Stephanie Kumor’s children start the day with a religion lesson before spreading out around the house to start their schoolwork.
Her ninth-grader attends classes through an online Catholic high school, while Kumor home-schools her sixth-grader, fourth-grader, second-grader and kindergartner. She follows a curriculum with her younger students, and they take tests each year to make sure they are staying on track.
Kumor, of Asbury, Iowa, uses a home-schooling option allowed by the State of Iowa that requires little to no interaction with a public school district, which she appreciates because of the freedom it affords.
Still, she has mixed feelings about the setup. She knows she works hard every day to educate her kids, but Kumor has seen cases in which children educated at home don’t keep up with their learning because there is little oversight.
“While I love that I don’t have to worry about that stuff, I do sometimes worry that people might take advantage of it and say that they’re independently home-schooling,” Kumor said.
In Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin, families who want to teach their children at home can do so with minimal regulation from the states in which they reside. In fact, compiling accurate counts of how many kids are home-schooled in Iowa and Illinois is difficult due to the lack of reporting requirements.
Home-school advocates and families say they appreciate the way the laws are structured because of the flexibility it provides for them to educate their children.
However, some lawmakers and organizations say those laws should provide more accountability. They worry that a system with little regulation creates opportunities for some children to slip through the cracks academically or, in some cases, to hide abuse.
“I think that having better accountability, for just regular touchpoints for our kids, is what’s needed in our home-schooling policy,” said Iowa Rep. Lindsay James, D-Dubuque.
Home schooling generally has been on the rise in recent years nationwide, and some officials reported a recent spike that could be connected to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In Wisconsin, where families are required to report home schooling to the state, the number of participating children was rising steadily, but there was a particularly large jump from fall 2019 to fall 2020.
The total climbed by 57%, to 26,641 as of Oct. 15, said Nicole Washington, a school administration consultant with the state’s Department of Public Instruction. State officials this fall reported that the public school district enrollment in Wisconsin was about 819,000.
“One could make an assumption that, based on the state of the pandemic and maybe families not feeling comfortable with in-person learning that a home-school approach might be a better fit for the families, but I can’t say with 100% certainty,” she said.
Officials from the Iowa Department of Education reported that the number of students enrolled in home-school assistance programs and dual enrolled public schools rose about 24% from fall 2019 to fall 2020, reaching 8,831. This fall, there were close to 507,000 public school students in Iowa.
Home-school assistance program numbers do not encompass all students receiving home education, however. In Iowa, families have options to teach their children at home without reporting it to the state, and officials said they would not have a way to know how many students are using those options.
In Dubuque Community School District, the number of home-schooled students that officials have record of is up about 50% this year. In late 2020, 26 students were participating in the district’s home-school assistance program, about 20 were dual-enrolled in the district for some classes or activities, and officials were aware of about 150 participating in independent private instruction.
District officials said the increase appeared to be connected to the pandemic.
A spokeswoman for the Illinois State Board of Education told the Telegraph Herald that the agency does not maintain “numerical data counts” of students who are being educated at home, and parents using the practice are not required to register with the state. State officials reported that the total enrollment in Illinois school districts was close to 2 million in the 2019-2020 school year.
In Iowa, families can select from home-schooling options that provide varying levels of interaction with public schools, including options that require none.
Families who teach their children at home are required to provide 148 days of instruction annually, but state officials leave it to them to meet that requirement, said Buffy Campbell, of the Iowa Department of Education.
“It’s an honor system,” she said.
Wisconsin requires families to teach certain subjects and offer a certain number of hours of instruction, but the law does not give agencies or districts the express authority to verify hours or curriculum.
“We always hope, and it’s the intent, that the parents, when they’re home-schooling their children, that they are making sure that they are following said requirements because if not, then it’s the child that suffers at the end,” Washington said.
Illinois only requires that families provide instruction in certain subject areas, and families do not have to register with the state. A spokeswoman for the state Board of Education declined a request for an interview for this story.
