Legality of Homeschooling

In the U.S., homeschooling is legal, although in some states homeschool parents are occasionally threatened with prosecution under truancy laws if they fail to comply with the law as it relates to homeschooling. For example, the family failed to properly withdraw a student from public school triggering suspicion of truancy, or the family failed to file the appropriate paperwork with the state in order to homeschool (if the state required it).

Every state has some form of a compulsory attendance law that requires children in a certain age range to spend a specific amount of time being educated. The most common way for parents to meet these requirements is to have their children attend public school. However, since its 1925 ruling in Pierce vs. Society of Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, 268 U.S. 510 (1925), the US Supreme Court has held that there can be no presumption on the part of the state that this attendance requirement must be met through public schooling. Initially the impact of this ruling was to protect the rights of families to privately educate their children, particularly in parochial schools. But, since the 1970s, increasing numbers of families have opted to meet these legal attendance requirements through homeschooling.

Every state regulates homeschooling differently. The biggest differences may be found in what the state requires of parents who opt to homeschool their children. Some states may require as little as the filing of notices of intent with local school officials; others may require that lesson plans be approved in advance by the local school board. More onerous requirements even include the need to have a credentialed teacher supervise the homeschooled child's education. Proponents of such regulations argue that such requirements are a necessity in order to achieve the societal goal of having an educated public who are prepared to participate in democratic society.

In California, for example, homeschoolers must either (a) be part of a public homeschooling program through independent study or a charter school, (b) use a credentialed tutor, or (c) enroll their children in a qualified private school. (Such private schools may be formed by the parents in their own home, or parents may utilize a number of private schools which offer some kind of independent study or distance learning options.) All persons who operate private schools in California, including parents forming schools just for their own children, must file an annual affidavit with the Department of Education. They must offer certain courses of study (generally similar to the content required in public schools, but described in one page rather than the hundreds of pages of scope and sequence requirements that public schools must follow) and must keep attendance records, but are otherwise not subject to any state oversight. There is no requirement in California that any private school teachers, whether the school is large or small, must have state credentials, although all teachers must be "capable of teaching."

States also differ in their requirements regarding testing and assessment. In some states, homeschoolers are required either to have their children take specified standardized tests or to have a narrative evaluation done by qualified teachers. Other states require no particular assessment. Again, using California as an example, students enrolled in a public program are encouraged to take the same year-end standardized tests that all public school students take, but students using tutors or enrolled in any private school, homeschool or not, are not required by the state to take any tests.

There are also differences between the states in graduating children from homeschools. In states in which homeschools must be or can be operated as any other private school, graduation requirements for all private schools in that state generally also apply to the homeschools. Some state education laws have no graduation requirements for private schools, leaving it up to the private schools to determine which students have met the graduation requirements, and thusly allowing homeschoolers the same privilege. And in yet other states, homeschoolers receive no official recognition that is equivalent to graduation. Independent homeschoolers in Florida, for example, cannot truthfully claim to have "graduated", even after completing twelve years of homeschooling. (However, Florida does grant such students equal access to the state's system of community colleges and universities.)

Homeschooling is increasingly becoming recognized as a legal, viable alternative to institutional education, and fewer families are being targeted for prosecution. In an unintended demonstration of the increasing acceptance of homeschooling, the outgoing Superintendent of Public Instruction for the state of California, Delaine Eastin, caused a furor by telling the state legislature that homeschooling was illegal and that families could not form private schools themselves or teach their children without credentials. She called for a legislative "solution" to the growing "problem" of homeschooling. The legislature balked at taking any action. Then, Ms. Eastin's successor, Jack O'Connell, instructed his legal staff to review the state laws. Homeschooling advocates were informed by one of the Department of Education attorneys that the state was reversing the position it had taken under Ms. Eastin's tenure. Statements that parents could not teach their own children or form their own private schools were removed from the state Department of Education web site. Although some officials still maintain traditional views, truancy prosecutions in California are much rarer now than they were under Ms. Eastin's leadership. Those prosecutions that are still pursued routinely fail, and district attorneys now usually refuse to file such cases.

What curriculum materials homeschoolers are required to use varies from state to state. As stated before, in some states, homeschoolers are required to have their yearly lesson plans approved by a state official. Other states just require that certain subjects be covered, with the family to acquire or design the curriculum themselves. While many complete curricula are available from a wide variety of secular and religious sources, many families choose to use a variety of resources to cover the required subjects. There is at least one company offering a home-school curriculum which has also formed "virtual schools" under several states' charter school laws; in these schools, students are required to use that company's curriculum, although it is provided for free.

Some states have statutes that specifically require that homeschooled students be given access to district resources, such as school libraries or computer labs. In some communities, homeschoolers meet with a teacher periodically for curriculum review and suggestions. Many other states, however, do not require that the public schools give this access to resources, although some districts choose to do so voluntarily.

Homeschooling is far less common outside the United States, and in many countries the concept borders on the unthinkable. In every country, however, there are undoubtedly some families who have found a way around that country's compulsory attendance laws. The operator of a well known private distance learning school in the United States has helped families from many different countries around the world find a way to homeschool.