Dear District Administrator:
Here is information about homeschooling in Wisconsin. If public school officials and homeschoolers can reach a clearer understanding, we will all be able to work more effectively to meet the educational needs of children and families in Wisconsin.
Wisconsin Parents Association (WPA) is a state-wide grassroots non-profit organization of over 1,200 families that has been serving homeschoolers in Wisconsin since 1984. We have worked with thousands of homeschooling families, many of whom are still homeschooling, some of whom have chosen to enter or re-enter conventional schools and have done so successfully, and many of whom are now members of the work force or college students.
Here is clarification of some points that have been causing confusion. Please communicate this information to principals and other officials in your district who need it.
Each autumn, a few districts threaten to charge homeschoolers with truancy and/or report them to social services either because they have not submitted form PI-1206 to the DPI or because the district has not yet received its copy of their form from the DPI. As explained below, these threats are unfounded and amount to harassment. Please ensure that no one from your district threatens homeschoolers in this way.
According to Wisconsin statutes, families who have not enrolled their children in a public or a conventional private school for the current school year may legally begin homeschooling at the beginning of the school year. They are required to submit form PI-1206 to the DPI (not to their local school district) on or before October 15. Forms must be submitted each year a family is homeschooling a child who is six or older on or before September 1. Forms are due on October 15 because that is the date that all schools (public and private, including homeschools) report to the DPI what their enrollment was on the third Friday in September.
The only families who need to submit forms before October 15 are those who have enrolled their children in a conventional school for the current school year and then decide to homeschool. These families can begin homeschooling as soon as the DPI receives their form, so if they want to begin before October 15, they must submit the form before that date. However, it is not necessary to begin homeschooling before October 15. Families who decide to begin after October 15 can send a form to the DPI and begin once the DPI has received it.
Families usually begin homeschooling before your office receives its copy of their form from the DPI. In fact, because the DPI only sends forms to school districts once every three or four weeks, there is often a significant time lapse between when the DPI receives a form and when your office gets its copy.
Compulsory school attendance laws require that children attend school, but they do not require that children become educated. School districts charge students with truancy if they do not attend classes. They do not charge students with truancy if they fail to make satisfactory progress or even if they need to repeat a grade. There are no laws against doing poorly in school. When parents have sued public school districts for failing to educate their children, the districts have always won, and we wouldn't want it any other way. Education is far too complex a process. If the government through the schools could be held accountable for making sure that children become educated, we would no longer have a free society.
Therefore, attempts by school officials to make sure homeschooled children are getting a good education exceed the officials' legal authority and can be seen as a form of harassment, however well intentioned an official may be.
As discussed above, homeschoolers are required to file form PI-1206 with the DPI each year. In addition, WPA encourages homeschoolers to give school census takers the information that is on their form. Except for this census, homeschoolers are not required to give information to local school districts. School officials who send questionnaires to homeschoolers asking for information about their curriculum, school calendar, approach to education, educational achievements, personal lives, etc., are exceeding their authority. WPA strongly encourages homeschoolers not to respond to such questionnaires or other inquiries.
Consistent with DPI policy and the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), it is illegal for school officials to use the names and addresses from PI-1206 forms for any purpose other than enforcement of the compulsory school attendance law. It is illegal to use information from the forms to contact homeschoolers to collect information about their personal lives or approaches to education, to offer them services, or for other reasons.
Most homeschoolers want to educate their children without using public schools, even for one or two courses, partly because this increases the opportunities that public schools have to control and regulate homeschoolers. We want something different for our children from what public schools offer.
Very few homeschoolers and other private school students actually take courses in public schools, even though Wisconsin law requires school districts to provide private school students, including homeschoolers, with up to two high school courses each semester, for which districts are reimbursed on the basis of full-time equivalents (FTEs). According to statistics from the DPI, the largest state-wide total of FTEs for one semester was 40.76 (in the fall of 1999). This represents at most about 200 private school students (assuming that at most there are about 5 students comprising each FTE), of whom an undetermined number were homeschoolers. On average, fewer than half the districts have one private school student taking one or two courses; more than half the districts have none. Even if all of these students were homeschoolers (which is highly unlikely), only about 3% of the roughly 6,000 high school aged homeschoolers took one or two courses. Clearly the vast majority of homeschoolers do not want to take public school courses, even when they are readily available.
However, this situation is more complex than the preceding paragraphs indicate. For one thing, it is important to remember that homeschoolers are entitled to take courses in the public schools if they so choose.1 Also, a very small but often very vocal minority of homeschoolers wants to participate in courses and extracurricular activities, including public school sports. You are more likely to hear from this vocal minority than from the vast majority of homeschoolers who do not want to participate in public schools. This may give you the erroneous impression that many more homeschooler want to participate in public schools than want to. We strongly suggest that you make mutually acceptable arrangements on a case by case basis with the few homeschoolers who ask to participate in your district's public schools and not undertake initiatives to convince homeschoolers to enroll in your district. Then you can focus your energy and that of your staff on more pressing matters facing your district.
