Homeschoolers Protected by New Utah Law

Published May 1, 2005

A bill shielding homeschooling parents from requirements that they meet state credential standards and give public school officials records of what they teach passed unanimously in both houses of the Utah legislature in February.

Senate Bill 59, sponsored by freshman Sen. Mark Madsen (R-Lehi), also prevents school boards from requiring homeschool students to take standardized tests. It passed the Senate 26-0-3 on February 16 and the House of Representatives 70-0-5 on February 28. No legislator voted against the bill, though three were absent from the Senate and five from the House the day votes were cast. Gov. Jon Huntsman (R) signed the bill into law March 18; it took effect May 2.

Student Achievement High

In Utah, Madsen said, nearly 25 percent of students fail to graduate from public high school; the fact that the vast majority of the state’s homeschoolers perform at or above their grade level may have helped the bill to pass.

Madsen decided to write the bill last year when the oldest of his four children reached the age of 6, which meant he and his wife, Erin, had to start seeking an exemption from their local school district in order to be permitted to homeschool the child. They found the existing law was too vague.

“I did my research and read the state statute, then read about how the school district handles these things,” he said. “The tone was hostile toward homeschoolers, which is to be expected. But it had these vague and ominous parts that said, ‘You may be required to show records of your instruction, and you may be required to demonstrate academic progress.’ There was a list of things that were pretexts for denying the exemption certificate.

“Because the law was vague, it led to inconsistent and varying interpretations between school districts, and even between people within school districts,” he continued. “We just wanted to clarify it in favor of the parents, and let the school districts focus on educating the children they have the privilege of educating.”

Under the new law, Utah’s homeschooling parents will be required only to sign affidavits stating their children will attend school for the same length of time as children in public schools; they will be free to choose all their own textbooks and teaching materials.

Increased Restrictions Sought

Homeschool regulation has been a hot issue across the nation this year, with at least 11 state legislatures considering bills to give public educators tighter control over homeschooling parents and their curricula. According to the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA):

  • Legislators in New Mexico and South Dakota filed bills this session to force homeschoolers to take standardized tests selected by the state in public schools or proctored by a certified teacher, violating a provision in the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). South Dakota’s bill was defeated in committee.
  • New Jersey has reintroduced a bill that failed in the last legislative session. Under its provisions, the state Board of Education would be permitted to force homeschoolers to take state assessment tests based on public school curricula and to turn over their private medical information to the public schools.
  • In Montana, a bill was killed in the Senate Education Committee, 10-1, that would have required home schools to be supervised by certified teachers and monitored every two years by the local school district, while banning homeschooling by stepparents and legal guardians. It also would have prohibited children with developmental disabilities from being homeschooled. The only vote in favor of passage was cast by the bill’s sponsor, HSLDA Senior Counsel Chris Klicka said. HSLDA research has shown developmentally disabled children perform better in homeschool settings than in traditional classrooms.
  • A bill pending in Oregon would require families to notify their school districts if they plan to homeschool, and homeschooling parents would be required to submit their students’ standardized test results every year.
  • Bills have been introduced in Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, New Jersey, and Wyoming to make attendance compulsory for homeschooled children from age 3 to age 18–age 19 in Indiana. That means parents who homeschool would have to report to their school districts for longer periods of time than parents who send their children to public school. A similar bill in Hawaii was killed, and Klicka said the Michigan and Wyoming measures appear unlikely to survive their respective committees.

Pennsylvania Parents Fight Back

In Pennsylvania, four homeschooling families are fighting state regulation in court. The state requires homeschooling parents to file affidavits with their school districts outlining their curricula and goals, file daily logs of what they teach their children, and submit to having a third party evaluate their teaching and interview their kids.

Pennsylvania also is one of five states with a Religious Freedom Protection Act, which prevents state agencies from compelling behavior or speech that violates tenets of a person’s religious faith. The parents say the requirements imposed on homeschoolers do that.

In addition, the parents said they also plan to argue in court that the requirements violate their free-speech rights to teach their children and due process, since school district officials who stand to gain more funding by having more kids in public school are enforcing the process. The case is now pending.

Karla Dial ([email protected]) is managing editor of School Reform News.