When it comes to independent home-schoolers, Alaska law has little to say.
Children don't have to attend public school if their parent or legal guardian has decided to educate them, according to state law. Legislators added that provision in 1997.
Unless enrolled at a charter school or correspondence program, those families don't receive state funding. No government agency keeps track of who they are or what they have learned. They don't have to register with their local school district — or any school district.
Alaska's hands-off approach to independent home schooling, among the most relaxed in the country, was suddenly in the spotlight last week amid news reports of two teenagers who showed up at the Covenant House on Christmas Eve 2015 and the filing of neglect charges against their parents.
The girls, then ages 16 and 17, said their parents had forced them to live in the basement without heat or water. They never attended public school and had very little home schooling from their mother, according to a charging document written by an Anchorage police detective. The detective said that when he interviewed the girls, they didn't have the normal skills of children their age, which he attributed to their lack of "socialization and education."
The Anchorage School District had no record of the teenagers. Unlike most states, Alaska doesn't require parents to notify anyone if they opt to home-school their children outside of a charter school or correspondence program.
How Alaska handles home schooling has attracted both support and skepticism. Those in favor say the law successfully upholds a parent's fundamental right to educate their children, but critics argue there needs to be some form of oversight.
"We want to make sure that somehow those children are getting what they need so when they hit 18 they have a choice of where to go next," said Diane Hirshberg, director of the Center for Alaska Education Policy Research at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
It's unknown how many parents in Alaska are home schooling their children outside of a school system. Eric Fry, spokesperson for Alaska Department of Education and Early Development, said he had no estimates.
Christy Lawton, director of the state Office of Children's Services, said in an email that she did not have data on how many children the agency had come across who were not receiving education.
The Home School Legal Defense Association, a national advocacy group based in Virginia that lobbies against home-schooling restrictions, was able to provide their number of Alaskan members -- 200.
Dan Beasley, a staff attorney with the association, said there is no way to know how many additional home-schooled families live in Alaska because families don't have to register with any agency.
Alaska and 10 other states don't require parents to notify any state or local official if they choose to home-school their children, according to research by the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit that advocates for more accountability in home schooling.
Alaska's law only says that children who are home-schooled are exempt from attending public school.
Other states are more strict. Eleven states have requirements for home-schooling parents. For instance, in some states, parents must have a high school diploma. More than half of the states require certain subjects be taught and just under half require children to take a standardized test or complete some other assessment, though expectations vary, according to the Massachusetts coalition.
Beasley said he supports Alaska's approach and wouldn't support additional regulations. He said the "vast majority of parents do an outstanding job teaching their children."
"This is a fundamental right that parents have to direct the education of their children," he said. "We want to have them exercise that right with as little restriction as possible."
But Rachel Coleman, executive director of the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, said Alaska's law should go farther. Parents who home-school their children should have to turn in an annual portfolio or have their children take a standardized test to ensure that they're learning.
"The basic buzzword here is accountability," she said. "We just want to make sure that the students are getting educated."
Hirshberg at UAA said there's no data on independent home-schoolers' achievements because there's no tracking. Students don't have to take the statewide standardized test or follow state education standards.
Hirshberg said while there's evidence of home-schooled children who can "outperform anyone," there are others who are unprepared.
"We just go on faith that all the children who are not in a formal school setting are actually receiving what they need," she said.
Sandra McMahon, of Anchorage, remembered the years before home schooling was written into Alaska law.
Before 1997, she said, families had to register with the state as "schools." At that time, she was home schooling one of her daughters.
McMahon said she told the state that at her small, private school she was the primary teacher and her husband was the superintendent. They did not receive any state funding, but had to fill out the paperwork to say they were educating their children at home.
"It was kind of a hokey thing," McMahon said, who later served on the exploratory Academic Policy Committee for an Anchorage charter school for home-schooling families.
Then, during the 1997 legislative session, then-Sen. Loren Leman, an Anchorage Republican, sponsored a bill that would add children who are home-schooled to a list of groups that did not have to adhere to the state's compulsory school attendance law.
Those already exempt included students tutored by teachers with certificates and those attending a private school where teachers were certified according to state law.
An early version of the 1997 bill attempted to regulate home schooling further.
It said the exemption applied to a child who was being educated by a parent or legal guardian and who was receiving an "organized educational program that includes reading, spelling, mathematics, science, history, civics, literature, writing and English grammar."
Eventually that language was shrunk to just: "being educated in the child's home by a parent or legal guardian." In minutes recorded during a committee hearing, then-Sen. Jerry Ward, an Anchorage Republican, said he agreed with the "elimination of the language that could allow the bureaucrats to become involved in homeschooling."
Leman said, according to the minutes, that the state education department did not intend to regulate home-schoolers.
In an interview Friday, Leman said he had forgotten some of the conversation, but remembered the bill as a response to the problem of home-schooled children considered truant.
"I, for one, am a strong supporter of home schooling," he said. "I've seen incredible results."
In the House of Representatives at the time, Eric Croft, D-Anchorage, a future school board member, attempted to amend the bill to say that the child had to be "adequately" educated. But that amendment failed. The bill passed.
In an interview Thursday, Croft said he remembered thinking there should be some "minimum standard."
Today, home-schooling families have options when it comes to how they will educate their children.
They can go independent and do completely as they choose. Or they can enroll in an official correspondence school where they receive state funding allotments, but also must adhere to state requirements. This school year, more than 9,000 students are enrolled in correspondence schools, according to the state education department.
Home-schooling families can also enroll in charter schools where they also receive state funding and must follow state law.
At one of those charter schools, Anchorage's Family Partnership, principal Deanne Carroll said parents can choose a faith-based curriculum as long as it meets education standards and the parents pay for it on their own.
Parents of students at Family Partnership receive an annual allotment of $3,600 for elementary school, $3,800 for middle school and $4,000 for high school, she said.
Leman said he did not intend to get into what home-schooling education would look like with his bill. He wanted to create a path for home-schooling families to avoid charges of truancy.
While Leman said he supports accountability, he said, "the question (is) who should they be accountable to?"
Alaska Dispatch Publishing