In contrast, some other states have far more stringent rules.
In Pennsylvania, for example, supervisors of home-school programs must have a high school diploma or equivalent, and adults living in the home must not have been convicted of certain crimes in the previous five years. Students must be interviewed and have a portfolio reviewed annually by a “qualified home education evaluator” who certifies that appropriate education is taking place.
Advocates for home education said they value laws that allow them to operate independently of much state oversight.
“We’re pretty happy with the way things are right now,” said Bill Gustoff, legislative liaison for Homeschool Iowa. “In fact, most support organizations in other states envy the laws we have here in Iowa.”
Cause for concern?
However, advocates of increased regulation say they believe lax laws create opportunities for some families to abuse the system.
“It’s not that parents can’t and don’t home-school well,” said Rachel Coleman, executive director of Coalition for Responsible Home Education. “It’s just, in absence of oversight, you’re going to have parents use home schooling for reasons other than educating their children.”
In particular, she worries about abusive parents who realize they can remove children from schools under the guise of home schooling, which further isolates the kids and could put them at risk for escalating abuse.
She cited a 2018 report from the State of Connecticut’s Office of the Child Advocate. In it, officials reported that of 380 students withdrawn from six districts to be home-schooled over three years, 36% came from families that were the subject of “at least one prior accepted report” of suspected abuse or neglect.
In Iowa, 16-year-old Sabrina Ray died in 2017 following years of abuse by her adoptive parents. Marc and Misty Ray, who were convicted of multiple felonies stemming from the case, pulled Sabrina from school purportedly to home-school her in the years before her death. Allegations of abuse were made against the couple both before and after Sabrina was pulled from school.
“It is very well known that isolation is a risk factor of abuse, and home schooling offers parents the ultimate ability to isolate their child,” Coleman said.
She also cited concerns about families removing their children from school to avoid truancy prosecution, as well as families who want to educate their children but don’t follow through or miss parts of their education because there isn’t accountability.
“It’s not like oversight of home schooling is about just about penalizing people,” Coleman said. “It is a positive way to provide motivation and ensure that people … provide education in each subject and that things just don’t slip through the cracks.”
Coleman’s organization would like to see states require a basic screening to assess for potential risk factors such as a founded child welfare report. They also advocate for an annual notice of home schooling from families and an annual assessment in which a child has contact with a mandatory reporter of abuse concerns.
“It gets the child in front of a person, which in most cases, the kid’s fine, (and) it’s not going to be an issue,” Coleman said. “But in some cases, that can mean a huge difference.”
Gustoff, though, argued that putting more oversight on home-school families is “a solution in search of a problem.”
“I don’t know what they’re looking for,” Gustoff said. “There’s not rampant abuse. The kids are outperforming their peers … so I’m not sure what they think adding regulation is going to do other than distract parents from teaching their children.”
He said there is not evidence that home-schooled children are more likely to be abused than their peers, noting that cases of abuse also can happen within schools and that high-profile cases of abused children who were home-schooled don’t mean there is a widespread issue.
Adding regulations for parents doesn’t add to their children’s education, and bringing officials into the homes of families for regulatory purposes is disruptive, he argued.
“If we’re not taking state resources, we don’t think we need to be reporting to the state on how we’re doing it,” Gustoff said. “Nobody has a more vested interest in making sure their children are educated than a parent.”
Gustoff pointed to a study published in 2010 that examined nearly 12,000 home-school students and found that their mean achievement test scores were in at least the 80th percentile on every subtest as one piece of evidence for home schooling’s effectiveness.
The Coalition for Responsible Home Education has criticized that study, arguing that the sample of families is not comparable to the U.S. population because participants were more likely to be white, Christian and from highly educated families than the population at large.
The authors of a 2020 article in the journal “Other Education” reviewed academic texts on home schooling and found that it appears to improve students’ verbal skills but “weaken their math capacities” and that it doesn’t have much of an effect on student achievement after controlling for family background.
