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October 28, 2009

Controversy over “Attendance” at Church Schools

A memorandum from the Alabama state superintendent of education to all city and county superintendents dated September 24, 2009, has sparked a controversy regarding the church school option employed by parents providing home instruction to their children. The memorandum from Dr. Joseph B. Morton reiterates Alabama’s long-held position that the only legal means of “homeschooling” is by a private tutor who is certified to teach in the public schools. Morton’s memorandum recognizes attendance at a church school as an option for complying with Alabama’s compulsory education requirements, but any such arrangement is not recognized as “homeschooling.” The memo makes specific reference to the “enrollment and attendance” language of Alabama law as it relates to the filing of a church school enrollment form with the local public school superintendent. Merely being enrolled in the church school is not sufficient to fulfill the requirement that the student attend the school.

In response to the state superintendent’s memorandum, the attendance supervisor of the Lamar County Board of Education sent out a memorandum to church school administrators in the county, requesting that they reply and verify that all students in their schools were in actual attendance and not just enrolled. After a church school administrator in Eva forwarded the county attendance supervisor’s memorandum to Home School Legal Defense Association, Senior Counsel Dewitt Black mailed a response to the county official to address his concerns.

Black’s letter pointed out that since the onset of the modern home education movement approximately 30 years ago, parents in Alabama have been instructing their children at home by either one of two methods: (1) as a private tutor certified to teach by the State of Alabama under Section 16-28-5 of the Alabama Code or (2) by enrollment in and attendance at a church school located in Alabama as authorized by Sections 16-28-1 and 16-28-3 of the Code. The vast majority of parents conducting home instruction employ the second option. This option requires that the school be operated under the oversight of a local church, group of churches, denomination, and/or association of churches.

Black went on to explain that there are typically two ways that home instruction through a church school is structured. The first is that each home is considered to be a separate church school that is a ministry of the church. Under this approach, a church may have many individual church schools that it oversees. Since the home is the only location of the church school, students attend the school by being present at home where they receive instruction from their parents. The second way that home instruction is conducted through a church school is that each home is considered to be a classroom of a church school that enrolls students from many different homes. Thus, students attend the church school by being present in the classroom in their home. This is the arrangement employed by most church schools with home instruction programs.

It is a little disconcerting that the Alabama Department of Education would raise an issue that we thought had been resolved years ago. For almost three decades, parents conducting home instruction in Alabama have been complying with the compulsory attendance requirements by either the private tutor or church school option. We know of no reason that would justify creating a legal controversy that would attempt to disrupt a successful educational option and upset the thousands of conscientious church school families across the state. In any event, HSLDA is prepared to defend any of our member families whose right to teach their children through church school attendance is challenged by state authorities.