It’s a phenomenon like few others I can think of. Let’s say you know someone who opened a school and staffed it with “teachers” who may or may not know much about their subjects and offer few opportunities for the students to interact with one another. And let’s say the teachers aren’t required to report student attendance and the place isn’t even evaluated regularly to make sure a proper learning environment is maintained.
You’d probably call that a fraudulent operation that does not serve the needs of its students. Or you might call it an institution that ought to be shut down. In most of the country, we call it home-schooling.
I’ve long wondered why more attention isn’t paid to the problems associated with home schooling. I know. Proponents of the practice point to studies indicating homeschooled children perform, on average, far better academically than their traditionally schooled peers. And homeschoolers earn higher GPAs and have better college graduation rates. It’s not clear to me whether that level of achievement stems from the homeschooling itself or is the inevitable result of having parents who are heavily vested in their children’s education. After all, correlation is not causation.
And for some students and parents who are dissatisfied with traditional public schools and cannot afford private or religious school, homeschooling is often the only alternative. So I think it should be preserved as an option. So does the U.S. Supreme Court, whose rulings dating to the 1920s essentially confirm it as a right. The lack of accountability, however, is troubling.
The state of Connecticut is currently grappling with a tragic situation related to that very lack of accountability. A disabled Hartford teen who died last year from starvation, dehydration and child abuse, was absent from school for years.
There is plenty of blame to go around in this case. As CTNewsJunkie has reported, a series of decisions by the state Department of Children and Families, the juvenile court system, and the public schools allowed Matthew Tirado, 17, to remain hidden from authorities for months or possibly a year prior to his death. His mother was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced last week to 11 years in prison.
Matthew, who had autism and intellectual disabilities, was never officially homeschooled but was missing from school for prolonged periods of time and was the victim of “prolonged child abuse and neglect.” His younger sister, however, was withdrawn for homeschooling, even after numerous reports from the Hartford schools to DCF of alleged abuse and neglect in the home. Shockingly, DCF was never notified of her change in status. A DCF investigation found no evidence the girl was ever homeschooled. All the mother had to do was simply file a notice to the school that she would homeschool her daughter.
The case prompted an extensive supplemental investigation by the state Office of the Child Advocate, which issued a scathing report entitled “Examining Connecticut’s Safety Net for Children Withdrawn from School for the Purpose of Homeschooling.” The report found a correlation between children who had been withdrawn for homeschooling and families who had been the subject of at least one report to DCF of abuse or neglect.
As one can imagine, this provoked howls of outrage from homeschool parents who actually take care of their children, educate them and play by the rules — such as they are. They staged a rally on the steps of the Capitol last week to protest that they were being scapegoated.
They have a point. But the whole incident speaks to the larger issue: who minds the store in homeschooling? The state would never give its stamp of approval to an actual school with so little in the way of rules as homeschooling has. Nor would a child be allowed to languish in a school without some sort of instruction and supervision.
I’ve never homeschooled anyone (my own kids attended our local public schools and had positive experiences) but I’m trying to picture myself in the role of parent/teacher. I taught high school English and drama in independent schools for 12 years, so I probably could do fine as an instructor in language arts and perhaps even social studies.
But how on earth could I be expected to teach chemistry, physics, or high-level math? I realize there are materials available from a variety of mostly for-profit companies to help homeschool parents with curriculum and instruction. But how could it be an effective substitute for a knowledgeable teacher who can provide extra help, mentor students, and help motivate them?
As the child advocate’s report makes clear, Connecticut pretty much has a hands-off approach once a child is withdrawn for homeschooling. According to the OCA, “Connecticut and 10 other states have no regulation or notice requirements regarding homeschooled children.” Moreover, Eagan added “Connecticut law is, at best, unclear as to whether a school district has an obligation to check in with or ensure that a student who has been withdrawn to be homeschooled is receiving an equivalent education as the term is used in state compulsory education law.”
And even when notice is given, as did Katiria Tirado, the mother of Matthew’s sister, there is evidently no follow-up required. This is a gaping hole in the law that needs to be fixed.
I’m not advocating for greater regulation of the homeschooling process itself. That would probably be a nonstarter, given the broad rights we have traditionally given parents in this state. But fixing the gap in the law that allowed Matthew to die and his sister to languish should be a priority for the General Assembly in next year’s legislative session. It’s a sad situation all around but doubly sad, as is so often the case, that it will have taken a horrible tragedy to effect a change in the law.
Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at CTDevilsAdvocate.com and is managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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