With distance learning continuing through the fall and quite possibly beyond, many parents are looking into alternative options, including pods and homeschooling. We’ve gathered information and resources about homeschooling in California as a jumping-off point for those who are interested in learning more. Because each family has unique circumstances, it’s important to consider your individual situation and the needs of your child when looking at homeschool options, particularly when your child has an IEP and requires services.
There are four ways to legally homeschool your child in California: a public charter homeschool program, an independent study program through a public school, a private school affidavit (PSA), and a private school satellite program (PSP). Of these options, only public charter homeschool programs and independent study programs provide an IEP. We’ll discuss the merits of each, and will begin by looking at how IEPs work with homeschooling.
Homeschooling Kids with Disabilities
Under IDEA (the federal law that ensures students with disabilities are provided with Free Appropriate Public Education), all public schools are required to identify, locate, and evaluate children with disabilities regardless of whether they attend public school, which means that they are required to offer free evaluations to homeschooled students. Private homeschools are legally entitled to the IDEA funds earmarked for private school students, but this funding is minimal, and how the funds are spent is at the discretion of the school district.
We spoke with Christen McCann, an advocate for helping homeschooling families get IEPs and services for their children. She’s also homeschooled her two sons who are both on the spectrum. “If you’re enrolled in a private school (including private homeschool), IEPs are not provided because they aren’t covered under the same guidelines that public schools are,” Christen says. “It doesn’t mean you don’t get accommodations — the district is just not required to provide them.” Students who go to charter schools (including public charter homeschool programs) are entitled to receive the same type of special education they would receive in public schools.
If you’ve established a private school in your home (through a public school affidavit), this means all teaching and services formally required by your child’s IEP are your responsibility or that of a teacher you hire, which is not attainable for a lot of families because the costs and/or the support needs are high. “This isn’t to say that it can’t be done,” Christen says. “You have the freedom to choose who works with your child. You can use Regional Center, insurance, local nonprofits, or other free services. If you live in the district, schools are required to provide special education services, but it can be hard to get some schools to accept it. A lot of parents don’t know that they can push back. But you have to go into it knowing the law, or hire an advocate or attorney. It’s not about throwing services at a child, it’s about getting good services.”
Christen reminds us that an IEP is a living document that follows your child, so if you homeschool for a year and go back to public school, the IEP will transfer. “Some districts will require you to close out your IEP when you leave, which is illegal. Do not close it out, because you’re just transferring your child to another school,” she says.
Public Charter Homeschool Program
When homeschooling families register with a public charter school, their children are still a part of the public school system, but all responsibilities and services are transferred from the school district to the charter school. The state provides a certain amount of money for each student (usually $2,000 to $3,000 per year) that can be used toward curriculum, classes, tutors, and supplies. The parent is considered the main teacher, and each parent has a credentialed teacher assigned to them to collect attendance and work samples and to help with curriculum. The teacher meets with the family every 30 learning days to make sure that families are hitting their goals and that things are going well.
Charter schools can have physical buildings that homeschooled students are allowed to utilize (pre-pandemic, for example, Christen’s son would take some specialized classes and have an aide for the times he was on campus), or they can be completely virtual (the most popular virtual public charter school is K12). In these completely online schools (there are also private versions), the parent keeps the child on task but is not doing the actual teaching.
For more insight, we talked with Heather, a former special education teacher who has homeschooled her own children for years and teaches general education at a homeschool charter. She tells us that charters offer enormous flexibility in terms of curriculum. “When you enroll, no one tells you which curriculum to use — it’s up to the parent. We have families that use Waldorf, Montessori, Common Core, and Unschool, which involves teaching children based on their interests rather than a set curriculum,” Heather says. She explains that in her family, their learning is interest-based and they do a lot of nature journaling, which turns into research.
At Heather’s charter, IEPs are conducted with the charter school staff, and are bound to the same timelines and expectations as a public school. “My son was assessed and there was a huge gap with processing, so we got a 504 plan to give him more time for testing. The beauty of being at home is that you can make your own accommodations,” Heather says.
Sandra, a Special X parent who homeschools her 8-year-old son Miles, uses a public charter called Inspire (the local school for their area is Blue Ridge Academy). Her son has an IEP and receives services through the school, including speech and occupational therapy as well as adaptive PE. He also receives social skills and behavioral therapy from Westside Regional Center. Sandra mainly teaches her son, along with his special education teacher, who delivers his lessons virtually. Their assigned homeschool teacher oversees his learning, attends IEP meetings, and collects work samples.
Christen notes that with a charter, your services are customized for a home-based environment: “As a parent, you know the best ways to work with your child; you don’t need a special education teacher to know how to work with your child in certain circumstances.” She adds that when you transfer from a public school to a charter, the public school IEP “will be completely ripped apart and restructured” to fit your home-based environment, noting that you can always go back to the public school IEP.
