JEFFERSON CITY — The selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as the GOP vice presidential candidate has brought national attention to the issue of home schooling, which Palin has championed.
Along with Alaska, Missouri is one of just ten states in the country that does not regulate or monitor home schooling, according to the Home Schooling Legal Defense Association.
Neither the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education nor the State Board of Education has the authority to issue regulations or guidelines concerning home schooling.
While Missouri students are required to attend school between the ages of 7 and 16, and home-schooled students must receive 1,000 hours of total instruction per year, the state does not ensure this is actually occurring until a call is made to a hot line monitored by the Social Services Department's Children Division saying educational neglect is occurring.
According to Missouri statute, home schools must maintain records that provide evidence instruction is occurring, but these records do not need to be submitted to any agency.
"Parents basically maintain a log of the instruction and the instructional time students are engaged in so that if they were ever challenged, if someone wanted to investigate, they would be able to document the fact based upon their log," said Bert Schulte, the deputy commissioner of education. "It's essentially an honor system."
Local public schools and school boards do not oversee home schooling either.
"If (students) are being home-schooled, we have no business in it," said Lynn Barnett, the assistant superintendent for student support services for Columbia Public Schools. "We have no supervisory responsibility for children whose families home school. We don't even know all the families that are home schooling."
Schulte said any proposed legislation to create more oversight or requirements is likely to face opposition.
"Many people who are involved in home schooling are very protective of the decisions that accompany that," Schulte said. "I think they would be resistant to government intervention or some kind of quality assurance. It's one of those liberties that is available in Missouri that those who take advantage of it really want to preserve the autonomy of that liberty."
Scott Woodruff, the Missouri attorney for the Home School Legal Defense Association, is one of those people.
"I personally would like to see the record keeping burden reduced, but the current statuary scheme has been in place for a while," said Woodruff. "Parents are used to it. There's no push for a change."
Parents in other states, including Illinois and Kansas, have to meet more stringent requirements than those in Missouri.
Like Missouri, Illinois recommends parents file a statement of intent in order to distinguish truant students from home-schooled students who are mistaken for being truant.
Kansas regards home schools as non-accredited private schools. They must register the name and address of the home school with the state board of education. While no approval is necessary, instructors must be "competent," instruction must be planned and scheduled, and periodic testing must occur.
"Our home-school policy in the state of Missouri is very, very lenient," Barnett, the assistant superintendent, said. "That's probably not good."
"Some states impose heavy regulatory burdens on home-schoolers," Woodruff said. "Others (like Missouri) impose relatively light burdens. The kids don't do any better academically in the states that impose heavy burdens. So if a heavy regulatory burden doesn't help the kids, why do it?"
In the past decade or so, there has been more research into the reasons for and the result of home schooling. A study referenced by Woodruff compared public school students' scores using the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills and the Tests of Achievement and Proficiency with those of home-schooled students. The median score for home-school students in the eighth grade was about the same as the median score for 12th-graders in public schools. The study ended in 1999 and was conducted by Lawrence Rudner, whose children are not home-schooled.
"The people who do home schooling right — the children get a very good education," Barnett said.
However, Barnett said, there are people who are not doing home schooling well.
Relatives sometimes call local school districts with suspicions of poor home schooling.
"Sometimes we have grandparents that will call being very concerned, knowing that their grandchildren are not being educated even though they know the parents are saying that the child is home-schooled," Barnett said. In cases like these, the district directs the caller to the state hot line.
Barnett said there is probably more legitimate home schooling occurring than non-legitimate. For those that aren't, she said, the legislature should look at the issue again.
"There are some children falling though the cracks educationally because we don't have a structure that makes sure that all children are in school," Barnett said.