Are you considering homeschooling your children this year? Maybe you’ve had it with “remote learning,” which Denver Public Schools will continue into mid-October. Maybe you’re worried about the pandemic or don’t want to deal with the extra school restrictions. Maybe you’ve seen your child lose interest in learning or suffer bullying in school. Maybe your new work-from-home setup lets you spend more time with your children. Maybe you’re tired of the incessant politicization of the public schools. Or maybe you see a path toward offering your child a more personalized and meaningful education. Whatever your reasons, you are not alone: Interest in homeschooling has skyrocketed this year.
If you’re thinking seriously about it, you have no doubt wondered how homeschooling works in Colorado. The Facebook homeschooling groups buzz with such questions. Although as the parent of a five-year-old I don’t have to worry about the legal issues for another year, I’ve had some questions about this myself. So recently I sat down for an internet discussion with Michael Donnelly, Senior Counsel with the Home School Legal Defense Association. Although Donnelly works out of Virginia, he is an expert on Colorado homeschooling law. A disclaimer: I’m doing the best I can to accurately describe the laws in question in light of Donnelly’s remarks; but I am not an attorney, and readers should not consider this material legal advice.
Before we trudge through the legal weeds, let’s start with the basics. Homeschooling is not that hard, legally speaking. It doesn’t even have to be very time-consuming for parents, depending on how they approach it. Homeschooling families can find an astounding array of programs and materials, many of them, such as Khan Academy videos and Core Knowledge downloads, available at no cost to users. Practically speaking, the major issues families face are figuring out how they want to approach homeschooling and working out their schedules. The legal issues need not trip up anyone. That said, homeschooling parents do need to be aware of the relevant laws.
The compulsory attendance law states that a student may be “enrolled for a minimum of one hundred seventy-two days in an independent or parochial school which provides a basic academic education” covering, among other things, “communication skills of reading, writing, and speaking, mathematics, history, civics, literature, and science.” This offers one of the paths to homeschooling.
As Donnelly points out, and as Colorado courts have held, a student can “enroll” in a private school without attending it in-person. This opens the door to the sort of distance-learning private schools often called “umbrella schools.” Typically such schools provide enormous flexibility for families to develop their own educational approaches. Families who enroll in such schools typically regard themselves as “homeschooling” even though technically they’re in private school.
I don’t have a good sense of how many umbrella schools are in Colorado, how big they are, or what they require. I personally have no plans to use such a school (although that may change down the road). Interested parents easily can find lists of umbrella schools through an internet search.
Donnelly points out that the compulsory attendance law offers another option for homeschooling: A student may be “instructed at home” by a licensed teacher. So, for example, a parent who is a licensed teacher is automatically set to homeschool.
Homeschoolers who aren’t set up with an umbrella school or a licensed teacher fall under the homeschool law. This is the route I currently plan to take. The legislative intent is worth noting here: “The general assembly hereby declares that it is the primary right and obligation of the parent to choose the proper education and training for children under his care and supervision. It is recognized that home-based education is a legitimate alternative to classroom attendance for the instruction of children. . . . ”
The measure says a “nonpublic home-based educational program . . . is provided by the child’s parent or by an adult relative of the child designated by the parent.” Donnelly and I discussed what the term “provided” means here. Donnelly does not think this means that the parent (or designee) has to directly provide all the instruction, say through oral presentations. For example, if I hire a Ph.D. in mathematics (or even a smart college undergrad) to instruct my student in math, I am meaningfully “providing” that instruction. Or, if I put on a nature documentary for half an hour, and then discuss it afterwards with my child, I think of that as me “providing” the educational opportunity. Donnelly suggested that there probably is some point beyond which a parent is too far removed from the educational experience. So this statutory language seems to have some fuzzy edges. My plan is to take a common-sense approach to this.
The statute also requires, “A nonpublic home-based educational program shall include no less than one hundred seventy-two days of instruction, averaging four instructional contact hours per day.” In other words, a homeschool family has to fit 688 hours of “instruction” into 172 days per year. This is a little arbitrary; for example, a homeschooler who put in three hours every single day would log 1,095 hours but still not meet the requirements. Regardless, this is a pretty easy burden to meet. Notably, hours beyond the official 688 are totally unrestricted.
The formal homeschooling hours can include any topic—I fully intend to log “shop,” “home economics,” and “physical education” hours, among other things—but must include “communication skills of reading, writing, and speaking, mathematics, history, civics, literature, science, and regular courses of instruction in the constitution of the United States.”
What is a “contact hour?” That’s somewhat open to interpretation. My personal sense is that, if a parent is regularly communicating with a child about the educational material—say, a novel the child is reading—that counts as “contact.” Compare to public schools: If a teacher asks a student to independently read or write something in class, we consider that part of the productive school day. Obviously the parent (or designee) has to be involved at some level. I don’t even think physical presence necessarily is required; maybe, for example, an out-of-town parent could set up a Zoom meeting with a student to review materials. Surely that counts as meaningful “contact.”
The statute also says that instruction must be “sequential.” What does that mean? Donnelly encouraged a common-sense interpretation of this. For example, a student learns how to add first and do calculus much later. You don’t hand a seven-year-old a college-level history text. So I think the idea is to suit the material to the child’s age and developmental level, which is usually pretty obvious. Beyond that, homeschooling is enormously flexible; it’s not like a parent has to teach a specific mathematical concept on a particular day. I know that some homeschooling parents do take a fairly regimented approach, but my strategy is to mainly follow my child’s interests and gently try new topics and materials as he’s ready.
Homeschoolers have to handle a few other details. Parents have to notify a school district (any district in the state) starting when the child turns six, keep basic records, and provide for testing or evaluation in “grades three, five, seven, nine, and eleven.” Prospective homeschooling parents probably should read the entire statute, which is fewer than two-thousand words.
A few words about co-ops and pods: Although Donnelly believes that the compulsory attendance and homeschooling laws do allow for some sorts of educational “pods”—certainly they allow for informal co-ops—parents who want to start a small-scale school wherein students meet regularly with a paid teacher probably need to start a private school. From what I can tell, the main difficulties with this involve complying with zoning and facility laws. But a small “pod” might manage to meet in a public space such as a park or a library, or over the internet. Although I have not deeply researched the possibility, I find the idea of small school “pods” intriguing. Indeed, I think they would be widespread but for the government’s near-monopoly on education.
Families can learn mostly from home and still can take advantage of public schools. Colorado even has online-only public schools. Although families in such schools work largely from home, this is a lot different setup than private “homeschooling,” whether under a private umbrella school or independently under the homeschooling law. In addition, some public schools (such as Woodrow Wilson Academy in Westminster) offer one-day-a-week enrichment programs for homeschoolers. And homeschoolers may participate in public school sports and the like.
As I mentioned to Donnelly, for months I had quite a lot of anxiety over whether to send my child to public school, where to potentially send him, whether we wanted to homeschool, and how we would approach homeschooling if we did it. Now that we’ve settled into the homeschooling path (even though we don’t yet fall under the legal requirements), I feel at peace with my family’s decisions and optimistic about thriving as homeschoolers. I will be glad when we’re past the pandemic and can fully resume the normal social engagements so important to homeschooling.
My basic advice is, don’t let homeschooling scare you. If you and your child want to do it, and you can work out the scheduling, go for it. From your home base you can discover the world.