BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. – Vanessa Ziade is trying to raise compassionate children. But she was concerned that her goal was being undermined as she watched vitriolic battles over mask mandates play out at school board meeting after school board meeting, according to News 6 partner Florida Today.
Adding to her concerns, Ziade has a rare autoimmune deficiency disorder and lung disease that has made catching something like the flu a trip to the ER. When COVID-19 hit, it was Ziade’s worst nightmare come true, she said.
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So Ziade turned to Florida Virtual School, one of the largest homeschooling networks in Florida.
Ziade isn’t alone. She is one of 1,732 Brevard residents who decided to homeschool their children in the 2020-2021 school year, according to data obtained from BPS by FLORIDA TODAY.
Now, as the school year winds down and parents begin registration for the next, Brevard school officials are keeping a wary eye on enrollment, watching for how many more families decide to pull their children from public schools in favor of homeschooling.
While the numbers remain relatively small, the pandemic introduced the idea of homeschooling to many families like Ziade’s who had never considered it previously.
Before the pandemic, in 2018-2019, the number of homeschooled students was about 1,062, almost 700 students less. In the overall scheme of things, the numbers are relatively small. Current district enrollment is about 72,000 students across 108 schools, including charter schools, so homeschooling isn’t approaching anything like an existential threat, at least not yet.
But every time a student leaves the district, it costs BPS thousands of dollars. Next year, every student lost will mean $8,064 less dollars per student for the district. And when students leave, they don’t do so uniformly: some schools can be impacted more than others which shifts the balance in resources.
Educators say their concerns extend beyond the lost money. Without set standards and rules, the quality of homeschool education can vary greatly.
Still, some parents say, for them, it became a lifesaver.
Cutting costs to match
Every student that exits traditional public schools for charter schools, private schools or homeschooling represents a financial loss for Florida school districts.
With the current number of 1,732 students being homeschooled outside of BPS, the district lost about $13.5 million.
As a result, district officials have been forced to make major cuts to the BPS budget to deal with rising costs and increased financial obligations imposed by the state legislature along with the rise in the loss of students to charter schools and homeschooling.
Overall, enrollment in the district actually rose 2% from last school year to this one, a gain of about 1,500 students. That figure includes charter school students, though, and BPS won’t receive funding for those students.
Nonetheless, over the last five years, the district has cut $39 million in costs to keep pace with these pressures, administrators say.
BPS hopes to reverse the trend of students leaving for charter, private and homeschooling. It hopes that by highlighting the district’s strengths, such as its career and technical education program that places students with high-paying local employers like Northrup Grumman, BPS can convince more families to remain in traditional public school classrooms.
“Our goal and our mission is to provide the best education in the county and we do, objectively,” Bruhn said. “We are the best educational choice.”
But district administrators project a continued loss of kids from public schools, though it’s not clear whether the trend will be as dramatic as it was during the pandemic.
According to BPS School Board Chair Misty Belford, when a student leaves the district, BPS often can’t decrease its budget proportionally; it can’t cut the money it spends to heat and cool the buildings; BPS can’t drop a bus route, and it can’t remove a teacher from the staff.
Instead, the district faces the same costs as before, but with an empty seat on the bus and an empty chair in the classroom — and roughly $8,000 less in the budget.
And, of course, students don’t all leave from the same schools — the departures are spread out across the county — making the issue of how to cut budgets much harder.
“It’s a balancing act, because rarely do students leave in neat groups that allow us to actually cut our costs to continue to run a school,” Belford said.
If the trend continues, Belford warned the district might have to look at consolidating students into larger schools to maximize savings.
“It’s nothing that we ever really want to consider doing. But we may get to a point where, realistically, we just can’t continue to keep all of them open,” Belford said.
Experience of homeschool parents
On top of the threat to her own health, Ziade also was worried for her kids by peer pressure, fear of school shootings, and bomb threats. She also worried about how they would be treated in public schools for wearing a mask.
She has seen her kids bullied while in parks, and not just by other kids but also by other parents.
“My kids are asked multiple times ‘Why are you wearing a mask?’ Ziada said. “I’ve had parents bully my kids. We’ve had neighbors bully the kids, and say, ‘You know you don’t really need to wear a mask anymore.” Ziade said.
So taking her kids out of school has eased much of the fear that her children would bring COVID-19 into her household, as well as reducing the stress of her other concerns.
But homeschooling isn’t an option for all families.
Jabari Hosey has two sons in public schools. He and his wife both work outside the home and are too busy to teach children and manage their careers.
The pandemic gave him and his family a glimpse of how homeschooling would look. “And we were not ready for that,” Hosey said.
Hosey said he knew helping his sons with their online schooling would be a challenge, but he was surprised by how much work it took to manage his children learning at home during the pandemic.
Those challenges, taken along with the steady schedule public schools offer to children and parents as well as the social interaction kids get in a public school, has turned him away from homeschooling as an option for his family.
