A Leon County couple is being charged with 10 misdemeanors for what the state says equates to failing to educate their eight children. The parents say they home school their kids, and that the case is a failure to recognize the rights of home schooling parents.
There are more than 60,000 Florida families who educate their children at home. Over the past few years, an increasing number of Floridians have opted out of public school and into private education or teaching classes in the home. Some parents believe their children will do better in a different environment, and others, like Kristina Spell, say they want to educate and raise their children in their own way.
“We have a ton of people in our lives," she says. "We’re not a recluse family that lives in the woods and tries to teach their children strange things.”
Spell, who says she also runs a charity for victims of human trafficking, has spent more than 15 years home schooling her children. The eldest is almost 21 and hasn’t been at a public school since she was in fifth grade. Spell says her daughter is employed – a fact she says should count in the favor of home-schooling.
But almost two and a half years ago, Kristina and her husband, Steven, were arrested, accused of not following state educational standards. The charges against them include contributing to the delinquency of a minor and compulsory attendance violations.
Litigation Drags On
Since then, the case against the Spells has slogged through the courts. Attorneys on both sides have come and gone. There was an agreement for something called a deferred-prosecution agreement, or DPA, which meant the state was prepared to drop charges if the family agreed to have their children tested and start a monitored home-schooling plan. The Spells agreed. But that agreement was withdrawn last April.
Assistant State Attorney Brian Miller says he can’t give too many details because the case will soon go to trial, but “we had certain terms that were in there agreeable to both parties and they weren’t met and we had to violate the DPA.”
Kristina says she attended the first couple meetings the agreement mandated, but the schedule – and the relationship with state officials – eventually fractured.
“We didn’t do summer school since it wasn’t in the DPA, and we were out of the country part of the time. When I called in September and asked when would be the best meeting, she said she wasn’t allowed to talk to us anymore," Spell says.
Spell’s attorney, Robert "Gus" Harper, says he feels his clients were the victim of a bait-and-switch by the state.
“When we provided evidence of what the Spells were doing, they decided they would critique everything—which would have been fine, had they given the Spells an opportunity to correct deficiencies...or have a cooperative effort...but it was a one-way street," Harper said.
Both Kristina Spell and Assistant State Attorney Brian Miller say the case was initiated through a complaint from a family member. Kristina Spell says it’s because her husband’s family has long been upset about their decision to home school, and their marriage.
But Miller says a family member raised the alarm after noticing one of the older children was unable to read a restaurant menu. Part of the failed deferred-prosecution agreement was to have the children tested, which both sides agreed to.
Then the results came in:
“And it was found that a couple of the children couldn’t read. I’m not saying they couldn’t read well, I’m saying they could not read at all. And now we’re back here, looking at a trial, because they failed to educate their children," Miller said.
He added: the state says the Spells did not complete a mandated remediation requirement.
The Gray Area Between Home School and Private 'Umbrella' Schools
Not all home-based instruction is home schooling. The case against the Spells centers largely on what are called “umbrella” schools. Many home-school parents use the umbrellas, and it’s not considered as home school by the state.
“There is nothing in statute that refers to 'umbrella' schools, but you’re referring to when a private school student receives non-traditional instruction at the home,” said Florida Department of Education School Choice Director, Adam Miller. “They would be considered a private school student. They would be enrolled in a private school, the private school would maintain attendance records for the student, they wouldn’t be a home-school student.”
Under Florida’s traditional home-schooling laws, families must register with their home district, keep attendance records and a portfolio of their children’s work and have the children tested at least once a year.
The Florida Department of Education’s website has a list of how those evaluations could happen:
- A Florida-certified teacher chosen by parents may evaluate the child's progress based on a review of the portfolio and discussion with the student.
- The student may take any nationally-normed student-achievement test administered by a certified teacher.
- The student may take a state assessment test at a location and under testing conditions approved by the school district.
- The student maybe evaluated by a psychologist holding a valid, active license.
- The student may be evaluated with any other valid measurement tool as mutually agreed upon by the parent and the superintendent.
In an “umbrella” school scenario, those students would be registered as private-school students. The private school would keep the attendance records, but those evaluations don't have to happen.
Here’s where things get tricky. The Spells lived in Gadsden County for three years before moving to Leon County in April 2011. In Gadsden, they were registered with a private school called REAL Education based in Havana. Its owner, Christopher Fenton, now works for the Florida Department of Education. According to DOE, the school opened in July 2006 and closed in late November 2011. Brian Miller says that’s about when his office started asking questions.
“I can’t talk about what all went on out there, because that’s going to play largely into the trial...but yes, they were enrolled in that school and we have issues with how that was being done," he says.
In November 2010, officials with the REAL Education Center issued a letter certifying the Spell children were listed as private-school students with their group. But court documents show between October 2010 to January 2011, home visits, requests for documents and visits from the Leon County School District and other state agencies were rebuffed by the Spells.
Kristina Spell says she registered as a home school with Leon County after she and her husband were arrested, but school district officials say only some of the children were listed, and records were incomplete.
Gadsden County School District officials did not comment on the case.
Courts Will Decide
Kristina Spell maintains the charges against she and her husband are bogus, as is the case against them.
“What is stated as a compulsory attendance issue under a private-school law—the fluke—has turned into whether my kids can do a core curriculum that is put into play by the state," she says.
But Brian Miller says, it’s not about teaching kids according to state rules. It’s about whether the children are being taught at all.
“If they were getting an education, then no, we wouldn’t be here. There’d be no point in prosecuting them if they were being educated. That’s what this is about,” he says.
If Kristina Spell and her husband are convicted of the charges, they face a maximum penalty of 60 days in jail per charge. But Brian Miller says he and Tallahassee State Attorney Willie Meggs just want to see the kids learn.
“The incarceration of the parents isn’t the concern here. It’s simply to get the children educated. Putting the parents in jail isn’t going to get that done. That’s why from the first day Mr. Meggs got a phone call, is to see what we can do to get these kids a basic education," he says.
WFSU aired the story when the case was still in its early stages in 2011. Over a two-month period, numerous calls to attorneys listed for the Spells went unanswered and attempts to contact the Spell family were unsuccessful as well.
When asked why she’s speaking now, Kristina Spell said, “We understood the gravity of the situation for other families that do the same thing we do. We made a decision that it was time to go public with our story.”
The state’s case against the Spells has caught the attention of home-school supporters across the state. It’s also raised questions about what it means to provide an education to a child. It’s now up to a jury to decide whether the Spells or the state, is right.
Update: As mentioned above, this case has caught the attention of home-school supporters across the state and generated a lot of conversation. Here is what TJ Schmidt, with the Home School Legal Defense Association had to say:
“I’d definitely say this unusual. I’ve assisted families home schooling their children for 11 years now, and having a parent arrested for using a Florida cover school [umbrella], as they’re called, is pretty rare. I actually can’t recall another time in that time frame where we had someone arrested.”
He adds: "A lot of people may see this case as saying this [cover/umbrella schools] may no longer be a valid option, and many people use them."
The Home School Legal Defense Association says it's dedicated to defending the rights of its members and non-members, and that it only gets involved with cases when it is asked. However, Schmidt notes this is a case the group is monitoring.