By Ken Shreeve, HLA Administrator

The decision to homeschool starts with a strong sense of personal responsibility for our children and their education.  A part of that responsibility is to make sure you are in compliance with the state and local laws regarding homeschooling.  We have had several questions recently relating to requirements of Tennessee church-related or “umbrella” schools and have been asked to weigh in on a conversation about what information a church-related school is legally required to collect from parent-teachers.  Please note that this article only applies to Tennessee residents.  If you have questions regarding the requirements in other states, please contact our office for further assistance.

Legally, the State of Tennessee requires a handful of things from Category IV, church-related schools.  These are spelled out in the Tennessee Code Annotated (TCA) and the Rules of the State Board of Education (BOE Rules).  I will do my best to keep this short, but it’s really not a short answer.

Let’s start with the compulsory attendance requirement, a.k.a. the “Truancy Laws.“ For homeschoolers, this is the primary legal requirement with which you need to be concerned.  This is separate and distinct from whether or not your child is actually receiving an education.  The truth is, your student could be receiving a top-notch education while in complete violation of the truancy laws.  On the other hand, there are public, private and homeschool students all across this state meeting the compulsory attendance requirements who are not receiving an adequate education at all.  For the purpose of this article, I will only be addressing the compulsory attendance issue.

Following is a portion the TCA section establishing the compulsory attendance requirement for Tennessee students:

49-6-3001 (c) (1)Every parent, guardian or other legal custodian residing within this state having control or charge of any child or children between six (6) years of age and seventeen (17) years of age, both inclusive, shall cause the child or children to attend public or nonpublic school, and in event of failure to do so, shall be subject to the penalties provided in this part. The LEA in which a transfer student seeks to enroll may require disclosure and copies of the student’s records in accordance with the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, compiled in 20 U.S.C. § 1232g et seq., including, but not limited to, disciplinary records from educational agencies where the student was previously enrolled.

It goes on to provide the following definitions:

49-6-3001 (c)   (3) As used in this part, “public school” and “nonpublic school” are defined as follows:      (A) “Non-public school” means a church-related school, home school or private school;         (i) “Church-related school” means a school as defined in § 49-50-801;         (ii) “Home school” means a school as defined in § 49-6-3050; and         (iii) “Private school” means a school accredited by, or a member of, an organization or association approved by the state board of education as an organization accrediting or setting academic requirements in schools, or that has been approved by the state, or is in the future approved by the commissioner in accordance with rules promulgated by the state board of education; and      (B) “Public school” means any school operated by an LEA or by the state with public funds.To meet the compulsory attendance requirement a parent may choose to enroll their student in a “Home school” as defined in 49-6-3050.  The new (2012) homeschool law reads as follows:49-6-3050 (3) A parent-teacher may enroll the parent’s home school student or students in a church-related school, as defined in § 49-50-801, and participate as a teacher in that church-related school. Such parent-teacher shall be subject to the requirements established by the church-related school for home school teachers and exempt from the rest of the provisions of this section.

This church-related school option is what many refer to as using an “umbrella school”.  The term “umbrella” is not a legal term but refers to the covering offered to these families which acts as a buffer of sorts from the state or local school systems.

Once enrolled in a church-related school, the parent-teacher is subject to the requirements established by the church-related school.  This will sometimes include things such as standardized testing requirements, parent-teacher qualifications, grade reporting, course and/or curricula requirements, etc.  Again, these are all established by the church-related school, not the state or local board of education.

HOWEVER…  There are certain requirements placed on the church-related school by the State through portions of the TCA and State BOE Rules that cause them to require particular information from the parents.  Specifically, this is where the immunization issue and “data reporting” issues recently discussed come into play.  There may also be certain requirements such as curricula choices, etc. that could be affected by which organization a church-related school chooses to place membership as described below.

As you see above, church-related schools are defined in TCA 49-50-801.

Here is what that section of the TCA says:

49-50-801. Church-related schools.(a) As used in this section, unless the context otherwise requires, “church-related school” means a school operated by denominational, parochial or other bona fide church organizations that are required to meet the standards of accreditation or membership of the Tennessee Association of Christian Schools, the Association of Christian Schools International, the Tennessee Association of Independent Schools, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the Tennessee Association of Non-Public Academic Schools, the Tennessee Association of Church Related Schools or a school affiliated with Accelerated Christian Education, Inc.(b) The state board of education and local boards of education are prohibited from regulating the selection of faculty or textbooks or the establishment of a curriculum in church-related schools.(c) The state board of education and local boards of education shall not prohibit or impede the transfer of a student from a church-related school to a public school of this state. Local boards may, however, place students transferring from a church-related school to a public school in a grade level based upon the student’s performance on a test administered by the board for that purpose. In local school systems where the local board of education requires tests for students transferring to that system from another public school system, the same test shall be administered to students transferring to such system from church-related schools.(d) Church-related schools shall be conducted for the same length of term as public schools.(e) Nothing in this section shall be interpreted as prohibiting church-related schools from voluntarily seeking approval by the state board of education nor prohibiting the state board of education from extending such approval when it is voluntarily sought.

Additionally, following is the section of the State BOE Rules that define the categories of non-public schools including Category IV which is the category of school in which a church-related school school will fall (The other categories involve “accreditation,” and attaining accreditation results in a loss of the ability to appoint parents as teachers and have home-based, parent directed programs allowing parents to choose their own curricula and education plan for their students.)

