By Brad Miser
Date: May 12, 2005
Looking to homeschool, but intimidated by the potential of legal oversight by government bureaucrats? This chapter explains to what extent, and in what ways, the government involves itself in homeschooling, including a rundown of the some states and their varying levels of regulation.
In this chapter
Understand why legal requirements are important to your homeschool
Determine the legal requirements for homeschool in your state
Find out what interaction will be required with local school officials, if any
Notify your state that you are homeschooling, if required
Document all the legal activity specifically related to your homeschool
Be aware of legislative and legal activity occurring that might have an impact on your homeschool
For sometimes better and oftentimes worse, government is involved in many of the activities we choose to undertake. Homeschooling is no exception to this statement. One of the first tasks you need to do after you have decided to homeschool your children is to find out to what extent your state and local governments are going to be involved in the operation of your homeschool. The level of involvement of these governments is determined by the regulations they have established regarding education, and more specifically, regulations related to the alternatives to public schools.
What Has Your State Government or Local School System Got to Do with Homeschool?
Although the general requirements regarding education are laid out at the federal level, public education is mostly the responsibility of state and local governments. Because of this, federal education regulations won't have any impact on your homeschool.
However, any state or local government regulations that govern the area in which you live definitely do have an impact on your homeschool. Failure to comply with such regulations can result in less severe consequences to you, such as warnings or fines, to extremely severe consequences, such as you being unable to homeschool your kids or having child protection agencies investigate or interfere with your family. You should carefully consider and comply with regulations that govern your homeschool.
There are two areas of regulation that you need to consider: state and local guidelines.
Your state certainly has regulations that govern the operation of its public education system. It probably also has regulations that relate to "alternative" or "alternate" schools. These regulations are generally related to private schools, such as schools run by religious organizations. In most cases, these "alternate" regulations are the ones that govern homeschools. No matter which state you live in, you need to understand your state's education regulations that impact your homeschool. The good news is that it is relatively easy to determine your state's regulations. You'll learn how to do this in the next section.
Public schools are actually run by local governments at the city or county level. In some cases, these local governments also will have regulations about alternate schools, again with most of this regulation being directed toward private schools. In many cases, as long as you meet your state's regulations, you will also meet your local government's requirements. In reality, many of the specific regulations that are part of a state's education requirements are administered at the local school level. For example, some state governments require that the public school system have oversight over homeschoolers in their jurisdiction, such as submitting the results of standardized tests to the local school authorities. In the worst case, the local school overseers might attempt to dictate the curricula your homeschool uses, but that is very unlikely. In other cases, you might have to submit to some sort of supervision of your homeschool. Even in these more difficult circumstances, it is still possible to have a good homeschool experience. Dealing with your local school officials is explored in detail a bit later in this chapter.
Determining the Legal Requirements in Your State
As a homeschooler, you must understand your state's education regulations that impact your homeschool. Then, you must make sure that your homeschool complies with these regulations and that you can document that it does so.
Types of State Regulations Related to Homeschool
There are four basic levels of state regulation regarding homeschooling, as summarized in the following list:
Least. In these states, such as Indiana, Texas, Illinois, and Idaho, parents aren't required to provide any information about their homeschool to the state. Although there are regulations that provide general guidelines about how children should be educated, parents are under no obligation to inform the state about how they educate their children.
Minimal. In these states, such as California, New Mexico, Alabama, and Kansas, you only need to inform the state that you are homeschooling your children. After that, the state assumes you are meeting its general guidelines and doesn't attempt to oversee your homeschool.
Moderate. States with moderate regulation, such as Colorado, Iowa, Arkansas, and Florida, require that you formally notify the state about your homeschool. You must also submit some sort of progress report to the state, such as test scores or professional evaluation of your students' progress.
Significant. These states, including Washington, Minnesota, New York, and Maine, are the most difficult in which to homeschool. In addition to notification and progress evaluation, you also may be required to use approved curricula, have a teaching credential, or submit to home visits by state officials.
How to Determine Your State's Regulations
There are several ways to determine which general type of regulation your state has, and then to determine what the specific regulations are.
One way to do this is to contact your state's department of education and request copies of the relevant regulations. You should be able to find a phone number for this department in a telephone book. You probably can get this information from your local public library as well. You can locate your state's education department's Web site, which also will provide the information you need.
However, a better way to find this information is to use the Web to visit the HSLDA Web site. On this Web site, you will find excellent summaries of the legal requirements for each state. To do so, use the following steps:
Use Web browser to visit http://www.hslda.org, which is the home page of the HSLDA.
