Ah, spring. Along with income taxes and allergies, this time of year also delivers to homeschool families irritating contacts from public school officials who overcompensate in their attempts trying to comply with federal mandates, such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
Many parents homeschool because the freedom to craft safe, loving, custom learning experiences allows their kids—especially those with special needs—to flourish. And because many also elect to meet their students’ unique needs without government help, it can be especially aggravating when officials repeatedly try to get them to switch to public school services.
A prime example of this occurs every April in Kentucky when public school districts send questionnaires to homeschool families, asking if they want services for students with special needs, Home School Legal Defense Association Staff Attorney Tj Schmidt explained.
These questionnaires often include multiple forms with inquiries clearly not aimed at a school composed of mom and dad teaching their own kids. For example: “Have you filed articles of incorporation with the office of the Kentucky secretary of state as a nonprofit corporation drafted under KRS 273?”
The confusion is compounded in states such as Kentucky where, according to education laws, homeschools technically operate as tiny private schools in the home. (But articles of incorporation are still not required for homeschools operating as private schools.)
Nevertheless, these mailings keep arriving because they are the way Kentucky Department of Education officials have chosen to comply with the IDEA.
Looking for Children
In keeping with a specific provision of IDEA known as Child Find, “they have to have a policy to locate, identify and evaluate children with disabilities,” Schmidt said. “They have to do more than just sit back and wait for children with disabilities to come to them.”
The federal government also provides funding for each child who is registered with the local public school for special needs services, a fact that HSLDA Senior Counsel Mike Donnelly said contributes to the sometimes aggressive manner in which officials conduct this annual search.
“The practical effect,” Donnelly explained, “is that schools make all kinds of efforts to identify the children so they can comply with the law, including requesting anyone who suspects a child of having a learning disability to report that child to authorities—regardless of whether the parents are already providing services that their child needs through homeschooling.”
Right to Privacy
The problem arises when officials fulfill this duty with a zeal that leaves homeschool parents worried about the consequences if they don’t return a full packet with every i dotted and t crossed.
The fact is, Schmidt insisted, “No parent is obligated to provide this information. They can if they want to, especially if they want to get some special education services through the public school.”
Unfortunately, the correspondence sent by officials doesn’t always make it clear that responding to these queries is optional. Nor do officials themselves always receive clear, accurate directives.
For example, instructions on the Kentucky Department of Education website to local officials regarding IDEA compliance states the following: “
You are required to list all private non-profit schools and all homeschools that are physically located in your school district’s geographic boundaries, not just those participating. Include memberships of all private schools and all homeschools, regardless of whether they will participate or are eligible to participate in the above programs.”
Questions about Questions
So Kentucky’s Jefferson County recently sent a letter with several attached questionnaires and instructed homeschool parents to “please fill out the forms completely by answering each question.”
And it’s not just in Kentucky. Every year, HSLDA hears from parents across the country who are troubled by persistent government requests for information about students with special needs.
Donnelly said he recently advocated for a homeschool mom in Massachusetts who was told she had to have her daughter screened by the local public school for special needs services.
“The mom was nervous,” Donnelly related. “She could have just ignored the request, but I wrote a letter to the school explaining that parents are not obligated to participate in any screening, and if the family changed their minds, they would let the school know.”
Donnelly said that he understands these situations arise simply because officials are trying to fulfill their obligation under the law. However, he added that there are many alternative sources for special needs services that don’t come with the restrictions and bureaucracy endemic to government-run education.
“Many of the same services provided in public schools are available privately through insurance,” he explained. And private services are often more compatible with the customized, flexible nature of home education.
In fact, said Donnelly, “homeschooling works really well for children with special needs, since they are getting one-on-one attention and curriculum that is tailored to their abilities and goals.”
As a benefit to members, HSLDA provides education consultants who can answer questions about homeschooling children with special needs—including advice on curriculum and where to look for services.
Meanwhile, Donnelly has this reminder for parents troubled by officials who demand information about their children with special needs.
“You don’t have to do it,” he said. “And if you need help, call HSLDA.”