Making sense of homeschool and dropout figures

Indiana makes it nearly impossible for students under 18 to drop out of school but easy – extremely easy – for them to withdraw to be homeschooled.

That background could help make sense of the revelation that some high schools may be steering students from dropping out to homeschooling. Chalkbeat Indiana broke the story with an investigation that focused on CSUSA Emmerich Manual, an Indianapolis “turnaround academy.”

Manual reported that 60 students from its 2018 graduating cohort left to homeschool – nearly as many as the 83 students who graduated. Chalkbeat reporter Dylan Peers McCoy interviewed a mom who said she signed papers for her son to drop out, only to learn he had been reported as leaving to homeschool.

If the school’s homeschoolers had been recorded as dropouts, Manual’s 2018 graduation rate would have been 50%, not the 72% that it recorded.

CSUSA Thomas Carr Howe, like Manual an Indianapolis school run by Florida-based Charter Schools USA, also reported high numbers of students who left to homeschool. The issue may have induced the State Board of Education to return the schools to Indianapolis Public Schools.

Not surprisingly, several virtual charter schools, including the now defunct Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy, reported high numbers of students who were withdrawn by their parents to homeschool. But so did some traditional high schools, suggesting the issue is widespread.

Under a state law that takes effect in 2020, schools where a large percentage of students leave to homeschool will have to justify their numbers to the State Board of Education. Based on figures for the Class of 2019, approximately 120 schools would face state scrutiny.

There’s no obvious way to know if schools are fudging their graduation data, but a Chalkbeat database and an Indiana Department of Education report allow for exploring some questions related to the topic.

How many students withdrew to homeschool compared with the number who graduated? The ratio for the Class of 2019 was by far the highest at virtual schools and alternative schools for at-risk students. But Jennings County High School reported that two students left to homeschool for every five who graduated. Rates were also high at Greensburg and Muncie Central high schools.

How many high-school students were behind on credits when they left to homeschool, a suggestion that they weren’t going to graduate and may have given up on school? Statewide, 56% of students who left to homeschool were behind. In some schools, it was 100%.

How many students withdrew after April 1 of their senior year of high school, another proxy for dropping out? Statewide, nearly 10% of students who left to homeschool did so near the end of their senior year.

How many high schools reported zero dropouts? For the Class of 2019, there were 63 such schools. Some are small, but they also include large, comprehensive high schools with hundreds of graduates, like Bloomington South, Goshen and Indianapolis Cathedral.

Indiana’s compulsory attendance law lets students drop out after they turn 18, which may explain why many students withdraw in their senior year. But at 16 and 17, students can drop out only for medical reasons, to work and support a family, or because of a judge’s order. Parents and the school’s principal need to sign off. Or kids can quit attending and risk losing their driver’s license and work permit.

Indiana’s homeschooling laws, however, are mostly hands-off, according to the Coalition for Responsible Home Education. Parents (or students if they’re over 18) are supposed to complete and sign a form saying they intend to homeschool. They are asked to register with the state, but there’s no requirement.

Parents are expected to provide their homeschooled children with 180 days of schooling per year and the “instruction equivalent” of what they’d learn in school, but no one monitors this. The Department of Child Services can investigate educational neglect, but it likely has more urgent priorities.

Also, parents can claim a state tax deduction of up to $1,000 per child for homeschooling expenses – a break that is not available to parents who pay for books and supplies for their children’s public schools.

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