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Does Homeschooling Really “Cost” School Districts Millions?

by Mike Donnelly • October 23, 2019

A recent WVnews article by Kailee Gallahan claims that “homeschooling cuts about $2 million from Harrison School systems funding.” However, her reporting that the loss of 582 students who homeschool in the county “equates to a loss of $2.5 million and the potential for more than 35 school positions” was both misleading and factually incorrect. Masquerading as a news piece, the article was a thinly veiled attack on homeschooling, built on quotes from three Harrison County school officials.

“More students, more funding, more teachers…”

The article claims that homeschooling hurts Harrison County schools and, by implication, public education in West Virginia by depriving the county of resources it could use to serve its student population. If this claim is true, one might be interested in understanding how such a situation could be addressed. (Surely not by making it harder to homeschool, but by fixing a school funding formula that punishes school systems based on how many homeschoolers there are in the individual districts.) 

But Gallahan’s claim is false.

Harrison County lost nothing because of homeschooling. According to West Virginia Department of Education (WVDE) enrollment figures, Harrison County did not lose 582 students or have their budget cut by $2.5 million. Rather, the school system’s enrollment numbers went from 10,753 to 10,734, a statistically insignificant 19 fewer enrolled students between 2018 and 2019.

Gallahan reports that there are 582 homeschooled students in Harrison County. This represents a significant increase compared to the number from some years ago—which, according to Harrison County Attendance Director Jim Kirby, was approximately 180-200 in 2004. But these numbers actually represent savings to the county and state.

Adding up the reported number of homeschooled students in West Virginia (over 11,000) and multiplying that figure by the per-student funding (around $12,000), the total cost comes out to a whopping $132,000,000. This represents the amount of money the state of West Virginia would have to pay if all those homeschool students were enrolled in public schools.

In addition to these savings, the state and the schools get the tax revenue associated with the homeschooled students. Assuming an average tax bill of $4,000 with property and income tax, that represents $44,000,000 (not including the state’s 6% sales tax . . . likely a large source of revenue from homeschooling families). The total revenue for the schools, by these very rough approximations, is $176,000,000. That basically pays for the teachers’ salary increases over the last two years as well as other expenditures.

Don’t all those taxes, without any of the costs associated with public school enrollment, mean the schools can focus all the resources on the otherwise-lower student population? Why not a little pat on the back for the homeschooling community?

The logical fallacy—that the failure of homeschooled students to enroll in public school entails an automatic loss of revenue to the state—represents a faulty view of economics. Gallahan argues that by not enrolling in school, the homeschoolers are costing the county money. This is simply wrong. The homeschool population in the county costs the schools nothing aside from the money paid to staff who file the insubstantial amount of paperwork now required under a modernized WV homeschool law.

But even though Gallahans’s facts and conclusions are wrong, the article is insightful as to the attitudes toward home education by at least some public-school officials in West Virginia.

Is truancy the main problem?

Citing no numbers of any kind, but merely echoing WVDE Director Kirby’s assertion that truancy is a major problem with the Harrison County homeschooling population, Gallahan paints homeschoolers as fugitives.

“Truancy is our main issue,” Kirby told WVNews. “We’ve gone through the court system to make sure their students are coming to school and the next thing you know they are wanting to homeschool their children to avoid that process. . . . We cannot intervene, we cannot prevent, and we cannot deny.”

Mr. Kirby should know better. 

“Truancy” can be prosecuted as a criminal offense or a status offense against either a parent or a child. However, what Mr. Kirby and the rest of the public education establishment should consider is that there are often valid reasons that children miss school for more than three days, which is when the truancy statute kicks in.

Despite Mr. Kirby’s assertion to the contrary, there certainly is, and has been for decades, a procedure by which the school district can seek an order to deny home education if the superintendent has probable cause to believe a child’s education will be neglected or if there are other compelling reasons.

But painting with such a broad brush misses important issues. There are serious problems in public schools that cause children to resist going there. According to surveys by the US Department of Education, parents have many reasons for choosing home education; avoiding truancy proceedings is not among them.

But even when parents and children are subject to truancy proceedings, there are often reasonable and legitimate factors that explain these families’ challenges in getting children to go to school. It is a matter of fact that schools experience problems like verbal, physical, and sexual abuse by teachers toward their students. It is a matter of fact that bullying of children, both by teachers and by other students, occurs regularly, which cause anxiety, fear, and rebellion. Sometimes students become bored or feel school is useless. These are among the reasons given by families who pulled their children out of Harrison County schools. The recent stories about special education children being treated horribly helps explain why these parents are particularly concerned.

