Homeschooling To Avoid the Truancy Officer

There is a homeschool truancy problem. To be more specific, there is currently a problem with parents of chronically truant children claiming that they homeschool in order to get around truancy laws and avoid prosecution, and then not actually homeschooling. I’m not talking about people who make the choice to homeschool their children for religious or educational or social reasons and then set about making an effort to give them a good education—I’m talking about parents who deliberatly make use of lax homeschooling laws to conceal and enable educational neglect, never intending to actually homeschool. And public school administrators, truancy officers, and state attorneys know that this is a problem.

Homechool laws in many states are so lax that homeschoolers aren’t required to register—or in some cases, to even tell their local school district that they are withdrawing their child to homeschool. In states that do have registration requirements and other regulations on homeschooling, these laws are often unenforced. As a result, there were in 2006 1,708,764 children unaccounted for in the United States, children who existed on the census but not on any list kept by state departments of education, whether that be public schoolers, private schoolers, or homeschoolers (in the states with registration). We literally have no way of knowing whether or not these children are actually being educated.

Now let’s turn to some examples, starting with article published just last week. Public school officials in Rapid City, South Dakota, have done more to crack down on truancy this year than in the past, but, as the article reveals, the state’s lax homeschooling laws have gotten in the way of their efforts.

In Rapid City, school administrators have taken a number of proactive approaches to promote good attendance, but sometimes their efforts aren’t enough and the Pennington County State’s Attorneys Office has to get involved. Still, some parents have found a way to avoid the legal repercussions:  they homeschool. “There is sometimes a movement for parents to come in and as soon as truancy procedures start then they’ll put in a homeschool application,” Superintendent Dr. Tim Mitchell said.

In South Dakota a parent can fill out a homeschool application and take their child out of school the next day. “All they’ve done is fill out an application and we’ve sent it to the state and they become homeschooled – that’s all it take in South Dakota,” Dr. Mitchell said.

While there is a statute that requires homeschool parents to keep educational records, the school must have probable cause to check them. “We have to have some sort of a complaint that has to be investigated,” Dr. Mitchell continued.

Next, let’s look at what a truancy officer in Michigan has to say:

Michigan has among the least restrictive homeschooling laws in the nation: A parent who wants to homeschool can declare their intent, and that’s that.

One person who says that’s a problem is Jerry Jansma, the Kalamazoo County attendance officer who investigates truancy cases.

Jansma said that Michigan’s liberal home-schooling law is a way for parents and students to skirt school-attendance requirements.

The home-school law is abused up and down, left and right,” Jansma said in an interview last week about truancy issues. “I despise that law, because the families I deal with use as a loophole. Happens all the time.

You’ll have a parent who is clearly neglectful and we can’t get resolution, and they’ll say, ‘I’ve decided to home-school my child’ and there’s nothing I can do about it.”

Now let’s turn to a state attorney in Illinois:

[State attorney Charles] Garnati stressed that he supports home-schooling in general, just not for parents who abuse the privilege.

Some parents have allowed their children to be truant from public schools, and when threatened with legal action, have pulled their children from that school to avoid prosecution, Garnati said.

“It’s what I call an end around,” Garnati said. “These are parents who have no intention of home-schooling their child. Unfortunately, there is no law on the books that criminalizes improper home schooling. What concerns me are those children who are chronically truant from school.”

“People don’t have to register with our office if they decide to home-school their kids,” Sullivan said. “The only way we know the student is being home-schooled is if the parent pulls the student from the school for whatever reason or if we get a report that the student has been seen out on the streets. Otherwise, it’s hard to track.”

How often do educationally neglectful parents use homeschooling as a loophole to avoid truancy laws? While we have articles like the ones above, and also anecdotal evidence of this phenomenon, we don’t really have much data to answer that question. What we do have is data collected by Stephen L. Endress in pursuit of a Ph.D. in educational administration at Illinois State University (read his full dissertation here).

Endress sent out surveys to 3,506 public school principals and received 594 filled-out surveys. This isn’t a great response rate (only 16.9%), which makes generalizing difficult, but the results are interesting nonetheless. The 594 principals who filled out surveys reported that a total of 679 students had been withdrawn from their schools to be homeschooled in the past twelve months.

