Case in point: Arkansas.
In the 1980s, only a few hundred students were homeschooled in the state, and in 1992, only 3,140 were. But by 2002, that number had grown to 12,497. In 2011, more than 16,000 students were homeschooled, which was 3.5 percent of the state's 468,000 public school students.
In Arkansas, the state’s education board, like many others in the country, is now grappling with how to keep count of students who enroll in homeschool programs but later drop out. The state, like many others, doesn’t have a tracking system for these students.
Last year, Arkansas went from 17,500 homeschooled students at the start of the school year to about 16,400 by year’s end. It’s unclear whether the missing students enrolled in public or private schools or simply dropped out of the homeschool education program.
Another problem facing Arkansas’s education board is standardized testing. Arkansas law requires that norm-referenced testing for public school students in third and ninth grades. But other standardized tests are not required for homeschooled students, making it impossible to compare proficiency.
According to the website International Center for Home Education Research, which was founded this year, state-by-state regulations for homeschooling vary significantly.
Some states like Alaska, Missouri, and Idaho don’t require notification or registration with the state. In fact, nearly a quarter of states don't require registration or provide notification.
Many states don’t even require minimum instruction time or the teaching of state-mandated subjects. Arkansas, however, does require information about intended curricula and a planned instructional schedule to be submitted with notification along with information about the educational qualifications of parents. But like many states, Arkansas doesn’t require kept attendance records on how often students attend class.
Kimberly A. Yuracko, a law professor at Northwestern University, makes the case that “state statutes and the Equal Protection clause of the U.S. Constitution require that states have a responsibility to regulate homeschooling in certain respects.”
An associate professor of education at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa., Milton Gaither has done extensive research on homeschooling and authored the book, Homeschool: An American History. He notes, “A homeschooling family that is doing its job should have no fear of outside evaluation–should welcome it in fact, as it will demonstrate to the public at large how effective homeschooling can be.”
Arkansas isn’t alone in not requiring homeschooled students to take the same standardized tests as their public school peers. Many states do not require that, and in those, like Texas and Pennsylvania, many parents prefer homeschooling. They argue on various websites that they do not want to send their children to conventional public schools where often the focus seems on standardized tests.
According to ICHER, a 2007 survey shows 1.5 million students were homeschooled that year. Many academics who study homeschool education say that number is closer to two million now but it’s hard to know because of such lax reporting rules throughout the country.
As homeschooling increases in rural like Arkansas and metro areas like New York City, lawmakers will have to find a delicate balance between respecting family privacy on homeschooling and the avoidance of red tape and bureaucracy with the needs of students to be properly educated.
Do you think there needs to be more accountability when it comes to homeschooling? Tell us in comments.
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Suzi Parker is an Arkansas-based political and cultural journalist whose work frequently appears in The Washington Post and The Christian Science Monitor. She is the author of two books. @SuziParker | TakePart.com