No one doubts that WV’s drug crisis could affect at least some truancy investigations. Nor is there a dispute that there are situations that merit truancy prosecution. But when students and families involved in truancy processes decide to try home education to address the underlying issues contributing to the truancy, what is wrong with that? And if it doesn’t work out and the parents decide to re-enroll the child in school, why should that be considered a problem?

Is this really about the money?

Gallahan’s focus on money is concerning. Is it really just about “more students, more funding and more teacher positions”? I wonder where the children and families fit into the equation? Could it be worth exploring the facts a bit better and looking at research that demonstrates how homeschooling actually delivers better outcomes? In addition to including accurate facts, journalists ought to include at least some mention of the other side of a story, shouldn’t they? Getting the facts wrong, excluding alternative perspectives, and reporting conclusions as “news” strongly hints at an ulterior motivation behind an article.

If Harrison County weren’t the home of the staunch anti-homeschooling State Senator Michael Romano, perhaps the article could be overlooked. Senator Romano has been a leading and vocal opponent of homeschooling, openly calling for significant increases in regulation. Is it such a stretch to see the possible outline of a new avenue of attack on homeschooling: it costs public schools too much?

It’s not that hard to visualize Senator Romano brandishing Gallahan’s article on the floor of the senate, or in the education committee, passionately arguing for more regulations on homeschoolers in order to make up for the money those mean, selfish homeschoolers are costing the public schools. I’ve witnessed such public addresses before at the state house on more than one occasion.

What happened to the 10% teacher’s pay raise?

The article also complains that the state aid formula isn’t “covering our teachers’ salaries.” (But not to worry: as school board member Tim Manchin points out, Harrison County taxpayers are “lucky” that they get to pay the extra school levy tax, since that helps make up the difference.) I wonder if Gallahan is aware that over the past two years in response to direct pressure, including strikes, the WV legislature has authorized a 10% raise for teachers? How is it possible that teachers’ salaries aren’t being covered?

Public education consumes the vast majority of tax dollars in the state of West Virginia, estimated at almost 50% of the state’s entire budget. WV also spends more than most states on public education when measured on a per-pupil basis. With the 10% salary increase, that number will keep going up. It’s a matter of public record that WV public education ranks at the very bottom of National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) testing. Is it fair to ask why public school officials are so concerned about homeschooling when they have such an opportunity for improvement in front of them? Wouldn’t it make more sense if they focused on improving the public schools to deliver better outcomes for the children in them—instead of complaining about how much money homeschooling children are costing (or rather, saving) them?

HSLDA has worked very hard with state organizations like Christian Home Educators of West Virginia, West Virginia Home Educators Association, and the homeschooling community in general, to make laws reasonable and equitable. (For example, in 2016, after years of effort, changes were made to remove unnecessary burdens from families seeking to homeschool. Protections were also added to make it somewhat harder for school officials to use “truancy” as a threat to threaten uninformed parents who were looking for solutions for their children’s unwillingness or inability to get an education from their local schools. Other changes have been made to make it easier for children to get their driver’s permits, and to prevent discrimination against homeschool graduates in employment or university admissions.) And there are many public education officials both in and out of West Virginia who respect the rights of families to homeschool. But Gallahan’s article reveals that hostility towards home education persists. Complaining about homeschooling because of money misses the point of what education is all about: giving children the competencies and character to achieve their full potential as flourishing members of society.

HSLDA is prepared to continue defending the current state of the laws and, if possible, seek even more improvements. In my interactions with him, Director Kirby has given me no reason to doubt that he has been motivated by a sense of duty and professionalism. I don’t know the other public school officials quoted in the article, but my advice to Harrison County officials is simple: spend more time worrying about your own schools and students and less about families who choose not to be part of the “system.” And to Ms. Gallahan: get your facts straight and be a reporter, not just a spokesperson for the public education establishment.

We need your support. We may be facing some challenges this year in West Virginia. Have you joined HSLDA? We need you now. Go to hslda.org/join.

Even though homeschool students aren’t taking the bus, that’s not a good reason to throw them under it.

Michael Donnelly

Senior Counsel, Director of Global Outreach

Mike is an attorney, writer, adjunct professor of government, and frequent media spokesperson on homeschooling, freedom, and parental rights. Read more.

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