Endress asked the principals for the reasons these students’ parents gave for withdrawing to homeschool and then asked them what they thought were the actual reasons these students were withdrawn to homeschool. The results were as follows:

In other words, when principles in Illinois were asked why they thought children were being withdrawn to homeschool, the answer in 25.8% of the cases was to “avoid compulsory attendance laws (truancy). In Iowa this was the answer for 25.9% of the cases. Of course, it would be easy to suggest that these principals were wrong and that the parents of these children really did intend to homeschool them and were not actually using homeschool laws to get out of any responsibility toward educating their children. But even then, you would have to grapple with the fact that in 17.3% of the cases when Illinois parents withdrew their children from these principals’ schools, and in 14.4% of the cases in Iowa, those parents actually admitted that they were doing so to avoid compulsory attendance laws.

Endress’s numbers aren’t perfect. The response rate was low and his data is based solely on self-reporting by public school principals. But what Endress’s data does make clear is that there is indeed a problem with homeschooling laws being used as a loophole by the parents of truant homeschooled children—and that this problem is not insignificant. Endress also shared some comments principals left on the survey:

Students avoiding compulsory attendance laws was of primary concern to most principals in Illinois and Iowa. An Illinois principal of a 200-student school said, “My past experience with students withdrawing to be home-schooled was to avoid the compulsory attendance law. I would like to see some regulations on home-school.” An Iowa principal of a 300-student public school agreed. “From my experience, the number one reason has been to avoid legal issues related to truancy. I have had a number of younger high school students with a pattern of poor attendance coming into high school, who once we get juvenile court involved withdraw from school claiming that they are going to be home-schooled. It isn’t a question of the quality of education received because they do not receive any. It is basically a step taken to stay one step ahead of authorities.”

Educationally neglectful parents’ use of lax homeschooling laws to avoid truancy prosecution is a serious problem, but I should probably take a brief moment to note a related problem as well. Namely, some public school officials in states with lax homeschooling laws have actually been encouraging dropouts to say that they’re being withdrawn to homeschool and thus lowering the school’s dropout rate. In other words, they abuse their states’ lax homeschooling laws so that they can wash their hands of dropouts and boost their school’s funding by artificially boosting their graduation rate. There are a million and one reasons this isn’t okay, and some states have become aware of this practice and are cracking down on it. Still, as long as homeschooling law requires nothing more of homeschoolers than dropping out of school, it’s not surprising that it would be used to cook the books.

It seems to me that there is ample room for homeschooling parents who are working hard to educate their children to favor basic regulation as a way to ensure that homeschooling laws are not being abused. Reader Mary recently made this point quite succinctly, although she was specifically referring to the sort of educational neglect that can occur when parents homeschool because their religious lifestyle demands it rather than out of a desire to actually give their children a good education:

Yes it is tragic to see parents use homeschooling for their own selfish means. I have homeschooled for many years, and I still believe there needs to be more accountability. I have seen cases where the mom keeps having babies every year, and after some time just can’t school anymore. Yet they would not ever consider regular or private school. Very sad. Years ago, we saw a few kids at a homeschool co-op who were in 2nd grade, yet could not even write their own names, much less read or understand math. When we met mom, she was pregnant yet again, tired, and cranky. The kids did not have learning disabilities, just a worn-out mom. Sorry to ramble, but this just makes me so angry. It makes genuine homeschool families suspect.

Perhaps more homeschoolers will come to this same conclusion and there will be necessary willpower to bring about change. After all, if the laws were changed to make it easier for school districts to tell genuine homeschooling families from those who claim homeschooling to cover truancy, these homeschool families could be more sure that they wouldn’t be mistakenly seen as truant. Until then, though, lax homeschooling laws will continue to allow the parents of truant children to circumvent compulsory education laws without requiring them to actually lift a finger to educate their children.

