By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
"I damaged my children's education in some ways. It was not their fault," Harriet says. She adds, "It was real easy for me to do."
She was willing to tell her story to a reporter, she says, because she believes the law should be changed so that some authority will question and warn parents about the effort and expertise it takes to homeschool properly.
The Joneses and Rudermans represent two extremes of the homeschooling spectrum. Homeschooling advocates contend that the vast majority of parents provide, like the Rudermans, high-quality education for their children, usually better than what they would receive in public schools.
As evidence, they point to a recent study of 5,402 homeschooled students, conducted by Brian Ray, a researcher at the National Home Education Research Institute, an Oregon-based think tank that advocates homeschooling. On average, the students in that study outscored their public school peers by 30 to 37 percentile points on standardized tests in all subjects.
Moreover, the study showed that homeschoolers now go on to college or other post-secondary education almost as frequently as their public school counterparts. Ray's numbers showed that while 71 percent of public school graduates pursue post-secondary education, a comparable 69 percent of homeschoolers did the same.
But in North Texas, truant officers at several school districts as well as a justice of the peace who oversees cases of schoolkids with frequent absences say they recognize another trend. They are seeing a relatively small but growing number of instances in which parents have chosen homeschooling to evade truancy laws and are probably educating their children about as successfully as the Joneses.
Can a parent who is having trouble getting his kid to school in the first place possibly keep the rigid schedule required to educate at home? These officials say no, while acknowledging that the law has so few teeth that they can do little to stop even flagrant abusers.
"I hope they sue their parents when they grow up," says Janean Aaron, a truant officer for Arlington schools who has overseen 10 cases this year in which parents who received multiple calls from truant officers simply opted to "homeschool."
In Jacksonville, a town about two hours east of Dallas with a relatively small school district of 4,500 students, there have been 43 such cases of fake homeschooling since August, according to James Cunningham, an administrative assistant in charge of attendance. "I feel my hands are tied," Cunningham says about his attempts to curb parents' pulling their kids from school to evade truancy prosecution.
By state law, school districts are supposed to send a warning to parents of a child who has five or more unexcused absences within a six-month period. The district attendance officers, as they're typically called, are then required to monitor the child's attendance. If the child has any more unexcused absences, the district can file a complaint in municipal court or with a justice of the peace against the parents, who may end up paying a fine of up to $500 a day if the judge deems it appropriate.
Last year, when Cunningham asked a judge to demand that a family "show cause" to avoid prosecution under truancy laws by proving they were indeed homeschooling, the parents came to the judge with an all-in-one workbook that incorporated math and spelling--something they could have purchased at a drugstore on their way to court, Cunningham says. "I just looked at the judge," recalls Cunningham, "and he said, 'Well, it appears on the surface they are homeschooling.'"
Robert Forman, a justice of the peace who hears truancy cases for DISD, says, only partly in jest, that the number of parents using homeschooling as a way to conceal truancy has grown so rapidly that "I could stand outside my court asking people if they wanted to buy a letter saying they were homeschooling and make so much money, it could be my retirement." Forman says the law gives him little recourse once parents claim they are homeschooling.
Of the 500 truancy cases Dallas school officials filed in court this academic year, in about 10 instances, caseworkers suspected that parents fraudulently claimed they were homeschooling when they appeared before the judge, says Martha Hawkins, who heads DISD's truancy program. She believes other parents with chronic truants have withdrawn their kids to "homeschool" them before the matter even reached the courts or her caseworkers. Truant officers typically detect such cases only when a registered student stops showing up at school. There's no way to gauge how many children with attendance problems were never registered by parents in a new school year and then began taking advantage of the loopholes in homeschooling laws. "It is a hidden population," Hawkins says.
One mother, a single parent who was raising her 15-year-old daughter in the Lewisville school district, concedes she had trouble getting her daughter to school. Because of her absences, the girl had fallen behind in some subjects. The teachers had threatened to make her attend summer school. "I decided to take her out," says the mother, who asked not to be identified. "It's not like it was when we were in school. They were going to give her a nervous breakdown."