From the site's Homeschooling menu, choose Homeschool Laws. On the resulting screen, you will see a diagram of the United States. Each state is color-coded to indicate its relative level of regulation (see Figure 3.1).
Figure 3.1 This map on the HSLDA Web site shows the relative regulation of each state in the United States.
Click your state's icon on the map. The screen will be refreshed to show specific information about your state (see Figure 3.2).
Figure 3.2 Here you can see the regulation information for my home state Indiana.
Read the information related to homeschool regulations for your state. Note that for some states, there are multiple sets of regulations, called "options," which could impact your homeschool. Make sure you explore each option.
The tables presented on the screens for your state will tell you about the specific regulations with which you will have to comply. The tables generally cover the following information:
Legal options. A description of the various options under which homeschools can be operated.
Attendance. Information about attendance requirements, such as the number of instruction days that must be provided per year.
Subjects. Curriculum requirements for the state are defined here.
Qualifications. This information will tell you if your state requires that you have some sort of teaching certification to operate a homeschool in your state.
Notice. If you are obligated to notify the state that you are operating a homeschool, information here will let you know.
Recordkeeping. Information here tells you the kind of documentation you are required to maintain, such as attendance records, test scores, and so on. You should consider this as only the absolute minimum. You will want to keep lots of documentation for your homeschool (you'll learn about that throughout the rest of this book).
Testing. Testing requirements your state might have, such as for standardized tests your students might be required to take, are outlined here.
The following sections provide an example of a state in each category to help you interpret the requirements for your state.
Indiana: An Example of a State with Least Regulation
If you are fortunate as I am, you live in a state with little regulation, such as Indiana. Such a state provides you with the most freedom and requires the least amount of work dedicated to meet or document regulations (which means you can spend more time on your homeschool).
Indiana's legal requirements are summarized in the table shown in Figure 3.3.
Figure 3.3 Indiana has very few legal requirements as you can see in this table (lucky me!).
As shown in the figure, you can see that there is one option for homeschoolers in Indiana, which is to operate as a homeschool. In Indiana and similar states, the only requirement is that school is held at the same time as the public schools, which requires 180 days of instruction. The only records Indiana homeschoolers are required to maintain are attendance recordsan Indiana homeschooler has to be able to show that the 180-day requirement was met. What all this means is that homeschoolers in Indiana (and similar states) aren't really impacted by state regulation in any significant way.
California: An Example of a State with Minimal Regulation
Next up on the regulation category list are states with minimal regulation, an example of which is California (see Figure 3.4). California has four options. One is to qualify as a private school, which means that as a homeschooler you have to meet the same requirements as a private school. Another is to use a private tutor. The third and fourth options are to use an independent study program administered by a private school (option 3) or administered by a public school (option 4).
Figure 3.4 States with a minimal level of regulation, such as California, aren't much more difficult to homeschool than those with the least level of regulation.
As you can see in the figure, the requirements for each of these options vary slightly. The one that is most relevant for homeschoolers is to qualify as a private school. To do so, you are required to teach the same subjects as the public schools and teach in English. You must provide a formal notification that you are homeschooling with the Superintendent of Public Education. The only required documentation is an attendance log. No testing is required. As you can see, homeschoolers in states like California won't have to spend a lot of time dealing with government regulations, which is a good thing.
Iowa: An Example of a State with Moderate Regulation
As we move up in complexity, we get to states with moderate regulations, such as Iowa (see Figure 3.5). Iowa has two options. One is to operate a homeschool. The other is to operate a homeschool that is supervised by a licensed teacher.
Figure 3.5 Rated as moderate in regulation, Iowa's most significant requirement is that students demonstrate progress by submitting standardized test results or a portfolio to the local school district.
To operate a homeschool without supervision, you must have at least 148 days of instruction. A formal notification must be submitted to the local school district. No records are required, but standardized test results or a portfolio must be presented to the local school district each year to demonstrate progress.
The requirements to operate a homeschool with supervision are the same except that the supervising teacher must have a license, and the testing requirement is that the parent must meet with the supervisor twice per quarter.
New York: An Example of a State with Significant Regulation
Even states with significant regulation, such as New York, still make it possible to homeschool without huge amounts of effort to demonstrate that you meet all requirements (see Figure 3.6). New York offers one option, which is to operate a homeschool. It has an attendance requirement of 180 days that is further defined with hours of instruction for specific grade ranges. Specific subjects must be taught at each grade level. While first appearing to be limiting, a closer look reveals that most of these topics are likely to be taught whether they are required by the state or not. A specific teaching certification is not required. A formal notice is required as are attendance records along with quarterly documentation regarding the specific instruction that has occurred. Standardized testing or written evaluations are also required.