  • AnotherOne

    Yes. This phenomenon needs to be more thoroughly investigated and publicized. Anecdotally it’s something I’m hearing more and more about. I’ve mentioned before in a comment that I know of two cases where “homeschooling” has been claimed to avoid truancy laws, and the teenagers in question are completely unsupervised and do no schooling. I think this is happening more and more in rural low income areas like the place I live, and particularly in states with lax regulation. Honestly, rather than sending out letters to school principals, someone should do an in-person study of a rural county in, say, southern Indiana or eastern Texas where they personally interview school administrators and families and see what turns up. Some good friends of mine (who incidentally are conservative Christians and who have been very favorably inclined toward homeschooling in the past) work for the school district in a county similar to mine, just across the border in a state with some of the laxest laws in the nation. They’ve become increasingly alarmed at the number of truant high schoolers who, as soon as a truant officer shows up, are suddenly being “homeschooled” by parents with histories of drug abuse, domestic violence, and imprisonment.

    • staceyjw

      These days, a huge percentage of the population has been in prison, has a criminal record, often for minor offenses, past drug use, or even totally made up stuff. These people often do get worse in jail, and go on to gain real convictions, in addition to the smaller amount of true criminals.

      I think we all know that our a system is seriously racist and skewed towards punishing the poor/minorities. Maybe we ought to quit making every single issue a criminal issue, and start dealing with problems in a more rational way.

      NO WONDER these parents take their kids out of school. They feel targeted and do not want their kids in jail, and cannot afford to fight back. No education is bad, but jail is worse, and follows you forever.

      • AnotherOne

        That’s a good issue to consider, though I don’t think minor children can be jailed for truancy (It’s my understanding that in extreme cases the parents can be, though, in which case the child could be placed in the foster care system or with relatives).

        But yes, I do worry about how we criminalize everything, and I want to see fewer people in the criminal “justice” system. I just think we can address that issue *and* reform homeschooling regulations to prevent homeschooling being used as a cover for neglect.

      • trinity91

        and jailing the parents because a 16 year old skips school accomplishes what exactly? Also children CAN be sent to juvenile detention for truancy in some states.

      • AnotherOne

        I wasn’t saying that I think it’s ok for parents (or juveniles) to be jailed for truancy. Far from it; I think there are often problems behind truancy that are best addressed through comprehensive support of the student and his/her parents/guardians.

        To repeat myself, I think that we need to address *both* issues. We need to change overly harsh truancy laws and our society’s terrible tendency to criminalize behavior, preferably with the kind of systemic support of at-risk children that Sally alludes to. But using lax homeschooling laws as a loophole to avoid truancy charges is not the answer. The way homeschooling regulations currently stand in many states allows parents to use them as a cover for child neglect and as a way to avoid dealing with the problems behind their children’s truancy.

  • Conuly

    On the plus side, comparatively few of the principals think parents are mostly homeschooling to avoid (presumably valid) abuse charges.

  • http://lanahobbs.wordpress.com/ lana hobbs

    this is all frustrating me, how homeschooling can be abused but homeschoolers – in general – are too afraid of losing their rights to support laws that would protect children’s rights (in fact, some genuinely believe children HAVE no right to be educated, or no rights at all except not to be killed until they grow up and get married…) but can we just take a moment and picture parents walking into an office Michael Scott style and announcing “I Declare …. homeschooling!’. then oscar coming up and explaining you can’t just say ‘homeschooling’. (‘i didn’t say it, i declared it!’). (there was an episode of The Office in which Mike tried to ‘declare bankruptcy’.)

  • Chelsea Saunders

    Who’s to say they aren’t unschooling? Regardless of their motivation for doing so, the effect is that they ARE unschooling.

    • Petticoat Philosopher

      I feel like there might be some unschoolers out there who would object to their movement being characterized as simply “not going to school.” Isn’t there more to it than that? Like, you know, actual learning? Seems to be, at least in theory. If there isn’t in practice, then nobody has any business being part of it.

    • Sally

      Ideally, unschooling is a rich educational experience. Declaring you’re homeschooling in order to avoid truancy and then doing nothing is not unschooling. I’d call that “not schooling” or just plain old lying.

    • AnotherOne

      If “unschooling” consists of learning from your parents how to obtain, use, and sell oxycontin and to hold your own in a series of domestic melees, then yes, the two families I’ve known who used homeschooling as a way to get around truancy laws are unschooling.
      (As an aside, I often thank my lucking stars that no one knew about unschooling in the 80s when my parents homeschooled. The last thing they needed was an educational philosophy that provided them even more cover for teaching us nothing).

