FREEPORT, Pa. — Until recently, Pennsylvania had one of the strictest home-school laws in the nation.
Families keeping their children out of traditional classrooms were required to register each year with their local school district, outlining study plans and certifying that adults in the home did not have a criminal record. At the end of the year, they submitted portfolios of student work to private evaluators for review. The portfolio and evaluator’s report then went to a school district superintendent to approve.
But in October, after years of campaigning by home-schooling families in the state as well as the Home School Legal Defense Association, a national advocacy group,Pennsylvania relaxed some of its requirements.
“We believe that because parents who make this commitment to teach their children at home are dedicated and self-motivated, there’s just not a real need for the state to be involved in overseeing education,” said Dewitt T. Black III, senior counsel for the Home School Legal Defense Association, which has close ties to local Christian home-school associations. Mr. Black wrote an early version of the bill that eventually passed here.
Unlike so much of education in this country, teaching at home is broadly unregulated. Along with steady growth inhome schooling has come a spirited debate and lobbying war over how much oversight such education requires.
Eleven states do not require families to register with any school district or state agency that they are teaching their children at home, according to the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, a nonprofit group that is pushing for more accountability in home schooling. Fourteen states do not specify any subjects that families must teach, and only nine states require that parents have at least a high school diploma or equivalent in order to teach their children. In half the states, children who are taught at home never have to take a standardized test or be subject to any sort of formal outside assessment.
And the movement is growing. Once mainly concentrated among religious families as well as parents who wanted to release their children from the strictures of traditional classrooms, home schooling is now attracting parents who want to escape the testing and curriculums that have come along with the Common Core, new academic standards that have been adopted by more than 40 states.
According to the most recent federal statistics available, the number of school-age children who were home-schooled in the United States was close to 1.8 million in 2011-12, up from1.5 million five years earlier. According to federal data, the highest concentration of home-schooling families are in the South and West, although precise figures are difficult to collect because many states, including Connecticut, Oklahoma and Texas, do not require families to register with either a school district or the state education agency.
Pennsylvania educators fought the recent changes, which eliminated the requirement that families submit their children’s portfolios, as well as the results of standardized testing in third, fifth and eighth grade, to school district superintendents. The new law also allows parents to certify that their children have completed high school graduation requirements and to issue homegrown diplomas without any outside endorsement.
“Here we are loosening standards for a subset of students while at the same time giving them the same credential as all other students,” said Jim Buckheit, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators. He noted that the home-school law had been weakened at the same time that public school students were being held to more rigorous academic standards and teachers were being judged by the performance of their students.
But the Home School Legal Defense Association wants to go further. “What we would like is for there to be a total hands-off policy,” said Mr. Black. The association, which raised close to $9.6 million in the 12 months through March 2013,the most recent year for which tax filings are available, has also been involved in efforts to roll back home-school regulations in several other states.
Last year, Utah’s Legislature passed a bill that removed academic subject requirements for home-schoolers and eliminated the need for families to file annual affidavits with school districts, signaling their intention to teach their children at home.
In the last three years, according to the Education Commission of the States, a research group, Iowa, New Hampshire and Minnesota have also reduced the requirements for home-schooling families to file paperwork with local school districts. An attorney at the legal defense association helped write the Iowa legislation.
Here in Pennsylvania, the changes in the law struck a chord with families who say they know what is best for their children and resent the involvement of government officials in their education.
Fara Wiles was pulled out of school in the early 2000s by her mother and taught at home after she was severely bullied by classmates as a teenager. After completing high school at home, she took one course at a community college before her own son, Elijah, was born.
Then, when he reached school age, she decided to home-school him, too.
In a modest two-bedroom duplex in this town along the Allegheny River, 10-year-old Elijah sat on the floor in the living room on a recent afternoon. He paged through a workbook that Ms. Wiles had bought the day before at a Sam’s Club store, and went through a few questions about birds.
After 10 minutes, Ms. Wiles declared he was losing focus. To give him a break, she sent him upstairs to play Minecraft, an online game. “His brain is so unique,” Ms. Wiles said. “That’s one of the great things about home schooling. We work all year around, but I can tell him to go burn off some energy.”
Some adults who were themselves home-schooled, along with relatives of home-schooled children, say the push to withdraw from state supervision could put children at risk. Some of them recently formed their own organization, theCoalition for Responsible Home Education, to fight the move toward deregulation.
Rachel Coleman, executive director of the coalition, who was home-schooled from kindergarten through high school, said that although she had a good experience, she had talked to many others who did not. “Just having some accountability would absolutely make parents who might otherwise drop the ball step it up a bit,” she said.
Caitlin Townsend, a doctoral candidate in history at the University of Michigan, was home-schooled in Pennsylvania until she was 13, when her parents split up and she moved with her mother to New Jersey, which has virtually no regulations for home-schooling families.
Ms. Townsend, who completed home schooling in 2004, said her mother had used science textbooks that taught the theory of intelligent design and shied away from rigorous math during her high school years.
“When I was growing up we always talked about the school officials as the Big Bad Wolf,” said Ms. Townsend, who had to enroll in remedial math classes in college. “What I could have benefited from was a system of evaluation that would have given my mother some red flags that I needed some tutoring in science and math.”
Home-schooling families point out that studies show their children perform better on academic tests than children in public school — although it can be difficult to draw conclusions from such studies as researchers depend on voluntary participation. Many home-schooled children go on to succeed in college and beyond.
Academics who have studied home-schoolers said families and students should be required to meet some minimum criteria. Prof. Robert Kunzman of Indiana University’s School of Education advocates annual or biennial basic literacy and numeracy tests. “That will allow us to identify what is probably a pretty small subset of home-school families that are not being well served by it,” he said.
In Pennsylvania, home-schooling advocates say the new law still provides some supervision since private evaluators — usually paid by families — who either hold a teaching license, or qualifications as a school guidance counselor or psychologist, must review portfolios of student work. Retired educators or those who are no longer working in schools can also act as evaluators.
Still, since superintendents or any other public officials are no longer required to review the portfolios, “it only takes one person who meets the qualifications who is willing to sign off on anything that can become a crack through which children can slip,” said Pauline Harding, who home-schooled her three children through eighth grade in the Philadelphia suburbs and now runs a website for home-schoolers there.
Others say the outside scrutiny is unwarranted.
On a recent Wednesday morning, Rhonda Santoro, a former corporate trainer who left her job to home-school her two youngest children, supervised Jack and Lily, 11-year-old twins, as they sat at the dining table copying the periodic symbols and atomic weights of gold and silver onto index cards. As snowflakes drifted outside their home in Ellwood City, a former steel town northwest of Pittsburgh, they stepped into the yard to trace the bark on a poplar and a crab apple tree. Jack read “The Telephone,” a Robert Frost poem, and passages from the Bible, and both children discussed the biography of David Livingstone, a Scottish missionary and explorer.
Ms. Santoro said she was frustrated that despite the change in Pennsylvania’s law, she still had to show a portfolio of Jack’s and Lily’s work to an outside evaluator.
“It’s almost like the State of Pennsylvania feels that home-educating families are hiding something or that they just absolutely must micromanage us,” she said. “I only know what’s best for the Santoros. I don’t know what’s best for anyone else, and no one knows what’s best for me.”