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Scrutinizing SD's home schools

School supply photo illustration. (Matt Gade/Republic)

With a few swift strokes of a pen, you can have your child exempt from public school.

By filling out the required two-page exemption form, your child would enter the rapidly growing community of home-schooled students in South Dakota.

But one school administrator said there needs to be more government oversight on the state's home-school procedures.

"Professionally, I don't think you will find too many administrators in the world that don't have a little bit of an issue with the home-school law," said Hiddy Heinz, elementary principal for the Tripp-Delmont School District.

Heinz was referencing the state's scant home-school rules and regulations that fit neatly on a single page of the South Dakota Department of Education's website.

For Heinz, these regulations are not enough to eliminate the opportunity for an ill-suited parent or guardian to take over education responsibilities for their children.

"The home-school law is a little bit gray and a little bit vague," Heinz said. "Let's just say that I don't think is has the oversight it probably needs to have."

Under state law, a parent, school district and the Department of Education play a role in monitoring home-schooled students. For parents, there are only four responsibilities, and the school district and Department of Education have even less.

Parents of home-schoolers must educate their children until age 18, return the annual exemption form to their school district and conduct nationally standardized achievement tests in grades two, four, eight and 11. The parent must also spend a public school-equivalent amount of time studying basic language and math skills.

School districts, like Heinz's in Tripp and Delmont, play an even smaller role. Districts accept exemption forms, which they cannot refuse, and keep test records. Beyond those duties, a school district has its hands tied when trying to enforce proper education standards for home-schooled students unless given authority to revoke the exemption by the Department of Education.

The Department of Education is mostly limited to the role of file clerk. The state's education department can only investigate whether instruction is being provided if given probable cause.

It's this limited authority over the home-schooling system that Heinz finds concerning.

"It's wide open," Heinz said. "From my perspective, there's no criteria, so anyone can come in and fill out a public school exemption."

Heinz also said parents deciding to home-school their children don't need a teacher's certificate or even a high school diploma, but the school district has no choice but to accept their exemption form. According to the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, South Dakota is one of 34 states without qualification requirements for home-school instructors.

Steve Fiechtner, an official with the Department of Education, said the existing qualification and curriculum laws are not as vague as Heinz claims.

"I think the statutes are pretty clear now," Fiechtner said. "Now, whether or not they're comprehensive enough for everyone, that's not for me to say."

Attempts to reach members of a local home-school group by The Daily Republic were unsuccessful. According to www.homeschool.com, "homeschooling is the most flexible and diverse educational option available today. The variety of homeschooling styles reflects the diversity of the people who choose this method."

Some families organize their home-school the same as a traditional school, while some prefer a less-structured approach where the children's schedule is determined by their interests and readiness.

The site says there are many reasons families choose to home-school, including flexibility and family time.

"For many homeschoolers, one of the greatest benefits of homeschooling is the strengthening of family bonds. Homeschooling families spend lots of time learning and playing together and this naturally creates close ties between brothers and sisters and between children and parents," the website says.

Tripp case sparks controversy

In an effort to maintain confidentiality for the student, Heinz couldn't discuss the specific case that spurred her comments. But one parent allegedly unsuitable for home schooling came to light this summer in Tripp.

This case was brought to the attention of local authorities when a Mitchell man decided it was his duty to alert the local school district and law enforcement.

Ron Peterson, owner of Peterson Concrete and Masonry in Mitchell, found himself working on a home in Tripp under a scorching August sun when he was approached by an 11-year old boy who lived next door.

Soon after, Peterson realized this child was living with a parent in a home he found unacceptable as a learning environment. Heinz later confirmed this child was exempt from public school.

Peterson was later invited into the child's home to fix an air conditioner, and was shocked to find piles of trash and leaky water pipes throughout the house. He wondered how both the Departments of Education and Social Services could allow this child's parent to home-school their child.

"No person in their right mind could check that woman in that house and say she could home-school anybody," Peterson said. "How did he go through the loopholes and not go to school?"

According to Fiechtner, the Department of Education will not check whether a home is fit for educating or whether a child is receiving the necessary instruction unless someone reports that there are no educational materials in the home or time spent with the child on learning activities.

Peterson said it's the nature of small towns not to report on controversial issues, and worried similar cases of unacceptable home schooling could be found in other smaller South Dakota communities.

"Little towns are funny," Peterson said. "They don't want to get involved in the middle of anything and nobody wants any trouble."

Although home-schooling rates have risen from 3,034 to 3,796 from 2010 to 2014, according to the Department of Education, Fiechtner said the department has only conducted one investigation of home-school conditions in the past two school years.

Because of the department's perceived lack of oversight and limited investigations, Heinz applauded Peterson for bringing the Tripp home-school case to the attention of authorities.

"I'm glad he got involved, and it's wonderful that he's shedding light on some issues, because I think there are kids out there that are maybe not getting the attention that they need," said Heinz.

Mary Stadick Smith, the director of operations and information for the Department of Education, said any changes to the investigative process in an effort to relieve the public of reporting probably cause would require legislative approval. She also speculated routine checks on each home-schooled student may not be feasible with the department's current staff.

"We have a pretty small staff, so I'm assuming if any changes were to be made and there were to be more oversight, we couldn't accomplish that with the folks we have here now," Stadick Smith said.

Testing requirements bound by Legislature

Testing requirements for home-schooled students also raised concern for Heinz.

State law requires home-schooled children to take four standardized tests compared to seven for students in public schools. While she conceded that many home-school families do "a really good job" with their children, she was worried the limited testing and curriculum requirements could allow some children to fall through the cracks.

"Maybe you don't agree with everything we're teaching here and you have your own curriculum, but you should at least have to show something's being done," Heinz said. "Because I know that there are cases out there where nothing is done, and the child does not benefit at all."

Heinz recommended the Department of Education oblige home-school families to show educational growth and keep the department informed on how they are helping their children learn.

"All I'm saying is we are under such scrutiny with our kids—we have to report, we have to test, we have to show measurable growth—in my mind, there needs to be a bit more [oversight]," Heinz said about the different standards for public and home-school students.

Heinz also questioned the manner in which home-school children are tested. Under state law, home-school children are not required to be monitored while taking a test, which could allow someone other than the student to do the work.

With only 2 percent of South Dakota's approximate 149,000 students being home-schooled, testing and curriculum requirements may not change any time soon. And these changes won't come from the Department of Education.

"Right now, we have got to follow what the laws and rules tell us to do," Stadick Smith said.

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