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Home School Case Reveals Loopholes, Pitfalls In The System

By Lynn Hatter

Tallahassee, FL – Two Leon County parents are being charged with not requiring their children to go to school. And not just public school, any school. The parents say they home school their children, but the charges against them tell a different story, and reveal the pitfalls of a particular brand of school choice that's a lot less regulated than all the others.

Right now there are more than 62,000 students in Florida whose parents are their teachers. According to Mike Kooi, who heads the office of School Choice at the state department of education, not much is required from parents who home school.

"They must register with the district as homeschooling. Then as they provide that home schooling education they must maintain a portfolio of records which would include things like a log of education materials and writings done by the students during the year. They must make that portfolio available to the district upon 15 days notice."

There's also an annual evaluation of the student's progress. But sometimes, none of that happens. And there's one example of it in Leon County.

"There was a family, and information came. Our student services department made multiple home visits and was following up on whether these children were enrolled in school, whether they were part of our required follow up for home schooling, virtual education or private school."

John Hunkiar is the chief of safety and security for the school district. Court documents show between October 2010 to late January 2011, home visits, requests for documents, visits from the Leon County School District and other state agencies were rebuffed. Hunkiar says the district was left with no options.

"Through that process, this particular situation escalated to where it is now, which is, at the state attorney's office."

State Attorney Sean Desmond.

"I wouldn't say that this is often."

Attorney Sean Desmond is handling the case for the state. Steven and Kristina Spell of Tallahassee are charged with several second-degree misdemeanors for failing to require school attendance, contributing to the delinquency of a minor and failing to provide a proper education for their children. According to the court documents, the district received multiple reports that the couple's five children have not been enrolled in any kind of school for more than a year, nor are they properly registered as home school students. State Attorney Sean Desmond.

"We're not looking at this case saying, we want to put someone in jail or worse for doing this. We want you to comply. We want you to show us the records of where you're teaching your children. We're not going to get in there and police how well they're doing it or their methods or anything like that, just tell us that you are."

Several attempts over a two-month period were made to contact the family and their attorneys. One left the case in March and now works for the state. The family moved from the address listed with the court.

A second attorney was identified, but did not respond in time for this story. No response from the family was received at the time of this report. The case was originally scheduled to go before a judge this week, but has been continued as the two sides work out a deal to give the family another chance to comply with the home schooling laws.

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Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

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