Parental rights vs. oversight: Debate over proposed Michigan homeschool registry
LANSING — Homeschool families in Michigan say they’re worried about a proposed requirement to register all school-aged children with their local school district or public agency.
However, most homeschool families want the current system to remain with no mandatory registration, advocates say.
Currently in Michigan and 10 other states, it is optional for homeschooling parents to notify their local school district or other agency about what their children are learning.
That policy has been in place since 1993, when the Michigan Supreme Court reversed a requirement that homeschoolers must be licensed teachers. Other regulations were later dropped, making Michigan one of the most lax states in overseeing homeschooling.
A new proposal from the Education Department is meant to safeguard student safety and ensure all children get some form of education, said Michael Rice, the state superintendent of public instruction.
In a letter from Rice, the department said a legislative priority is to register every child being schooled, whether public, private, parochial or homeschooled.
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Rice’s letter noted “a history in Michigan and across the nation of some children not receiving any education at all, in particularly egregious cases in abusive or neglected environments.”
Homeschool organizations called the policy proposal “categorical discrimination” against the families they represent.
Israel Wayne is the vice president of the Michigan Christian Homeschool Network representing 11,000 families.
He predicted thousands of families who moved to Michigan for a homeschool -friendly environment will leave if the regulations change.
Wayne said those families disagree with the department’s proposal, saying it’s geared towards increasing opportunities for public school students rather than homeschool students’ safety.
Wayne claims that Rice has been looking for a way to get students back into the public school system since the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020 and that homeschool students represent a significant financial loss in state aid for public education.
However, when asked about increasing regulations beyond registration, the chair of the Senate Education Committee, Sen. Dayna Polehanki, D-Livonia, said, “Not on my watch.”
Polehanki said there is no legislation yet based on the department’s proposal, but some bills “are in the pipeline.” She said she believes the legislation will focus on counting students rather than surveilling them, with the goals of ensuring there are no “missing children” and that instruction is happening in those homes.
Polehanki explained the ideal process: The Department of Health and Human Services anticipates, based on birth rates, how many students should be entering school and then compares it to the notifications of students starting school.
“It’s a simple counting thing, and then the state leaves it alone,” Polehanki said.
Another concern is student safety.
In December, Attorney Gen. Dana Nessel charged four adoptive families in Clinton County with child abuse for allegedly using homeschooling as a guise to abuse the children.
After the charges were filed, Nessel tweeted that “the homeschooling environment allowed abuse to go unnoticed” and that “implementing monitoring mechanisms is crucial to ensure that all children, including those homeschooled, receive necessary protections.”
A 2018 study by Connecticut’s Office of the Child Advocate found that 36% of children removed from school to be homeschooled lived with families with a history of reported child abuse or neglect. Connecticut is also a no-registration, low-regulation homeschool state.
Wayne argued that “simply having a registration of homeschoolers does not in any way prevent child abuse.”
He said homeschoolers pull children out of public schools for a myriad of problems the parents believe they can fix at home.
Lindsay Perry, a member of the Grand Traverse County-based Michigan Homeschool Enrichment Network, pulled her third-grader out of public school because she felt her son’s Individualized Education Program, based on medical problems and autism, wasn’t being carried out.
Perry said she found it easier to teach her child at his own pace, able to take time for physical wellness and customizing his education.
Perry said she worries that if the state starts regulating now, she and other parents will have to stop their “unschooling” strategy, which she explained is a holistic approach to learning, picking up life skills along with standard public school education.
Her position is simple: “I don’t think it’s really any of their business.”
Ben Shultz of Traverse City, a father in the Michigan Homeschool Enrichment Network, was homeschooled himself until he graduated in 1998.
Shultz said he believes the department’s interest in more regulation came with the huge jump in parents pulling their children from public schools due to the pandemic and mandates like mask-wearing that parents disagreed with.
The numbers reflect this: in the first six months of the pandemic, the number of homeschooled children in Michigan more than doubled from 5.3% to 11.3%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“It seems like they’re coming in and trying to come after our children on the heels of that,” Shultz said.
Rep. Matt Koleszar, D-Plymouth, who has spoken extensively in favor of homeschool oversight, said any regulation would simply ask parents to “check a box” and wouldn’t stop them from homeschooling.
“I’ve heard the argument that this is a violation of privacy, and I would remind people that you also file a birth certificate with the state,” Koleszar said. “You also claim children on taxes in a lot of cases.”
Koleszar said his words have been twisted to accuse him of believing all homeschoolers are abusers, and said he only wants a safety check for homeschooled students.
“I think a majority of homeschool parents do a fantastic job, and to me, this is about protecting kids and accounting for kids,” Koleszar said.
This story was originally published by the Capital News Service
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