Figure 3.6 Although New York's table looks more intimidating than those from the other example states, its regulations aren't really all that restrictive.
As is clear on the HSLDA Web site, its summaries of state law are only summaries of the laws and not the laws themselves. If you want to be absolutely certain of the exact requirements of your state, you can locate and review the actual laws that govern homeschool. That assumes they are written in such a way that they will be understandable to regular people of course, which isn't always (or often) the case.
Determining the Legal Requirements for Your School System or Local Government
If you live in a state that requires some type of oversight of your homeschool by the local school system, you will need to figure out exactly what that means for your homeschool. (If you live in a state that doesn't require you to interact with a local school system, consider yourself fortunate and skip the rest of this section.)
Determining the Legal Requirements for Your School System or Local Government
There are several basic ways in which you might be required to be under the auspices of a local school system:
Provide standardized tests. In some states, you must file standardized test scores with the local school system (usually with the superintendent's office). Some states allow you to administer these tests yourself while others require that these tests be conducted by a licensed teacher. Certain states only require that you have students take these tests at specific points in the education process and that you maintain the results as part of your documentation. This isn't much of a burden because you should include standardized tests in your homeschool regardless of whether they are required by your state or not.
Submit a portfolio. As a means of measuring progress, some states require that you submit a portfolio that documents the results of your homeschool, usually on an annual basis. The local school officials evaluate your portfolio to ensure that your homeschool is providing a proper education to your children. You'll learn about preparing a portfolio, which you should do as part of your normal homeschool documentation even if it isn't required by the state, in Chapter 12, "Documenting Your Homeschool."
Report to a school representative. Some states require that you be "supervised" by a local school representative such as a teacher or administrator. Typically, you are supposed to report to your supervisor on a quarterly basis. The idea is that the supervisor will attempt to evaluate your homeschool to ensure your kids are being educated properly. In reality, what actually happens varies dramatically from school district to school district and even among individual supervisors. Supervisors who support homeschooling are likely to be less intrusive than those who "have an axe to grind."
Provide periodic progress reports. Some states require that you provide periodic progress reports whether through a local school supervisor or independently. The formats of these reports vary based on the school district under the jurisdiction you fall.
When you determine that your state's legal requirements involve some level of interaction with a local school system, you will need to contact the responsible officials in the school system (typically the superintendent's office) to identify what exactly you need to do to comply with the requirements.
I recommend that you meet with the person that is responsible for overseeing your homeschool as soon as you realize that your homeschool will have some level of oversight requirements. This helps you get the information from the source and starts to establish the required relationship with the proper officials.
To prepare for this meeting, make sure that you review and understand the specific requirements for your state. Identify each requirement individually so you will be prepared to address each with the school officials.
When you meet with the officials, get all requirements in writing so that you have a clear and definitive record of the requirements from the responsible officials. Make sure the specific people you have to deal with are also noted in the requirements. Also make sure that you understand exactly what is expected of you, with whom you need to deal, and when you need to deal with them. If a requirement is presented to you that is not in accordance with your understanding of the state regulations, make sure you get it clarified and that the school officials can prove that the requirement is actually part of state law.
Managing Your Relationship with Local School Officials (if Necessary)
When you interact with local school officials, your attitude will have a large impact on how your relationship goes. While you shouldn't be intimidated by these officials, neither should you be challenging to them. In most cases, overseeing your homeschool is a task that these officials will see as just another task piled on top of too many others. The easier you make it for these officials to satisfy their obligations, the less trouble and interference you are likely to have from them. Be as cooperative as you can and, of course, treat them as you would like to be treated.
Most school officials sincerely believe they are trying to do the best they can to ensure that children, including yours, are being educated properly. So if you can reassure them that yours are, you will be go a long way toward preventing any problems. As the expression implies, the squeaky wheel gets the attentionyour goal should be to be as "unsqueaky" as possible so that you limit the attention your homeschool receives. (Not for the reason that you are trying to hide something, but rather that the less time you have to spend legitimizing your school, the more time you have to devote to educating your kids.)
