By Garland Wright
EDGEMONT – Homeschooling, officially recognized as “alternative instruction” in South Dakota, has experienced significant growth, marking a surge in new enrollees and positioning the state as third-highest nationwide in this trend.
According to a Washington Post Study of homeschool data from 30 states, over the period spanning from the 2017-2018 school year to the 2022-2023 academic session, South Dakota has witnessed a 94% surge in alternative instruction program enrollments. The Washington Post Study also found South Dakota only trailing behind the District of Columbia’s 108% increase and New York’s 103% rise.
While mandatory education laws dictate that all children aged 5-18 attend school, changes in compulsory attendance laws, backed by Governor Kristi Noem and homeschool supporters in House Bill 177, have been pivotal in fueling the upsurge in alternative instruction students.
According to the South Dakota Department of Education (SDDOE), in the 2013-2014 school year, 3,697 students were engaged in homeschooling. By the 2022-2023 academic year, this number increased 146% percent to 9,120. During that same timeframe, the total number of students in South Dakota increased by less than 10% while the number of students attending private school actually decreased from 16,052 to 15,068 (-6.1%), illustrating the shift towards alternative instruction programs.
Moreover, according to the SDDOE enrollment data, the percentage of South Dakota students homeschooled in the state has grown from 2.49% in the 2013-2014 academic year to 5.62% in the 2022-2023 academic year. Enrollment data for this year’s 2023-24 alternative instruction students has not been released by the SDDOE as of yet.
Recent amendments to the homeschooling process have stripped away previous state requirements for homeschooled students. Changes affect the enrollment process and testing requirements. Furthermore, the new legislation mandates that school districts permit homeschooled students to participate in sports, providing school districts with minimal additional funding.
The decision to homeschool or opt for public or private education continues to rest with the parent or guardian. Various reasons motivate families to homeschool, including dissatisfaction with the traditional school system, religious or cultural beliefs, concerns about safety and bullying, vaccine choice, or a desire for tailored instruction.
Parents and guardians assume responsibility for meeting specific requirements when enrolling their students in an alternative instruction program. One such requirement mandates parents to inform their local school district or the SDDOE within 30 days of initiating an alternative instruction program. However, subsequent years of enrollment do not require notification unless there’s a change in enrollment or residence out of state.
According to the rules set for by the SDBOE, another stipulation limits an individual from teaching more than 22 students in an alternative instruction setting. Parents and guardians must also employ a curriculum emphasizing math and reading skills to achieve a “basic mastery of the English language.”
Changes to South Dakota’s homeschool laws in 2021 eliminated the previously required standardized tests for homeschooled students in grades 4, 8, and 11. Meanwhile, public education students in the state must undertake Smarter Balance State Assessments across various grades. However, unlike public education, there is no mandatory testing for alternative instruction students, especially when compared to the requirements of other states.
“Though homeschooling can yield significant benefits, it also presents potential drawbacks,” explains Edgemont Superintendent Amy Ferley. “In our society, we adhere to certain educational standards, and the accreditation process plays a vital role in ensuring that schools meet these benchmarks. Currently, there’s a push to implement new social studies standards aimed at fostering civic-mindedness, yet homeschool programs are only required to focus on math and English. This begs the question, why are these new social studies standards not part of the homeschool curriculum? Public schools carry the responsibility of showcasing the comprehensive learning experiences of their students, a duty absent in homeschooling. This raises concerns about the absence of accountability and awareness regarding student safety in unregulated settings.”
The lack of oversight regarding alternative instruction students’ academic performance raises concerns about the adequacy of instruction. This lack of oversight poses potential risks, allowing students to potentially slip through the safety nets provided by public/ private school settings.
“Our focus is student success; many homeschool parents feel the same,” explains Hot Springs School District Superintendent Dennis Fischer. He continues to state that the 2021 updates to homeschool legislation have tipped the rules of homeschooling in favor of parents and guardians and that there is “very little oversight [of homeschool students], and that’s a concern for us.”
Schools serve as centers for learning and often act as the first line of defense for children facing various challenges. With the surge in alternative instruction enrollments, questions arise about whether South Dakota’s youth might be slipping through unnoticed and facing difficulties without intervention.
Irrespective of attending public school or an alternative instruction program, students must adhere to compulsory attendance policies. Failure to ensure enrollment and prevent truancy for students aged 5–18 can lead to misdemeanor charges for parents or guardians. There are exceptions for students who are at least 16 and pass a high school equivalency test.
Furthermore, according to South Dakota State Law 13-27-1.1, children can be excused from school after the eighth grade for religious exceptions. However, if a child is excused from secondary education due to religious reasons, he or she must still complete structured and supervised training in their intended future occupation.
Alternative instruction students are entitled to public education resources and programs. Local school districts must provide district-provided textbooks or digital resources to in-district alternative instruction students. Additionally, these students can partake in extracurricular activities, including sports, drama, band, dances like Homecoming and Prom, and access courses like dual credit, choosing between on-campus district classes or home-based instruction.
Eligibility requirements for extracurricular courses remain intact for homeschooled students, although oversight relies on parents self-reporting their student’s academic ineligibility, leaving room for potential manipulation.
Nonetheless, nationwide homeschool numbers are skyrocketing, in part because homeschool students consistently score higher on college entrance exams such as the ACT and SAT. According to the National Home Education Research Institute, a study by prominent homeschooling researcher Dr. Brian D. Ray has found that, on average, homeschooled students perform 15-30 percent points higher on standardized tests than their public education peers. With the sharp influx of homeschooled students, more research must be done to determine the current effectiveness of alternative instruction.
“Schools have not been very customer-oriented in the past. Now we [Hot Springs School District] are all about building partnerships with parents, businesses, and community members,” explains Hot Springs Superintendent Fischer when describing steps schools are taking to retain and gain more learners in public schools. Superintendent Fischer emphasizes efforts by schools like the Hot Springs School District to forge a more inclusive and learner-centric approach within public schools.
South Dakota stands out as one of the most homeschool-friendly states in the US and is likely to remain a favored destination for families seeking educational freedom and flexibility.