This week brought a confusing flap over inspection of home schools in North Carolina.
On Monday, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest sent a strongly worded press release headlined "Random Homeschool Searches Need to Stop." It said the N.C. Division of Non-Public Education plans to "resume the 1980s-era practice of randomly inspecting homeschools" and raised questions about the constitutionality of such visits.
“This policy is intrusive, unnecessary, and has the potential to infringe on the constitutionally-protected privacy rights of tens of thousands of North Carolina homeschool families,” Forest said in the release. It says that Forest, a Republican, plans to work with state senators to "clarify when, where, and how the Department of Non-Public Education may inspect homeschool records under the law without doing so in people’s homes."
It certainly seemed possible that the state might revive inspections of home schools. The question of oversight arose this summer, when officials learned that Erica Parsons, who was allegedly being home-schooled by her adoptive parents, has been missing for two years. "Parsons Christian School" never filed progress reports or test results, and adoptive mother Casey Parsons never met with state officials during regional home-school meetings, the Observer learned. Erica has not been found, and police suspect foul play.
But when I called the DNPE to ask about inspections, spokesman Chris Mears sent me a two-paragraph release that was labeled a joint statement of his division and the lieutenant governor's office (it's not posted on Forest's web site).
"The Division of Non-Public Education (DNPE) and the Lt. Governor’s Office have conferred with regard to site visits of North Carolina home schools, and agree that it is the joint mission of DNPE and the Lt. Governor’s office to support NC’s home school families," that statement says.
"As DNPE communicated to North Carolinians for Home Education, no site visits have been conducted and none are planned. DNPE’s review of home schools includes requesting home schools to voluntarily submit records via email or attend a meeting, typically held in a location such as a church basement, for records reviews. At that time, DNPE asks for review of test results, immunization records, and attendance records showing that schools have operated for nine months. DNPE is mandated to annually inspect records according to State law."
Mears said he couldn't comment further. I tried several times Wednesday to reach Kami Mueller, the name on Forest's news release, and got no response. I got Forest's chief of staff, Hal Weatherman, who referred me back to Mueller. Update: I got a voice mail from Mueller on Thursday citing the two news releases. "We're kind of leaving it at that," she said. "It explains everything anyone would ever need to know."
So what's going on? The best clue I found came from an interview DNPE Director David Mills gave to Andrew Branch, a freelancer for the Asheville-based Christian magazine World. Mills is quoted as saying he wanted to revive home visits, which had fallen by the wayside as the number of home schools increased. Last year North Carolina had 53,347 registered home schools serving almost 88,000 children, including 6,573 in Mecklenburg County, according to a state tally.
Mills told World he considers home visits a way to "open up a rapport," but said some families "expressed distrust" over the prospect. He said he had scrapped plans to inspect homes even before Forest's statement.