Recent data released about the number of home school students in Florida reveals a mystery.
The number of home education students in the state continues to increase. State data show it reached 87,462 during the 2016-17 school year — roughly a 5 percent increase from the previous year. Miami-Dade County, however, saw a decline in enrollment by 11 percent.
Homeschool parents and legal advocates say there is a reason behind Miami-Dade’s declining numbers. When some parents file a notice of intent to homeschool with the district, they say, the district asks for additional documentation such as proof of residency or a birth certificate. These requests go beyond what the law requires.
This creates a new barrier to home schooling, legal advocates and parents say. Some parents are finding new ways around that barrier, such as forming umbrella schools. Others have prevailed in disputes with the district after getting home education advocates involved.
Miami-Dade school officials declined to comment for this story. Audrey Walden, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Education, said the department was “looking into it.”
But are Miami-Dade’s actions out of the ordinary? Home education advocates and parents say other counties including Broward, Hillsborough and St. Lucie also ask parents for additional documentation beyond the requirements in the state’s home school statute. And other school districts have tried to place additional requirements on home education before parents protested.
Documentation for homeschooling
Florida Statute 1002.41 requires parents who want to establish a home education program to send a signed notice of intent to the school district superintendent with the students’ names, birthdates and addresses.
Parents said if they don’t submit the additional documents, the district withholds registering the home education program.
If their home education program is not recognized, that creates challenges for families who want to dual-enroll their child in college courses or apply for college scholarships. A child needs to be registered to take part in those programs.
Legal advocates state Miami-Dade is requesting the documentation because of the death of 10-year-old Nubia Barahona who was found dead in the back of a pickup truck in 2011.
An investigation by the Department of Children and Families concluded she was a victim of child abuse. Investigators also noted that, in 2010, Nubia’s parents pulled her out of school system and homeschooled her.
A DCF panel convened in the wake of her death recommended the state create an alert system and inspections for children who are removed from the public school system and placed in a home education program. This recommendation may have led some districts to seek additional documentation from parents.
But TJ Schmidt, staff attorney at the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) said the district’s reason may go beyond the Barahona case. Rather than simply requiring parents to provide their names and addresses, he says, the district also wants them to prove the information they provide is correct.
“I think it has to do with the fact that it is coming from the state and federal compliance office,” he said. “They have the mentality that they have to cross all their T’s and I’s as far as state and federal compliance. They are wanting parents to prove every aspect of the statute. It does not require them to provide this information.”
Brenda Dickinson, a homeschool lobbyist with the Home Education Foundation, said her group is reaching out to Miami-Dade school board members asking for help to bring the policy in alignment with state law.
A bill filed last year in the state Legislature would have stopped districts from asking for more information, and required them to immediately register home schoolers. It didn’t pass.
Struggles with the system
Keren Rivas thought everything was fine with her son’s home education program, which she filed in 2014. Florida law requires homeschoolers to receive annual portfolio reviews that show children are making academic progress consistent with their ability. But when Rivas submitted her son’s first evaluation, she didn’t hear back.
Rivas said she didn’t think much of it. She figured she would be notified if there was a problem.
But that changed in when she submitted her son’s next evaluation in 2016. The district responded that it did not have any record of her son.
“They said because I did not send in a birth certificate, they had no record of him,” she said.
When she inquired why they needed it, she was told district officials were concerned about kidnapping and needed to verify the parents, she said. After she continued to raise objections, the district finally acknowledged Rivas’ notice of intent in 2017.
Aglika Arroyo said her experience was similar.
Arroyo, who is on the leadership team of a homeschool organization, said when she submitted a notice of intent to homeschool her first child in 2010, she was not asked for additional documentation.
But when she filed a notice of intent for her second child in 2014, she said the district asked more questions and for additional documentation.
“I resisted, and each time I had to involve the HSLDA and create an email trail, and when they would call I would write it down,” she said. “We ended up requesting a meeting at the office. They proceeded to say that those who do not comply could be pursued for truancy.”
But Arroyo said she would not send in the information, and eventually, the district recognized her homeschool program. But Arroyo said she would not have gotten anywhere if she hadn’t gotten the advocacy group involved.
April Jung, a homeschool parent, said she had concerns about the issue causing headaches for older students who want to take classes for college credit.
“To dual-enroll you should have a document from the county,” she said.
Schmidt said parents have been fighting the restrictions for years.
“They are going to ignore you and withhold any acknowledgment of your homeschooling program until you kowtow to their demands,” he said. “They are held hostage.”
Schmidt cited a state DOE website, which says “a district may not enact policies that would apply additional guidelines to home education programs or that would make it more difficult for students to participate in home education.” That guidance, he said, suggests Miami-Dade is out of line.
Osamudia James, vice dean and a professor of law at the University of Miami School of Law, said she couldn’t say whether the district was following the law. But she said the district’s requests are not out of the ordinary.
“It seems a reasonable regulation to facilitate the statute,” she said. “We need to know who the children are to be educated.”
Asked if he is contemplating legal action, Schmidt said that is always something he is thinking about.
“We don’t take filing a lawsuit lightly,” he said. “I think we would be willing to take on legal action if Miami-Dade started following through on some of their threats” such as prosecuting parents for truancy.
The umbrella option
What is clear is parents are looking for a way around dealing with the district.
Jung said during her homeschool 101 classes more parents are asking about “umbrella schools.”
The term refers to a private school that offers programs to homeschool families, according to the Florida Department of Education.
The students register as private school students, which allows them to avoid dealing with the district.
Since those families are technically connected to private schools, they don’t show up in state homeschool data. And that likely helps explain the recent declines in Miami-Dade.
“They feel more safe and comfortable not having to deal with the county,” Jung said.