Debate heats up around changing Michigan’s homeschooling laws

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Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel and a Democratic state lawmaker are calling for more state oversight into homeschooling following recent reports of child abuse where officials say homeschool helped conceal mistreatment by caregivers.

Michigan has virtually no requirements to make sure homeschooled children are really receiving an education. Advocates for the education method say parents should not have to be held accountable by the government for making decisions about their own children. But a case out of Clinton County announced Monday by Nessel highlights why some requirements should be in place, she said.

At school, officials can sometimes spot when a child faces abuse at home. In the Clinton County case, Nessel's office charged two couples — Jerry and Tamal Flore and Tammy and Joel Brown — in what is described as a conspiracy to financially profit from adopting nearly 30 children, some of whom they are accused of abusing.

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel pictured in Sept. 2019.
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel pictured in Sept. 2019.

But the abuse was shielded, the attorney general said.

"One reason why this abuse was able to go undetected in the Flore home ... was due to the fact that all the children were homeschooled," Nessel said. She added: "There has to be some sort of monitoring so that those children also benefit from those protections."

State Rep. Matt Koleszar, D-Plymouth, chair of the House Education Committee, wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter: "Michigan is one of only 11 states that doesn’t count or register homeschooled children, and abusive parents are taking advantage of that to avoid being found out."

In an interview with the Detroit Free Press, Koleszar said, "The vast majority of homeschool parents do an excellent job and I totally respect their right and appreciate their ability to do it." But at schools, students are in the presence of mandated reporters and adults who might be able to recognize abuse. Homeschool students may not be around those kinds of adults, he said.

"It would be responsible for us to know who is being homeschooled," he said. "I don't think that is inhibiting anybody's ability to be a homeschool parent. ... Just simply knowing who is being homeschooled is good."

Home school accountability debate heats up

It appears the debate around whether Michigan's homeschooling laws should be strengthened may be gaining traction. A Washington Post story published Dec. 2 recounted the murder and abuse of an 11-year-old Michigan boy whose stepmom claimed she was homeschooling.

State Rep. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit, and Detroit City Councilwoman Mary Sheffield announce proposed changes to the state's homeschooling system on April 17, 2015 outside of the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center. The proposed changes come after two children, Stoni Blair and Stephen Berry, were found dead in a Detroit apartment. The children had reportedly been taken out of school to be homeschooled. Their family members attended the news conference.

Such calls for regulation aren't new. In 2015, leaders called for more accountability around homeschooling after a mother removed her two children from public school for homeschool, then abused and murdered them. In 2022, the Detroit Free Press published an investigation into lax homeschooling regulations, highlighting the case of a then-12-year-old child who concerned family members said could not read due to educational neglect under the guise of homeschooling.

The family members then pleaded with lawmakers, school officials and anyone who would listen for help, but were told repeatedly that no one could compel the parents to send their children to school. State law does mandate that children must be educated, from ages 6 to 18, but no one enforces that law, the Free Press found.

Michigan Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Dayna Polehanki, D-Livonia, said Tuesday she put in a request with the Legislature’s research arm for information on the history and regulations of homeschooling in Michigan. She said she believes the vast majority of homeschooling parents do a good job educating their children, and she wants to learn more about the topic, she said. But broadly, she thinks there’s value in getting a better handle on the number of kids homeschooled in Michigan.

“I can see some conversations being had in the new year about finding some way just to simply, you know, record the number of kids being homeschooled. With the purpose being not to go after homeschool parents — the purpose being to figure out if there are kids in Michigan, and how many, who aren’t being educated at all. That absolutely needs to be known,” Polehanki said in a phone interview.

Koleszar said it's important that any legislation doesn't prevent homeschooling.

"We know that from the pandemic, a lot of kids didn't return to school," he said. "Well, it's important to know who all those kids are."

In 2015, lawmakers proposed requiring parents and caregivers to register their children as homeschooled with their local school district. The children would have to meet twice a year with an adult outside the home, such as a pediatrician, licensed social worker, counselor or teacher. But the proposal was met with an avalanche of opposition from homeschooling advocates and families.

That resistance isn't going away.

Rep. Jaime Greene, R-Richmond, serves on the House Education Committee and is a homeschool parent. She blasted any registration requirements.

“Requiring homeschool students to register with the state is an egregious violation of parental rights, an invasion of privacy, and an unwarranted government overreach," Greene said in a statement Tuesday.

"This homeschool registration proposal not only disregards parental rights but also misguidedly focuses on regulating a successful and legitimate educational choice, diverting attention and resources away from addressing systemic problems within government agencies.”

Just minutes after Nessel's press conference Monday and a few days after the Washington Post published its piece, the Michigan Christian Homeschool Network posted on Facebook that the organization "is unequivocally opposed to any and all abuse of children. We believe those who abuse children should be prosecuted by the adequate child abuse laws that already exist in our state."

Homeschool advocates have long challenged requirements that would involve state oversight. In 1993, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled in a 4-3 decision that a requirement for homeschool teachers to be certified was unconstitutional. That decision helped paved the way for homeschooling to take off in the state, though the exact number of students homeschooled in Michigan is unknown.

Israel Wayne, with the Michigan Christian Homeschool Network, said that his organization believes additional oversight would not decrease reports of child abuse. Instead, Wayne said cases such as the Flore and Brown case should lead to more calls into accountability over Children's Protective Services.

"But there's often failure on the part of Child Protective Services to adequately prosecute known cases of child abuse," he said. "And so we would see many of these cases as being reflective more of a systemic problem within Child Protective Services than a systemic problem within home education."

Matt Mencarini of the Lansing State Journal contributed reporting to this story.

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This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan AG, lawmakers call for homeschool oversight amid abuse cases