Here’s a tip for education officials in Washington state:

When a public school district hires full-time teachers and an administrator, installs them in a dedicated space on property paid for by taxpayers, then calls that enclave a “homeschool”—it really isn’t.

This otherwise-obvious fact became a little obscured this fall when a school district in Thurston County began marketing a new program.

According to Seattle’s KING-TV, “the district converted a building used to train teachers into a three-classroom campus, with three full-time teachers and a principal,” which it named Ignite Family Academy—a program aimed specifically at homeschool families.

Stephanie Hollinger, the academy’s principal, explained it this way: “We . . . partner with our families, support them with their homeschooling.”

So far, 42 students have enrolled, taking advantage of “classes like robotics, art, music and reading to students, four days a week.”

More to the Story

According to HSLDA Staff Attorney Tj Schmidt, Thurston County school officials’ characterization of this program is misleading.

True, Washington law recognizes the “less structured and more experiential” nature of homeschooling and encourages officials to accommodate parents as they search out innovative and enriching experiences.

And as Schmidt remarked,  HSLDA has “never taken the position that state law would prohibit a homeschool parent from using a co-op class or outside instruction.”

However, he added that homeschool parents should know that using a program like the one being offered in Thurston County limits their freedom and flexibility and can give their students an awkward, if not murky, educational status from a legal standpoint.

Public or Private?

Washington law states that pupils who receive more than 25 hours of instruction a week from public schools meet the threshold for being counted as full-time public-schooled students. So that would make your homeschool student subject to pretty much all the laws and bureaucratic red tape that apply to public-schooled students.

Years ago, when public school officials started marketing these special programs to homeschoolers, Schmidt explained that officials weren’t always clear about whether a student’s participation had changed his or her status from part-time homeschooler to full-time public-schooled student.

At that time, Schmidt said, even students who received less than 25 hours of instruction a week from public schools may have been counted as full-time public-schooled students without knowing it.

“It became a problem,” he recalled. “Homeschool parents would have to figure out on their own how many hours a week their children were being counted for by local school officials and what that meant.”

Homeschool advocates eventually shepherded a bill through the legislature that required public schools to disclose the status of students in these special programs.

Freedom at Stake

Still, parents should know that the fundamental nature of public school programs—however creatively they are packaged—remains the same. Once children step through the portal of a public school classroom, parents give up their guidance in how those children are taught, what they are taught, and how they are disciplined.

For example, said Schmidt, Washington homeschool law requires homeschooled students to be assessed annually, but it lets parents choose the method of assessment. Parents also don’t have to submit the results to any officials, but simply keep them with their homeschool records.

However, as KING-TV points out, parents with children in the Thurston County academy are “required to have monthly meetings and assessments with district staff.”

And Schmidt added, the public school staff typically will not take any responsibility for recording the public school program’s high school-level classes on your child’s homeschool transcripts.

This is a far cry from the kind of homeschooling where parents are free to craft custom, flexible programs tailored to each child’s individual needs.

A Closer Look

As HSLDA Staff Attorney Amy Buchmeyer put it, “in enrolling, you are agreeing to a lot more restrictions. You are definitely limiting what you can do with your students.”

She advises parents—especially those who only recently withdrew their students from public school—to evaluate their reasons for homeschooling before committing to a program such as the one in Thurston County.

“Ask yourself,” she said, “do I really want to put my child back in that environment? Is the loss of freedom and flexibility worth the class or two that my child would be taking in the public school program?”