New law gives homeschoolers more respect, freedom
ST. PAUL -- Minnesota parents who teach their children at home feel like they have received a promotion.
"The state is recognizing the validity of home education," Lorna Cook of Willmar said of a new law that frees homeschoolers from most of the bureaucracy of old laws. "To those of us who are home educators, the statistics show that, overall for home education, parents are doing a pretty good job."
In effect, John Tuma said, the new law tells homeschoolers: "Let's just save the time and money and let homeschoolers continue to do the good job they are doing."
Several mandates disappeared under the new law, part of an overall education funding measure passed last month, including one that had required parents without college educations to submit quarterly reports cards on their children to their local public school superintendent.
The law also does away with a requirement that the superintendent visit each homeschool home every year, as well as reducing other paperwork and allowing parents to teach their children driver's education.
Duluth resident Erica Gagnon, who has homeschooled for nine years, said she was somewhat surprised the law passed because of what appears to be a prevailing opinion that homeschoolers do not offer the same benefits as schools.
"A lot of people are concerned about the lack of structure and supervision," Gagnon said. "Nobody picks my curriculum or sets my time of day. There is a strong reaction about those kids maybe being home-schooled inappropriately. But this tells me the state government isn't concerned about homeschoolers, that in general we're doing a good job, and that we don't need more restrictions."
Homeschoolers' success often is touted in the media with kids winning geography and spelling bees and testing higher than their peers, she said.
"It's kind of an affirmation for me," Gagnon said.
The new law is good, Cook said, because of "the simple fact that there is less for me to have to do, paperwork wise, every fall."
Assistant Commissioner Rose Hermodson of the state Education Department said the new law means school districts "don't have to go out and search" for homeschoolers.
While Hermodson said the law relieves school districts from paperwork burdens, homeschoolers are responsible to maintain documents about their children's school activity, such as standardized test results.
Duluth homeschooler Lora Garvey said the new law makes strides in gaining more freedom for those who homeschool.
"But there is some good accountability that goes along with the testing, so I am glad that wasn't given up altogether," she said.
Parents now only need to send districts a letter saying they are beginning homeschooling and an annual letter saying they are continuing, as well as a more extensive report when a student enters seventh grade.
Hermodson said the state will monitor how the law works and will be ready to recommend changes if needed. "We are going to be cautiously watching."
The law's passage surprised Tuma, a long-time lobbyist following spending years representing the Northfield area in the state House. He had little hope a homeschool retooling was possible, but Democratic and Republican lawmakers alike kept relaying stories from homeschoolers who felt the state was overly restrictive.
Minnesota's initial homeschooling law was enacted in 1987 when about 1,500 students were learning at home. Last year, 17,036 students were homeschooled, about the same as the past several years.
The heaviest concentration of homeschoolers is in the suburbs and exurbs around the Twin Cities. Southwestern Minnesota has the fewest homeschoolers, and Tuma, who with his wife teaches their two teenagers, thinks he knows why.
"There is a sense that my community school still is 'mine.'" Tuma said people in rural areas think.
Duluth is one of the fastest-growing homeschool areas, Tuma added, in a large part because some neighborhood schools have closed, meaning children now must attend schools outside of their immediate area.
Cook, with five children, said that homeschooling also is expanding in the Willmar area. While smaller districts near Willmar used to feature few homeschoolers, that is changing.
"What I have seen over the last few years is parents becoming more and more dissatisfied with even the smaller schools," said Cook, Willmar Area Scholars at Home board member.
The new law:
* Removes requirements for annual updates from homeschoolers. Under the new law, homeschoolers only need to file reports with a local superintendent when homeschool status changes and submit a simple letter each year if they are continuing homeschooling.
* Eliminates the requirement that a superintendent visit each homeschool home annually, or require parents to provide documentation. If a homeschooled student is going to be enrolled in a public school, information about homeschooling must be provided to the school district.
* Reduces the number of times to file immunization reports to when homeschooling starts and at age 12.
* Says parents without college degrees no longer need to fill out and file report cards. Parents with degrees never have had to give school districts report cards on their children.
* Still requires annual standardized tests be used, but parents only need to tell their superintendent once what tests they pick. They must update the superintendent if they change the test.
* Allows parents to teach their children driver's education classes.
Jana Hollingsworth of the Duluth News Tribune contributed to this story. Don Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Daily Globe.