  • Monala

    “admitting you are homeschooling to avoid compulsory attendance laws” reminds me of the movie, Trinity Goodheart. The title character is a biracial girl being raised by her African-American single dad who goes in search of her maternal and paternal grandparents. She’s never met any of them because both sets of grandparents disowned their children when they got together. The movie was an attempt by the Gospel Music Channel to make a film that was less overtly religious, and more diverse and relevant than their usual fare, and it actually was pretty good.

    The relevance here is that early in the movie, the dad is called into the school because Trinity is frequently truant – in part because she’s trying to avoid the bullying at her Boston middle school, and in part because her dad, a musician who often plays gigs late at night, frequently can’t get up early enough to get her to school on time.

    The principal tells the dad that Trinity is a nice, respectful kid who does well academically when she’s in school, but is at risk of having the juvenile authorities get involved if her attendance doesn’t improve.

    In response, the dad says he’s going to pull her out of school and homeschool her. When the principal challenges that decision, the dad asks him how many kids at the school are involved in gangs, drugs or sex.

    “A lot,” the principal admits.

    “So you want me to keep my daughter, who’s not involved in any of those things, in your school, where she’ll be exposed to a lot of kids who are?” the dad asks. “You think you can keep her safer than I can?”

    The principal concedes his point, and lets him go, wishing him luck.

    From that point on, you never see the dad teach his daughter anything. (Well, he teaches her about music and some life lessons, but he was doing that before anyway). Trinity is bright and motivated enough that she does a lot of reading and learning on her own, but that can’t make up for having more formal education. And then she sets off on her quest to find her grandparents, and academics are completely forgotten.

    • Christine

      I actually know someone who, back in the day, was counselled to drop out of high school (by the vice principal I think) due to the fact that he was hanging out with a rough crowd. I’m fairly sure that, given the situation as it stood, that was probably the best thing for him. However the situation itself shouldn’t have happened. I don’t know if the board didn’t have a gifted programme (they weren’t as big back then), or if there was just an assumption that a rough-and-tumble kid from a working-class immigrant family would never need to be in that programme, but had he had proper spec ed classes he might have graduated at the time.

  • Saraquill

    And then these children who are inadequately educated become adults, and they go hungry because they do not have the skills to enter the workforce. This is frustrating.

  • Staceyjw

    I cannot be upset about this, because truancy laws are not helpful, and can be actively harmful, so its good there is a work around.

    Why?

    Because we treat this problem just like we do every problem in America- we make it a criminal issue, and throw people in jail, with zero understanding of why the kid is even missing school. Using HS as an excuse is merely a reaction to UNJUST laws.

    Keeping kids OUT of the juvenile “justice” system in America is vitally important, because once you are in, its hard, and costly, to get out. Having a record can follow you for life, so why wouldn’t a parent want to avoid this by just saying they are going to HS? Maybe if the penalties were not INSANE (in CA you often need a freaking LAWYER!!! Who can afford this?), people wouldn’t feel forced to remove kids from school all together!

    And don’t say “just go to school then!” because it only takes either/a combo of: 3 unexcused absences, 3 tardies, or 3 absences of 30 min each to be truant in CA, and other states are similar! Oh, no breaks for medically fragile or mentally ill or disabled kids either. Please don’t tell me this is likely to be meted out fairly either.

    Fining parents, sending parents to jail, taking away a whole families assistance (with no care for the problems poverty brings, like homelessness) labeling a kid chronically truant, and getting everyone in trouble with the law is not the way to keep kids in school. Its such an American response, which means, its unlikely to work and be heavy on punishment of the poor and vulnerable, besides being generally racist.

    Should there be better regulation? Yes. Do kids deserve education? Yes. But please do not assume truancy laws are helping this one bit.

    • tsara

      Citations? If this is true, then it deserves looking into and fixing.

      I’m not American, and didn’t go through the public school system anyway; I’ve been under the impression that truancy laws (both specifically the ones we have around here and more generally) have few drawbacks, but am now considering the likelihood I would have noticed any contraindications even if they did exist.

      Also, assuming that requiring attendance at some form of school is more ethical a priori than not doing so* (also feel free to offer whatever arguments you have against that principle independent of the real-world results of policy implementation), do you have any suggestions for or thoughts on making the enforcing of mandatory attendance less terrible?

