as support for the practice.

Rep. Swope works full-time in juvenile justice. She said she introduced the bill after talking with schools that said parents sometimes pulled their children out of school after officials tried to address truancy concerns about their children. She said some families may be enrolling their children in virtual schools, but “because of the lack of regulation here, we really don’t know what’s happening.”

Swope said the bill received more of a response than she expected. “I think that there’s concern that there’s going to be a violation of their ability to teach things through maybe a Christian lens,” she said. “I really just tried to focus on making sure that there is some oversight to make sure that this isn’t being done by people that aren’t actually seeking education for their children but are neglecting them or seeking to move them away from a place where they have access to people that could help them in instances of abuse or neglect.”

She referenced West Virginia requirements and previous Michigan bills that didn’t make it into law. According to HSLDA, West Virginia requires homeschooling parents to notify the state of their intent to homeschool and lists teacher and subject matter requirements. The state also requires assessments.

In Michigan in 2015, then–state Rep. Stephanie Chang introduced legislation following the deaths of two children whose mother had withdrawn them from school to homeschool them. Chang’s bill would have required homeschooling parents to submit their children’s names and addresses to their local school district and take their children to twice-annual visits with mandatory reporters such as a doctor, school teacher, or licensed social worker. The measure didn’t make it out of committee.

Also in Michigan, after two high-profile child abuse cases made headlines last December, state Rep. Matt Koleszar posted on X, formerly known as Twitter, that “abusive parents are taking advantage” of the state’s lack of a registry. State Attorney General Dana Nessel blamed the undetected abuse on homeschooling.

Israel Wayne, vice president of the Michigan Christian Homeschool Network pointed out that the children in the recent high-profile case were adopted from the state foster care system. One of the adoptive fathers worked as a child advocate with the state Department of Health and Human Services. “These children were deeply entrenched in Department of Health and Human Services, Child Protective Services, the foster care system, and the public school system,” Wayne said. “This should be a call for an investigation of CPS and the foster care system—not of homeschooling.”

Boden of HSLDA said international arguments against homeschooling mirror what the group has seen in the United States. He pointed to legislative efforts to establish a homeschool registry in Great Britain.

“What’s missing … is a link between what the homeschool registry is supposedly going to accomplish and what they say the problem is,” Boden said. “But my suspicion is that knowing where the kids are is unhelpful unless there’s something connected to it, like what they said in Oklahoma, that they’re actually concerned about background checks, which is a presumption that the child is actually not safe with their own parent.”

Boden said that the organization supports state intervention in credible allegations of abuse or neglect, “but the reality is the states have the ability to deal with those cases already.”

In Oklahoma, Rep. Swope said that other state lawmakers supported further conversations on homeschool regulations, but at least one recommended she conduct an interim study of the issue. After receiving feedback, Swope said there are aspects of the bill—such as requiring social security numbers—that she would not include in a future proposal. She also said that people viewed the background check requirement as “a little bit too invasive.”

As Michigan lawmakers discussed homeschool regulations, one of Webb’s Michigan friends contacted her to ask about homeschooling in Oklahoma. Her friend was considering moving to the state if the Michigan legislation went forward. “I felt it was rather ironic that a similar bill popped up in the Oklahoma legislature,” Webb said.

She added that many Oklahoma homeschoolers are complacent. “They always say, ‘Well, you know, it’s in our constitution,’” she said. “So I think it created this sense of safety. But really, this bill was a wakeup call.”

Lauren Dunn

Lauren covers education for WORLD’s digital, print, and podcast platforms. She is a graduate of Thomas Edison State University and World Journalism Institute, and she lives in Wichita, Kan.

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