The article notes that there are some limitations on available research into the practice, though available scholarship has started to improve.
One challenge is collecting data when states vary in their practices.
Another limitation is political partisanship in some research, including academics who have written about home schooling who “have come out clearly as critics of the approach,” as well as those whose research has been funded by advocates of home education.
The authors also note that there has been “almost no” peer-reviewed research into the relationship between home schooling and abuse, partly because of the lack of comprehensive data. This area is one where more research is needed, they wrote.
Concerns about state home-school regulations have prompted some lawmakers to press for more oversight.
At the outset of the Iowa Legislature’s 2021 session, state Rep. Bruce Hunter, D-Des Moines, filed a bill that would require districts to conduct quarterly visits with families providing home instruction to check on children’s health and safety. It would also require families to report some basic information to their district.
Hunter said he started filing the bill annually a few years ago following incidents such as the death of Sabrina Ray. He said he does not want to interfere with how parents believe their children should be educated, but he wants there to be a way to make sure children are safe.
“If we can even stop one or two kids a year from being abused in the guise of home schooling, I think it’s well worth it,” he said.
Iowa Sen. Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque, said she would like to work with lawmakers to press for more accountability in the state’s home-school law. She would like to see districts make regular check-ins with families to ensure they are fulfilling educational requirements. At a minimum, she said parents should be required to notify districts if their children are being home-schooled.
“We need to know if those children are really safe and well-educated,” she said.
State Sen. Mike Klimesh, R-Spillville, said he feels Iowa’s current requirements are appropriate. He noted the importance of giving families choice and not tying them down with additional regulations and said situations of abuse can happen regardless of children’s educational environment.
“I think, again, it would be not something that I would want to support, putting additional regulations on the parents,” Klimesh said.
Illinois Rep. Andrew Chesney, R-Freeport, offered his full support for his state’s approach to home-schooling, which he said allows parents full flexibility with how they teach.
He said that if there are issues, they should be looked into, but he does not believe there are systemic problems in the current system.
“I don’t think the government needs to get into homes and tell parents what’s best for their kids,” he said. “I think that it’s an application and parenting style that works for some, and for others, they chose public school or private school, and I think we need to have educational flexibility.”
Wisconsin Rep. Travis Tranel, R-Cuba City, said he generally has been impressed by his interactions with home-schooled students and that he has not heard concerns about the practice during his years in the Legislature.
“Based on the experiences that I’ve had in the Legislature — and I also represent two institutions of higher learning — I have never gotten any complaints that our home-school children aren’t getting a proper and equitable education, so I’m comfortable with current law,” he said.
Tracey Gerrard, of Dubuque, has five children, three of whom she is home-schooling.
Gerrard said she is most comfortable with minimal government oversight of the practice. Indeed, it is one of the reasons her family moved to Iowa.
“I think it’s fine if local districts understand that there are children being educated in people’s homes or in a different school or whatever,” she said. “That makes sense to know that there is a population that is elsewhere, but I think that that’s where it should end.”
She said that while it would not be difficult to answer for her home-schooling decisions, it feels like an extra, unnecessary step.
“It’s an extra step and an extra stressor, but it’s not necessary as long as you have the best thing in mind for your student,” she said.
Kumor said her experience with home-schooling her children has been very positive
“For us, it’s been fantastic because my kids, they don’t struggle, so we’ve been able to let them do things above their grade level,” she said. “They aren’t held back by where everybody’s at.”
Kumor uses independent private instruction largely because she isn’t interested at this point in dual-enrolling her children in public schools. However, she has her children take district-sponsored standardized tests each year to make sure they are progressing.
She said she wishes there was more support for home-schooling, such as funds to purchase curriculum and required state testing. She knows the tradeoff would be more regulation, but that is something she would be OK with.
However, the purpose of that support should be to provide assistance to children who need extra help and not to force anything on parents. Kumor said states with too many requirements seem to miss that parents love their children and want them to succeed.
“There’s got to be a happy medium,” she said.