      *I can explain why this is my position, if you’d like, but it’s three in the morning now.

    • Sally

      You make some excellent points.
      *Why* is the child truant?
      I do think if a child is truant and the family isn’t already addressing this through mental health services (if that’s appropriate), then a school social worker should be assigned to the family whose mission it is to get the family the right support. If that’s not what a school social worker is for, what is s/he for? (I know there is *much* else they do, but I just think this sounds like exactly what social workers do- find and coordinate resources for people who need help doing so.)
      Of course this costs money, and that’s the problem. But does it cost more money than the alternative in the long run?

    • Sally

      Here is the phenomena I was talking about. It’s called “School Refusal
      Behavior.” It used to be called “School Phobia.” It’s a misnomer
      to call it “truancy” when the issue is that the child is avoiding
      something very unpleasant about school. Is there actual truancy that isn’t
      related to “avoidance” (I use here as a mental health term), I don’t
      know. But how many kids who are “truant” actually need “school
      refusal behavior” mental health intervention?

      http://www.aboutourkids.org/articles/understanding_school_refusal

      This can be an extremely complicated issue and one that parents without flexible job situations could find almost impossible to navigate.

      Now, I know the obvious thing to say would be, OK, so if the parents who have a kid like this pull their child out and say they’re going to homeschool them, why not actually homeschool them?

      -the child may refuse to be homeschooled too

      -the parents may be working (yes, you can homeschool after work, but that may be unlikely)

      -the parents may not have the education themselves to pull it off

      -the parents may not speak English and therefore lack homeschooling resources

      -other

      Again, the answer isn’t to therefore allow people to claim they’re homeschooling when the problem is really truancy (or more likely school refusal). The answer is each of these family’s needs to be assigned a school social worker who can help them navigate this incredibly difficult situation.

      Oh, I wonder if another reason we don’t already do this is because if school “recommends” something, they may end up having to pay for it (as a special ed. teacher, we were warned of this strongly). So maybe if they recommend a “school refusal treatment program” and the parents
      don’t have insurance, then the school could have to pay for it. – Multiply that times every “truant” child without good insurance, and it could be 100s of 1000s of dollars. But if they treat the problem is “willful disobedience,” then they don’t have to recommend anything or pay for anything. Because of funding, that’s probably a real concern.

      Yikes, what a mess.

      • Sally

        Oops

        …each of these *families* needs to be assigned …
        I’m having trouble loggin in so I don’t have an edit button.

      • Sally

        Ahhh. *logging*

    • Anat

      I’m not in California, laws there may be different. But my daughter is in high school. And with all the talk about importance of attendance, next month she is going to miss a few days of school for a family-related function. She already contacted all her teachers and made sure no tests are going to take place on those days, she will get the work she is going to miss ahead of time so she can stay on schedule for assignments.

      Similarly, in the case of illness, notifying the school covers the student (though work still has to be caught up).

      Truancy laws kick in only for 10 or more *unexcused* absences in my state. And note emphasis on unexcused.

      • trinity91

        that’s your state. A lot of states leave it up to individual school districts and even individual schools to make policy about what gets a student labeled truant. In the school system that I graduated from two or more consecutive absences (excused or not) could get you labeled truant. Three or more (non consecutive) would result in your parents arrest. There wasn’t any way to prevent this either. In 9th grade I missed a week because my appendix burst. My mom was arrested and LOST HER JOB because even though she had the surgeon call the school, send in medical forms, and she went down there and talked to the principal they still labeled me as truant.

      • Sally

        I hope your mother sued someone. That’s absurd.

      • Anat

        OK, this policy makes no sense. It is a public health disaster waiting to happen. They want kids to come to school while contagious? How long has the policy been in place?

      • Rosa

        That’s terrible.

        There’s a way to change it though: talk to your school board representative, or get involved in a schoolboard election campaign. I live in a midsized city, where the margin for school board elections is typically under 1000 votes – sometimes far under. My school board member has been very responsive when I call in about issues. In my hometown, which only has 20,000 people, the margin can be in the single digits and people often run on one or two issues.

        Actually, there’s another way, suing the district. When I was in high school we had no attendance policy at all, because the district had lost a lawsuit to the family of a chronically ill patient, and not yet managed to draft a workable new policy.