It's clear from points (2), (3), and (4) that it is inappropriate for you or your staff to meet with homeschoolers to offer us services or an opportunity to participate in your programs either because you are responsible for our children's education (you are not) or because many homeschoolers want to participate in public school programs (we do not) or to be nice to us.
Wisconsin law does not prohibit students who have been truant from public school from beginning homeschooling. In fact, sometimes homeschooling is a good option for them. Some students who have difficulty learning in a conventional school learn better with the individualized, one-on-one, hands-on approach that homeschooling offers. This can also relieve schools of students who do not want to attend and who may therefore cause problems.
However, students who are charged with truancy cannot escape prosecution for past offenses by beginning homeschooling any more than they can by achieving perfect attendance the following semester or by enrolling in a conventional private school. While they are homeschooling, they can still be prosecuted for the truancy they allegedly committed before they started homeschooling. To be sure, very few of the roughly 75,000 "habitual truants" in Wisconsin are prosecuted for truancy. This is not because they have begun homeschooling. Rather, they are not prosecuted for a variety of reasons: Resources can often be better used in other areas. District attorneys have higher priorities and/or don't want cases that are often complicated and for which there are not clear and effective penalties. Neither forcing students to attend school nor punishing them usually helps them get the education they need.
Some officials want to increase state regulation of homeschooling (perhaps by prohibiting habitual truants from homeschooling, or by requiring that homeschooling parents meet certain qualifications, or by instituting state-mandated testing for homeschoolers) in a misguided attempt to prevent the misuse of homeschooling.
This approach will not work. Increased regulation of homeschooling is not necessary for students to be prosecuted for truancy. Wisconsin currently has strong truancy laws, although they are seldom enforced. We need to face the fact that there are no simple solutions to the problems facing these students, and there is no good place for them to go. At least claiming that they are homeschooling spares them the problems attendant with school or jail. Without the pressure and negativity, some young people will start doing something constructive. (Note that we are NOT claiming that homeschooling is a good approach for these young people. We certainly know that homeschooling requires a strong commitment and hard work. We are simply pointing out that it does not make sense to spend a lot of time and energy trying to prevent a few truants from claiming to be homeschooling, especially since that would undermine good homeschools, as explained below.)
In addition, increasing state regulation of homeschooling will undermine all the homeschools that are working well by forcing them to become more like conventional schools. As homeschoolers, we have opposed increased state regulation of homeschooling since 1984, and we will continue to do so, especially since we are convinced that such increases would not help students who have had so much difficulty in school that they have turned to truancy.
According to the DPI, students who have been expelled from a conventional school still need to comply with the compulsory school attendance law. However, these students often have difficulty finding a school to attend, especially if they cannot locate a conventional private school that will accept them or if they cannot afford the tuition. Therefore, some school officials suggest homeschooling as a way of complying with the compulsory school attendance law. However, this is not an appropriate suggestion unless the family actually wants to homeschool. In fact, the DPI's statement that expelled students have to comply with the compulsory school attendance law is a recent interpretation of state law that has not been tested in court. It is highly unlikely that it would stand up.
If you have questions about these points or other aspects of homeschooling, feel free to call the WPA Voice Mail at 608-283-3131. Information is also available through our 275-page handbook, Homeschooling in Wisconsin, and our Web site, www.homeschooling-wpa.org. You can also refer interested parents to these resources.
Thank you for your attention to these matters so that the needs of the children of Wisconsin can be served.
M. Larry Kaseman Executive Director
1. The WPA handbook, Homeschooling In Wisconsin, discusses in detail why public schools are required to offer both core and non-core courses to all children, including homeschoolers. (See pp. 220 ff.) Confusion about this point sometimes arises because the DPI is still using an out-dated Attorney General's Opinion (OAG 45-86) as a basis for advising school districts that they do not need to allow homeschoolers to take courses. This Opinion is based on the facts that the vast majority of conventional private schools are sectarian and that parents pay tuition to support these schools. The Opinion claims that it would be unconstitutional for public schools to offer core subjects to private school students because private schools could then use money they would have spent for basic subjects to teach more religion. Thus, public funds would be used to promote religion, which would be a violation of the establishment clause of the Constitution (sometimes referred to as the "separation of church and state" provision). Clearly, this argument does not make sense when applied to homeschoolers. In addition, the Opinion has been superseded by the Wisconsin statute discussed above that requires high schools to provide private school students with up to two courses and by another statute that provides tax dollars to private schools for both core and non-core courses. More recently, the Wisconsin Supreme Court has issued an opinion that public funds can be given to religious schools for all grades as well.