As homeschooling grows, children need protection

As homeschooling grows, children need protection

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With the pandemic forcing children to remain at least partly out of school during the approaching fall semester, more parents are considering the homeschool option. Indeed, interest surged so much in early July that a state homeschool registration website crashed.

While homeschooling is an excellent option for many families, providing both flexibility and certainty in these uncertain times, it can leave some children with no education at all. And right now, no one can do anything about it.

North Carolina laws related to homeschooling are lax. As long as a parent says she is homeschooling her child by registering the homeschool with the state, she can teach the world to her child — or teach nothing at all. No government agency has the right to judge the quality, or even the existence, of the education. Were a neighbor or relative to notice that a homeschooled child’s education was being neglected, they would have nowhere to turn: Neither the local board of education, the local department of social services, nor the state Division of Non-Public Education, which registers homeschools, has any authority to investigate such a complaint.

Even before the new interest in homeschooling was kick-started by the pandemic, the Division of Non-Public Education estimated that nearly 150,000 children are homeschooled in North Carolina. (Why is it just an estimate? Because the law does not require parents to identify the children being homeschooled; it requires only that the parent register the existence of a homeschool.) The parents of these children – who must have a high school diploma or G.E.D. but no further education or training – are in sole control of everything the child learns. While the law requires that the parents administer an annual “nationally standardized test” to each homeschooled child, the scores on the tests remain a private matter.

Fortunately, studies show that most homeschooled children do well academically. But as with many studies, the averages can mask the ends of the spectrum. In this case, while there are homeschooled children who excel in extraordinary ways, there are others whose scores would show (were anyone allowed to look) virtually no academic skills at all. That no one protects these latter children from the educational neglect should concern us all.

In general, homeschoolers fiercely prize their independence and their freedom to customize the content and pacing of the lessons. They would chafe under any new law that required all of them to submit reports or be subjected to onerous governmental reviews or other regulations. There’s no evidence that we need strict governmental oversight of the majority of homeschools that are capably educating children. But we do need something.

A new report from Duke Law School makes a modest proposal focused on the few homeschooled children whose educational needs are not being met by their parents. Protecting Homeschoolers recommends that “educational neglect” be included as an aspect of child neglect under state law. That would give local departments of social services the ability to receive a complaint, as it does for other types of child neglect, that a child’s educational needs were being neglected by the parents.

The ensuing investigation would entail an initial screening. Should the parents be able to show educational materials and evidence of the child’s academic progress, the investigation would be closed. Should the social worker have continued concerns, the case would be referred to the Division of Non-Public Education, which would contract with an educational expert to further review the situation. A finding of “educational neglect” could be solved by enrollment of the child in public or private school or by a showing, after a reasonable period of time, that the educational neglect has been remediated.

The proposal in Protecting Homeschoolers is meant to begin a conversation about the imperative that all homeschooled children get the education they need to ably function in the economy and democracy. The report presents preliminary ideas, designed to be a jumping off point for interested members of the General Assembly. A study committee that brings in stakeholders in the homeschooling world would be a good next step.

The state has both a constitutional and a moral obligation to ensure that every child has the opportunity to obtain a sound, basic education. Allowing homeschooling contributes to satisfying that obligation by increasing options for children whose needs can be better met outside of a traditional school. By failing to create any type of monitoring mechanism, however, the state leaves open the possibility that at least some children won’t get any schooling at all. We can do better by our children.

Jane R. Wettach is the William B. McGuire Clinical Professor Emerita of Law at Duke Law School.