Public schools often go to great lengths to account for their students.
For RosaLinda Aviles, an attendance and dropout specialist for Kansas City Public Schools, it’s her primary duty.
Based at Northeast High School, she helps oversee a nine-school zone. If a student has been absent for several days, teachers will notify her. She and a district social worker then will try to intervene.
"Often the teachers will know a lot more about what's going, so that's helpful," Aviles says. "We then can call, send a letter, or do a home visit."
In the first three months of this school year, they've been busy. They've done 594 face-to-face meetings with students, mailed 248 letters, made 365 phone calls, and visited 72 homes. Missing school, she says, is often a sign of trouble at home, making her job more urgent.
"Yes, I would say it's like a safety net," Aviles says. Otherwise, she says, more students may fall through the cracks.
Some suggest a similar "safety net" was needed in two recent child abuse cases in Kansas.
‘Safety net’ needed?
Last month, a Wyandotte County man was arrested and human remains of a still-unidentified juvenile were found on his property. In another case, a Topeka couple with 16 kids, 10 of them adopted and two of them in foster care, were arrested for child abuse. In both instances, the parents had registered as home-schoolers.
Would tighter home schooling regulations have made a difference? Mark Tallman with the Kansas Association of School Boards says it’s a question at least worth asking.
“If [parents] want to home-school their child, they have every ability to do that and it is extremely difficult to have any kind of oversight unless there is some compelling legal cause,” he says.
Tallman makes clear, most home schooling families don’t need oversight because they are being responsible about their children’s education. But he also suggests the state needs to keep better track of what Kansas calls non-accredited private schools.
“Who are the children enrolled? How many children are enrolled? That alone, would be a start.”
Right now, neither Kansas nor Missouri can answer those questions with any accuracy because their homeschooling systems are so loosely regulated. Here is a quick rundown of current law in both states.
In Kansas, all it takes to register a home school is a simple online form that takes about five minutes to fill out. After that, home-schoolers have no requirement to check in with the state. (Currently, the state has about 30,000 registered non-accredited private schools, a number that is almost certainly too high.)
In Missouri, home-schoolers are not required to register. It’s suggested they tell local school districts but many do not.
Kansas tells homeschools to do at least 186 days with at least six hours of education per day. Missouri requires homeschools to do at least 1,000 hours of schooling a year, with 600 of that coming in the core subjects of reading, language arts, math, social studies, and science.
There is no legal authority in either state to check whether home schools are meeting these requirements.
Missouri says home school parents must maintain student records (which can take the form of “a plan book, diary, daily log, or other written record”), and also must keep a portfolio of student work.
Kansas has no requirements for homeschooling parents to keep records of any kind.
A teacher license is not required in either state to teach home school. Kansas says home school courses “must be taught by a competent instructor”. In Missouri, no similar language exists in state statute.
'Regulation isn't the answer'
Pat Kangas and her husband Todd of Lenexa have spent the last 35 years home schooling their eight children, primarily for religious reasons. By any measure, it’s been a success. The youngest remains in high school and the other seven have graduated and gone on to college and careers.
Pat Kangas says don’t blame responsible homeschoolers like them for the recent cases of child abuse.
“These are just unbelievably tragic stories, and regulation isn’t the answer,” she says. “The people who abuse the home-education method: do they reflect on us? No more than in a government-funded school where you graduate illiterate students and you graduate students who go on to the Ivy League.”
But for every Pat Kangas, say many school officials, there are also home school families shirking their kids’ education.
“I have been informed several times of home schools that are not really doing what they’re supposed to be doing but we have no authority to do anything about that,” says Janet Waugh, a member of the Kansas State Board of Education from Kansas City, KS.
She suggests the families doing it right can take the lead on more stringent oversight.
“I know a lot of them are doing wonderful things, and maybe they can even have some oversight. That’s a possibility. Because I know there are some homeschool groups and the groups can police themselves.”
Support Already Exists
Cheryl Westra, though says moves like what Waugh suggests would be mere ‘window-dressing’.
Westra helps lead the LEARN Home Education Network, a secular homeschool group of more than 200 families in Kansas City. She admits homeschooling is not for everyone. Plenty of families start, find themselves unprepared, and go back to formal schooling. But Westra’s group helps homeschoolers pool resources, hire tutors, and give emotional supports.
“LEARN is there to help and support families in their homeschooling journeys. To give them the information they need to legally homeschool, to give them information to find the resources they want.”
Westra herself has homeschooled her four children and calls the experience a "great joy". Westra dismisses connections being made between the two abuse cases and other homeschoolers.
“The vast majority of homeschool parents are in it to do the very best that they can for their kids.”
New regulations of any kind are unlikely to be implemented any time soon. Mark Tallman with the Kansas Association of School Boards says, at least in Topeka, there is no political will behind such a move.
“The homeschool community has traditionally been very well organized and emphatic in their belief that they don’t want any kind of government oversight whatsoever.”
Homeschoolers will likely cheer that idea. At the same time, educators in Kansas and Missouri are left to wonder what other cases of abuse in homeschool families may still be out there that their states don’t know about.
Kyle Palmer is KCUR's morning newscaster and a reporter. You can follow him @kcurkyle.