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Florida Law A Gray Area Between Homeschool And Private 'Umbrellas'

Staci Duggar homeschools her daughters, Madelynn and Elisabeth

For Staci Duggar, the decision to homeschool her young children was easy:

“It would have been 2009, and the girls were going into kindergarten. They could already read, and I researched schools and realized I would rather continue teaching them," she says. 

Duggar, who has a degree from the University of North Carolina and a doctorate from Florida State University, is a registered Florida teacher. She says she had already taught her children everything they would have learned in kindergarten.  So the Duggar family chose to use a route outlined in state law that calls for homeschooling families to register with their school district, keep portfolios of their children’s work and have their kids evaluated once a year.

And the Duggar children say they like having mom as teacher.

"We have school at the end of the week, and you can spend the extra time after you’ve done your school work playing and doing that kind of stuff. I like homeschooling a lot better than schooling," said Madelynn Duggar.

“I think homeschooling is good because if you do the work, you can get out and play without having to wait seven hours," said Madelynn's sister, Elisabeth.

The kids were out of school on a holiday break and off at a friend’s house the day we spoke. Classes resume in January. But even though the Duggars are “homeschooling,” the girls do actually go to a school --sort of: The family joins up with others in a setting where different parents teach different classes. There could be dozens of kids in a single class.

Not all home-based instruction is home schooling

“We use Saxon Math, a very well-known math curriculum, we use extra math—a curriculum a lot of school districts use as well," said Elisabeth Lindsay, a homeschooling mom whose children take classes with the Duggars.

Lindsay has chosen an option called “umbrella" schooling – a method state education officials say doesn't technically exist.

“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 Director Adam Miller.

An umbrella school is what you get when homeschooling parents register their children with a private school. The state does not regulate private schools, so teachers, curriculum and even instructional methods can vary. In a private school “umbrella,” parents are often the teachers. Lindsey says the private school acts as more of a secretary: It keeps track of student work, grades and attendance. And Lindsey says she likes that it helps her develop an academic record.

“I wanted a way to eventually have a record and obtain their transcripts, she says. "And through Home Life Academy, we keep track of all out that. It’s a very convenient system.”

Because Lindsey’s children are registered with the private Home Life Academy, they’re also exempt from a yearly evaluation.

“Umbrella” schools are actually the oldest form of what most people think of as “homeschooling” in Florida, and they’re at the center of a Leon County case where the state is bringing charges against a homeschooling family that uses this option.

“If we  were an education state, and 50 percent of kids who graduate from high school don’t read on grade level, we’d have half the parents suing the state," said Brenda Dickinson, a longtime homeschool lobbyist, who was one of the drivers behind the state’s official “homeschooling” law.

Florida law mandates the number of days a child has to go to school. But it doesn’t require how well children must perform. Therefore Dickinson calls Florida an “attendance state.”

The parents in the Leon County case – the Spells -- are charged with compulsory attendance violations—in short, not requiring their kids to go to school. Private schools are mandated to keep attendance records, but the state doesn’t say how often attendance has to be reported.

The Spell case has stirred up fears from parents, Dickinson says, because of the way such parents were treated 30 ago before the homeschooling statute went into effect. Homeschooling mom Elisabeth Lindsey says she’s worried about the outcome of the case because she uses that non-traditional, private school umbrella option.  

“The fear there is that someone is going to come to your home and arrest you. It happened, and it makes other homeschool families stop and go, ‘Is this where our state is at?’ What is happening? We really don’t know,'" she says. 

Dickinson notes the state has come a long way from those days of parent prosecution. Homeschooling today is more widely accepted. Still, though she says Florida’s education laws are confusing, she adds clarifying the law could lead to even more conflict and revive the old battles.

Meanwhile, the state’s case against the Spells, now in process for more than two years, has been postponed again until mid-December.

For more news updates, follow Lynn Hatter on Twitter @HatterLynn

Follow @HatterLynn

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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