0520-07-02-.05   CATEGORY IV: EXEMPTED SCHOOLS.(1) Schools in this category are exempt from regulation regarding faculty, textbooks, and curriculum. T.C.A. § 49-50-801 defines a church related school as “a school operated by denominational, parochial or other bona fide church organizations, which are required to meet the standards of accreditation or membership of the Tennessee Association of Christian Schools, the Association of Christian Schools International, the Tennessee Association of Independent Schools, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the Tennessee Association of Non-Public Academic Schools, the Tennessee Association of Church Related Schools or a school affiliated with Accelerated Christian Education, Inc.”.(2) Each school shall:   (a) Comply with all rules and regulations and codes of the city, county, and state regarding planning of new buildings, alterations, and safety.   (b) Comply with all rules and regulations of the Tennessee Department of Health and Environment regarding construction, maintenance, and operation of the school plant.   (c) Observe all fire safety regulations and procedures promulgated by the Tennessee Fire Marshal’s Office.   (d) Comply with the requirements of T.C.A. §49-6-5001 that each child enrolled in school be vaccinated against disease.   (e) Comply with the requirement of T.C.A. §49-6-3007 that the names, ages, andaddresses of all pupils in attendance be reported to the superintendent of the publicschool system in which the student resides.

As you can see, the first three requirements are related to building, health and fire safety issues that will not apply to the home-based programs of umbrella schools.  This means that there are really only TWO main requirements established in this section of the BOE Rules that directly impact church-related schools.  Those are the requirements to confirm that students are vaccinated (or have a religious or other valid exemption) and to report “the name, age and address of all pupils to the superintendent of the public school system in which the student resides.”

It is the “data reporting” requirement that has resulted in differing opinions among some church-related schools and parents as to what is exactly required.  This is because the BOE Rule above doesn’t exactly match the text in the TCA in 49-6-3007 relating to this issue.  It reads as follows:

49-6-3007 (c) – “It is the duty of the principals and teachers of all schools, public, private, denominational or parochial, to report in writing to the director of schools of the system in which the school is located the names, ages and residences of all pupils in attendance at their schools and classes within thirty (30) days after the beginning of the school year, and to make such other reports of attendance in their schools or classes, including transfers of pupils, as may be required by rule or regulation of the local board of education and of the state board of education. Notwithstanding subsection (g), this subsection (c) shall apply to any child less than six (6) years of age who is enrolled in any school to which this subsection (c) is applicable.

The TCA states that the information is to be reported “to the director of public schools of the system in which the school is located” while the BOE Rules say, “where the student resides”.  This has left some church-related schools to feel that they only need to report this information to the BOE where the school is based. For instance, HLA is based in Jackson, TN which is in Madison County.  With this understanding, we would either report all of our students to Madison County or possibly only those living in Madison County to the Madison County BOE.

In the case of HLA, we happen to hold membership in ACSI (the Association of Christian Schools International) as part of meeting the requirement in 49-50-801 and the BOE Rules.   To maintain our membership with ACSI, they require us to sign an affidavit every year affirming that we have abided by the BOE Rules.  This includes the text relating to reporting based on where the student resides.  We have also been advised by HSLDA (Homeschool Legal Defense Association) that this is what should be done.  Therefore, HLA does report the name, age and address of each student to the director of schools of the school system where the student resides.

The importance of complying with these requirements as defined in the TCA and BOE Rules is based on the fact that should a church-related school be deemed to not be in compliance, their status as a valid Category IV, church-related school could be challenged.  Should their status be lost, it would then put every student enrolled in their school in jeopardy of being charged with truancy, as they would no longer meet the compulsory attendance requirements in 49-6-3001.

Church-related schools are also required to keep “daily” reports of attendance based on the following TCA section:

49-6-3007 (d) All public, private and parochial schools shall keep daily reports of attendance, verified by the teacher making the record, which shall be open to inspection at all reasonable times, to the director of schools of the system in which the school is located or to the director of schools’ duly authorized representative. Notwithstanding subsection (g), this subsection (d) shall apply to any child less than six (6) years of age who is enrolled in any school to which this subsection (d) is applicable.    (e) (1) It is the duty of the principal or teacher of every public, private or parochial school to report promptly to the director of schools, or the director of schools’ designated representative, the names of all children who have withdrawn from school, or who have been absent five (5) days without adequate excuse. This means an aggregate of five (5) days during the school year and not necessarily five (5) consecutive days. Each successive accumulation of five (5) unexcused absences by a student shall also be reported.

One of the terrific benefits of homeschooling is the flexibility in teaching schedules.  It would be difficult at best to truly track attendance on a daily basis so as to monitor for students with too many unexcused absences.  I’m not sure there really is such a thing as an unexcused absence for a homeschooler! 🙂  Because of this, most church-related schools only require parent-teachers to report a total number of days in attendance.  At HLA, we require reporting of grades and attendance twice per year, at the end of each semester.

As I mentioned earlier, each church-related school may establish its own policies and requirements in addition to those listed here.  Some of the requirements may include proof of education requirements for parent-teachers, standardized testing for students, specific curricula choices, minimum requirements for graduation, agreement with a statement of faith, membership in a certain church, membership with HSLDA, etc.

There are also other factors to consider when deciding on a church-related school or whether or not you wish to use that method of meeting compulsory attendance.  Each church-related school is unique in the services and options offered.  Some have a strong online presence while others may focus on a strictly local service offering.  There are church-related schools that offer sports teams, standardized testing, onsite tutoring, counseling support, official transcripts, dual enrollment options as well as many other possible services.

I encourage you to fully research any church-related school that you are considering to make sure that they will be a good fit for your family and your student’s educational and life goals.  Of course we would love to serve you and your students at HomeLife Academy; however, if we believe that your needs will be better met with another school or option, not only will we not be offended by your decision, we will likely recommend it to you. “Choices in Education” really is more than just a tagline to us.  It’s a philosophy! 🙂

If you would like to know more about HomeLife Academy, the services we offer and our requirements for registration, please visit our website at www.homelifeacademy.com or give us a call at 888-560-0774.