LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (KTHV) — The Arkansas State Legislature passed several bills in 2017 related to homeschooling. Students have new ways to play sports and take classes at public schools. But there is new scrutiny on the law that governs the way parents apply to educate their children at home.

“We advocated that the legislation that was presented not pass,” Cathy Koehler said. "Because we believe that the welfare of the children should be put first.”

Act 635 was sponsored by State Rep. Mark Lowery (R-Maumelle). It removes the requirement that parents state the curriculum they plan to use when they file to homeschool. It also says that school districts and the Arkansas Department of Education can no longer ask parents to provide their qualifications to be homeschool teachers.

“Licensed teachers are professionally-trained, just as you would have a professionally-trained surgeon,” Koehler, the president of the Arkansas Education Association, said. “I would ask those very same parents: are you willing to do surgery on your own children because you watched a YouTube video?”

Hollie Oliver has more than a decade’s experience as a homeschool teacher. She has a daughter, Grace, who is a freshman in college, and a son, J.D., who is a high school senior. She has a background in elementary education but claimed that became irrelevant once she started teaching her children.

“I don’t think that I ever really used my education background with my kids,” Oliver said, “because I was constantly changing and researching different curriculums, or different…what worked best for my kid. And you don’t lock yourself into that. I think what it, the most it is, is if the Lord’s called you to that, and then the love for your child because you’re gonna research everything you can for your kid to learn the very best.”

Her children attended private school until they were in the third and second grades, respectively. She did not envision teaching them beyond their elementary school years, but both preferred homeschooling to the traditional school setting.

J.D. Oliver, one of more than 19,000 homeschooled students in Arkansas, said he likes homeschooling because he can, “(have) my school done on my schedule, not just sitting in classes and coming home and doing homework every night. I could wake up in the morning and get it done; I could have something that morning and go and get my school done that night. And it just, there was a lot of opportunities to manage my time better than way.”

“And I think it’s just allowed them to grow into, develop into, who they really are,” Hollie Oliver added, “and given them a lot of opportunities that they couldn’t have gotten.”

The Olivers took advantage of local education co-ops to take classes in subjects that their mom did not feel competent enough to teach. She also educated herself as much as she could to try to guide them in their schooling.

“As long as you are teaching yourself what you don’t understand while you’re teaching your child, so that you can really learn it, and your child really learns it, and you know that they’ve got the concept, and then you move to the next one--because they all build,” Hollie Oliver said. “I think that that’s more important than any degree that you could have, to help you teach.”

Koehler, who represents educators and lobbies on behalf of public education, disagreed. “The idea that anyone can teach is the antithesis of what our culture is built on,” she said. “We are built on standards, and those standards protect the welfare of the children.”

“Knowing the specific credentials, the state knowing that, is really not necessary,” Lowery said. “What is necessary is that the parent knows that they are capable of being able to meet the needs of their child.”

Lowery brought five bills to the 2017 legislative session that concerned homeschooling, and each of them was signed into law. Two allowed homeschooled students to compete in sports for private or public schools, while two others dealt with the ability of homeschooled students to take attend public schools. Act 635 also removed the requirement that homeschooled students take yearly standardized tests, and required parents to provide a mailing address and phone number on their application paperwork, instead of a location.

Lowery said many parents were listing their city or school district as their location, so the mailing address and phone number might be more useful as contact information.

Koehler said that change meant that parents could conceal their home address by listing a post office box as the mailing address. That could be a way for parents who abuse their children to hide their crimes.

“And the gravest concern is that there is no monitoring of the homes that are homeschooling,” she said, alluding to the fact that the state Department of Human Services does not provide routine site visits of homeschooled families.

Since public school teachers are mandated reporters, if they notice signs of abuse, they may be able to help protect their student.

“There’s no more of a desire for homeschool parents to hide from authorities that there might even be for a public-school student’s,” Lowery countered. “You might have situations where a family — a public school family, for whatever reason — might have several moves and not update the school district every time they move from one apartment to another, one home to another. And that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re trying to hide from the authorities.”

This has become a concern for many educators since the January arrest of a California couple who are accused of holding their 13 children captive in the home and abusing them. The parents said they were homeschooling the children, and registered their home as a private school, who is permissible under California law.

Koehler noted that she has never heard any reports of Arkansas parents using homeschooling as a way to shield themselves from law enforcement.

“That said,” she added, “it just takes one case.”

“I understand this knee-jerk reaction to the situation that happened in California,” Lowery said. “But that is one isolated incident among tens of thousands, probably hundreds of thousands throughout the United States. And I think we do do a disservice if we respond to one anecdotal situation, no matter how tragic it is, and we overreach, in terms of regulation or oversight.”

Lowery said his priority last spring was to create legislation allowing homeschooled students to play sports with public and private school teams, but he brought the bill that became Act 635 at the request of education advocates.

“The main thing that took place, as far as homeschooling, is just streamlining the notice of intent,” Lowery explained, “taking out some things that, frankly, the Department of Education said they never check on anyways. It’s just data that they were collecting, that they had been collecting for 30 years.

“Over the 30 years that Arkansas has required a filing of intent, and testing, and listing your curriculum, that information has never been used, and it’s never been found to need to be used.”

While testing is no longer required for homeschool students, if they want to apply to colleges, they will still need to submit scores for the ACT or SAT. Lowery also included in the laws about playing sports that students must meet qualifying scores on standardized tests to be eligible.

“We also have a requirement,” Lowery said, “that, if a homeschool student wants to integrate back into the public schools, to be able to establish what grade level they are at, they have to be tested. So, it’s not like we’re taking their word for it that they, just because they are of ninth grade age, that they’re ninth grade achieving. In many cases, the research shows that homeschool students are usually at a grade level above their contemporaries.

“And that has been a positive experience, not just for the homeschoolers, but also for…I’ve talked to a number of public school superintendents, and they say, ‘you know, these are great kids. They’re a great addition to our public school.’ And in many cases, the relationship was so positive that the homeschool family, many times, has expanded the number of classes that their student takes at the local public school. So, I think that’s been a very positive bridging of any kind of gap that may exist between public school — those involved in public schools — and those who homeschool.”

J.D. Oliver said he never felt that he was missing anything from his educational experience.

“A lot of people would say you miss a social aspect,” he stated, “but I kept all my friends from — I left school in first grade — I still have all my friends that went to Little Rock Christian in first grade. I’m in a small group with all of them in our church and everything. So, I don’t think I really missed out on a social side. I think, if anything, I’ve had more of a social life than if I went to school because I’ve had all that free time that I can go do stuff with people and interact in different ways, other than just seeing them in a school setting.”

He believes he will be more prepared than many of his classmates when he enrolls at Ouachita Baptist University next fall, in part because his homeschool schedule allowed him to accumulate college credit in advance, but also because it let him spend time on campus during the week, so he could sit in on classes and get a sense of what his college experience will be like.

Hollie Oliver, who considers herself an advocate for homeschooling, says she believes homeschool parents are often held to an unfair standard.

“You don’t take away the right of a public-school student or a teacher that may or may not teach it exactly like the book says,” she mentioned. “But I think that, sometimes, it is overlooked with homeschoolers. ‘Let’s come in and tell them exactly how to do that,’ when that may not be what’s best for the student.

“But then, I see the other side, too, that…people who give homeschooling a bad name, because they don’t teach their child, or they don’t help them be the best that they can be.”

“The main thing we have to recognize,” Lowery said, “is that the parents are the ultimate arbiters of what is responsible behavior as far as their children, not the state. And I don’t think that any parent would diminish the ability for their student to — or their child to — achieve the best that they can.”