“I think Florida devalued public school over time,” Hosey said. “I’ve talked to parents in my neighborhood, and the idea initially is that public school is not the best option, even if they’re highly rated. It’s always a charter or a private school like that that is deemed better.”
Hosey is the president of Families for Safe Schools, an organization founded in Brevard to support mask policies in schools as well as higher pay for teachers, continued COVID-19 mitigation, robust education on America’s racial history, and LGBTQ-affirming policies.
Hosey said parents like him who wish to see public schools succeed should become more involved in the process and attend school board meetings, join parent-teacher organizations and vote for politicians who support their local schools. If parents advocate and work to ensure their local schools are as supported and well-run as possible, fewer students might leave public school districts, he said.
“So really, it’s about partnering parents, community members, partnering with the schools to make them as good as possible,” Hosey added.
A critical mass of families
Though homeschooling has been a crucial option in protecting Ziade’s’ family from COVID-19, education experts say that the lack of regulations around homeschooling can mean that academic outcomes vary widely. Research findings on homeschooler performance are inconclusive.
According to Robert Kunzman, professor of education at Indiana University at Bloomington, homeschooling began in the 1960′s and 70′s from two different groups of parents: one Christian leaning group that wanted their children to be taught in an environment that aligned with those values, and an anti-establishment group that wanted “an alternative to standardization and institutional schooling.”
It wasn’t until the 1990′s when homeschooling spiked and the trend snowballed into the 2000′s, Kunzman said. Because so many families homeschooled their children, it became normalized.
“We’ve reached a sort of critical mass of families who have chosen this path to the point where you know almost everyone knows a family who’s homeschooling and that tends to bring with it a certain degree of familiarity and thus oftentimes acceptance of it as a choice that families can make,” Kunzman said.
Florida Virtual Schools, one of the biggest homeschooling organizations in Florida, started in 1997 with 77 students enrolled and only six teachers. By the 2017-2018 academic school year, It boasted 207,367 students, according to an annual report from Florida Virtual Schools.
As more families homeschooled their children in the 2000s, opportunities within the community blossomed for homeschooled children, Kunzman said. Places like libraries, zoos and museums started creating more programs to cater to the swelling numbers of homeschooled children.
While more and more programs are being created for homeschoolers, how parents choose to educate their children is widely unregulated.
Parents interested in homeschooling their children must first submit a letter of intent to the district superintendent. They then must submit annual evaluations to the school district. Parents have freedom to determine the curriculum and graduation requirements for their children and can write their own transcript and diploma for them.
Parents might enroll their kids in a program like Florida Virtual Schools that has certified teachers working with their kids or they might put their kids in something like a homeschooling co-op where teachers can teach without certification.
When Ziade started homeschooling her kids, she was concerned they might not have enough opportunities to socialize. However, she’s found a community of homeschoolers that her children socialize with through various activities, she said.
Other homeschool parents who want their kids to have more structure and socialization are enrolling their kids in homeschooling co-ops rather than programs like Florida Virtual Schools. A homeschool co-op is a group of families who decide to homeschool their kids together.
Some like the Space Coast Christian Co-op have gotten so big, there are waitlists and open houses parents need to go to before applying to be part of the co-op.
Natalie Martin teaches high school SAT math prep, chemistry, physics, geometry, and pre-calculus for the Space Coast Christian Co-op. Martin said she has an electrical engineering degree, but does not have a Florida teachers license.
Martin, who homeschooled both her kids, said she first got involved with the co-op so her kids could socialize with other homeschoolers.
She initially pulled her son out of BPS because he was having “processing issues,” Martin said. She then pulled out her daughter who she later found out had autism, though she said she didn’t know at the time.
Martin said she felt pulling them out of BPS was the best decision she made for them. Though homeschooling isn’t for everyone, she said it’s really worked for her children.
Martin described taking her children out of BPS as “total freedom.”
Martin said she believes that the lack of regulations is one of the best aspects of the homeschooling system.
“If the county puts more regulations they take that away and that’s the benefit I think the benefit of homeschooling is to be able to create what works for your child,” Martin said.
However, according to professor of law at William and Mary College James Dwyer, there should be some sort of regulation when it comes to homeschooling children.
Because homeschooling is largely unregulated, research done on the academic outcomes of children who’ve been homeschooled are inconclusive, explained both Dwyer and Kunzman.
Dwyer explained that because many states have no oversight of how parents choose to homeschool or what the educational gains are that children make, it can make it difficult to gather meaningful, unbiased data.
Kunzman added, “Some of the most widely cited research from homeschool advocates about academic performance are not representative.”
Both Kunzman and Dwyer agreed that while there are problems with homeschooling, it should still be available for some students as an option, but it needs to be more regulated and children should have to take some sort of meaningful academic assessment.
“The conundrum is that I think homeschooling should be flexible,” Dwyer said. The flexibility that homeschooling provides families won’t be underscored if students are monitored by an entity outside of the family.