There is one big caveat when it comes to charter programs, though. Two bills were recently passed that could drastically affect funding for charter schools. As Mackenzie Hawkins writes for the Sacramento Bee, “California’s public schools usually receive money based on a combination of the prior year’s funding and the current year’s average daily attendance — a metric that reflects not the number of students enrolled, but rather how many students show up each day.” This has meant that if a student changes schools from one year to the next, the money for their education moves with them — but with the passing of AB77 and SB98, next year’s funding will be based on attendance through February 29, 2020. There is plenty of pushback on these bills, so stay tuned for developments.
You can search for charter schools through the CDE’s listing of Charter Schools in Los Angeles County, their Charter School Database, and their Charter School Locator. Other charter schools to consider include Sage Oak and Sky Mountain.
Independent Study Program
Independent study is an alternative education program that uses instructional strategies tailored to a student’s needs and learning styles. Students are required to follow the district-adopted curriculum and an agreement signed by the student, teacher, parent, and other relevant adults. With this option, your child remains enrolled in either a public or charter school but receives instruction from you. You will be considered a teacher’s aide, and will have a credentialed teacher assigned to advise and monitor you and your child.
Independent study can take several forms: as a program or class within a comprehensive school; through an alternative school or program of choice; through charter schools; in a home-based format; through online courses; and more. Teachers must be an employee of the school district, charter school, or county office of education with a valid certification document. For more information, visit the CDE’s Quick Guide to Independent Study.
Private School Affidavits (PSA) and Private School Satellite Programs (PSP)
Neither PSAs nor PSPs provide an IEP for your child, but some families may choose to explore these options if they prefer to fund the services their child needs through insurance or other means. Note: establishing a PSA officially withdraws your child from public school. Margaret, one of our Special X navigators, tells us she used a PSA for three years. “You’re responsible for teaching, following guidelines, and keeping records,” she says, though she notes they initially hired a private teacher. Alternatively, under a PSP, you can be your child’s teacher while also registering them with a private school. Margaret tells us that West River Academy is a popular PSP; you can check out other available PSPs in your area here.
Socialization for homeschooled kids is currently looking a lot like socialization for kids who are distance learning through their public school. Christen says that some kids are still getting together in small groups, typically when their parents are working from home, but others can’t because of health concerns. “It’s not really any different from what others are experiencing,” she says, adding that a lot of students are getting together on Zoom.
Heather says many people have a misconception that homeschooling is just sitting around your table at home with your family. “Before the pandemic, we were driving around from place to place and seeing all sorts of people, from classes at enrichment centers to museums and libraries. We’re also part of a homeschool co-op that’s made up of 14 families with kids ranging from infants to 15 years old; we were meeting twice a week.” Heather says she’s had to relearn what socialization looks like. “With traditional public school, our idea of socialization is 30 of the same kids for five days a week; that seems stranger to me than kids interacting with people of all ages,” she says. Heather added that she doesn’t want to be dismissive of the socialization that happens in public school because she knows how important it can be, but she thinks there’s a skewed sense that it’s the right way. “Kids in homeschool are getting a strong foundation at home and interacting with people of all ages — it’s rich, nurturing, and constant.”
Pros and Cons
The flexibility and ability to customize your child’s education is the biggest upside to homeschooling. For Heather’s family, “homeschooling is such a joy because we’re not necessarily worried about the expectations of the Common Core curriculum; we’re able to be so flexible and we can do the learning that the kids are interested in, connect it to other things, and get outside.”
Sandra loves that she can work on academic goals in a way that is motivating and fun for her son, and that she has a significant voice in the IEP process. She says homeschooling also allows them to work on behaviors during non-preferred activities, and that she can teach life skills like cooking and shopping that also help with speech, social, and occupational therapy skills.
The cons — aside from potentially not getting the services your child needs — are often related to the pandemic, and are similar to the issues parents of public school children are facing. “There’s a lack of consistent interaction with peers of my son’s developmental age,” Sandra says. “I’m overwhelmed by planning for his learning and the daily demands of his schedule, especially now that all of his services are virtual and I need to be at his side for each session,” she notes, adding that she also struggles with being equally available to her other son, who is 9 and attends traditional public school (and is doing distance learning for now).
Christen says she always recommends starting with community resources. “There are Parent Training and Information Centers all over the state that can provide resources and advocates, and homeschool associations often have attorneys who can provide advice or resources.” She adds, “I always suggest to families who can afford it to use their insurance — find the services that are the best you can afford. Public services are great and necessary, but they’re only for the hours your child is in school, not the other 18 hours of their life.”