Rarely, you will encounter a school official who is subtly or blatantly hostile toward homeschool. In that case, you are likely to have problems with them. The best way to combat this is to conduct yourself in strict accordance with the legal requirements so that you don't open yourself for attack. Always get things in written formthis will ensure that such officials are more careful about adding to the actual requirements. Make sure you understand all the legal requirements so that you can conduct yourself accordingly. If local school officials get out of hand and start to challenge or impede your ability to homeschool your children, you might need to take legal action against them. This is covered in Chapter 4, "Defending Your Decision to Homeschool." Fortunately, this scenario is unlikelyin most cases, as long as you are reasonable and cooperative, you won't have any trouble with local school officials.
In any case, you should document every meeting you have with a school official. Take notes during the meeting and prepare a formal minutes document of your meeting after it concludes. Generally, you should provide a copy of these documents to the people you met with; should there ever be a question about what actually occurred, your case will be much stronger if you have a trail of documentation backing up your side.
Notifying the State About Your Homeschool
All states except those in the "Least Regulation" category require that you provide some sort of notification that you are homeschooling your children. Make sure that you understand the type of notification you are required to provide. Some states have specific forms you must complete, while others just require "notification." This notification is typically due well before the school year starts or soon thereafter. Your state's regulations will tell you where, how, and when this notification is required. After you file your notification, make sure you keep a copy and can prove when and to whom you submitted it.
Documenting Legal Requirements for Your Homeschool
After you have determined the state requirements for your homeschool and understand any involvement with the local school system that is required, you should create a file with all the relevant legal documentation in it. This file should include the following documents:
The HSLDA analysis of your state's requirements. You can print this out from the HSLDA Web site.
A copy of your state's actual legal requirements for homeschool. While you are likely to use the HSLDA analysis to understand your state's requirements, your documentation package should include the actual legal text. You should be able to get this from your state's education office or from a local library.
Written requirements presented to you by local school officials who will have oversight of your homeschool, if required. This should include what specifically you are required to do, who your contacts are, and when specific actions are due.
Minutes of any meetings or records of phone calls you have with local school officials.
Copies of any documents you submit regarding your homeschool, such as your notification to the state, along with documentation of how and when you submitted those documents.
Monitoring Legal Activity Regarding Homeschooling
It is a fact of life that education legislation changes frequently, and this can impact homeschooling. At any point in time, there is usually various legislative and legal activity occurring in several states that impact homeschooling in those states with the possibility of impacting it in other states as well.
Although you don't have to become a political activist when you homeschool, you should keep an eye on current activity in your state along with others to make sure that you are aware of any changes that might impact your homeschool. Homeschooling, like other rights, needs to be protected from the ever-increasing levels of government regulation and bureaucracy. To help with this, you need to be aware of what is happening.
The easiest and best way to keep informed is to participate in the HSLDA. In addition to providing information about state requirements, the HSLDA maintains a close watch on the legal activity regarding homeschooling in every state. You can get this information by visiting the HSLDA Web site (see Figure 3.7). The Legislation Watch area provides you with a summary of current legislative activity at the federal level and in each state with an assessment of how that legislation will impact homeschool (make it better, neutral, or worse).
Figure 3.7 You can use the Legislation Watch section of the HSLDA Web site to keep tabs on legislative activity at the federal and state levels that might impact your homeschool.
The HSLDA is involved in many of the court cases that involve homeschooling. These cases can have significant ramifications for all homeschoolers so it is good to be aware of them. Again, you can use the HSLDA Web page and other resources to know what is happening in this area.
The Absolute Minimum
The good news about the legal requirements for homeschooling is that most states are quite reasonable and you can usually comply with requirements with little additional activity. When thinking about homeschooling in your state, remember the following points:
All states have various regulations that govern education in those states, including homeschool education.
The types of regulations you will have to deal with vary widely among the different states. At the "low" end are states that don't require you to even provide notification about your homeschool. At the "high" end are states that require you to submit to some form of oversight. In all states, homeschooling is legal and you cannot be prevented from teaching your kids at home as long as you comply with the state requirements. Using the HSLDA Web site, it is easy to determine the regulations in your state.
In states that require some form of oversight by local school officials, you need to determine exactly what is required of you. You can do this directly with the officials who will have oversight of your homeschool. Most of these officials will be reasonable as long as you are cooperative with them.
If you live in a state that requires notification of your homeschool, make sure you file the proper paperwork by the deadline.
Keep a legal documentation file for your homeschool that includes copies of any and all documents relating to your compliance with government regulations. In addition to helping you understand exactly what you need to do, this file will be very helpful should there ever be some sort of legal challenge to your homeschool.
You should keep any eye on significant legislative and legal activity that might impact your homeschool. Again, the HSLDA is a great source for this information.