BISMARCK—The number of North Dakota kids receiving an education at home has more than doubled in less than a decade, following efforts by state lawmakers to reduce barriers on the practice.
There were 3,025 home-schooled children in North Dakota last year, according to a recent report from the state Department of Public Instruction, up from the 1,470 in the 2008 school year. But state Superintendent Kirsten Baesler said the actual number of home-schooled kids is likely higher, given some blind spots in the data.
Lawmakers, national surveys, state education officials and home-school advocates offered varying reasons for the trend, including bullying at schools, frustration with Common Core standards and the availability of educational resources online.
North Dakota's trend also appears to follow a national shift. A 2017 federal report estimated the number of home-schooled students in the U.S. more than doubled between 1999 and 2012, jumping from 850,000 to nearly 1.8 million.
"There's an increasing desire from parents across the United States to really make sure that their child has an individualized, personalized learning system," Baesler said. "Public schools are moving in that direction."
Jordan Kannianen, a Republican state senator from Stanley, said he and his wife plan to home-school their eight kids. They wanted to incorporate more religious education and to have more flexibility, he said.
"We love our kids. We want what's best for them," Kannianen said. "(It's) certainly a better teacher-student ratio."
Nick Archuleta, president of the education and public workers union North Dakota United, said he wasn't concerned by the trend and pointed to a 2016 Gallup poll that showed 89 percent of North Dakotans consider the quality of public education here excellent or good, the highest rate in the country.
"We believe that every student should be educated by a highly qualified, competent teacher," he said. "However, we also believe that parents have the choice. And we assume that parents are making the best decisions for their children."
The recent climb comes nearly three decades after North Dakota lawmakers eased restrictions on home schooling.
News reports from the late 1980s describe instances of parents being prosecuted for violating the state's compulsory attendance law. Meanwhile, a committee of stakeholders gathered by the then-attorney general struggled to find compromise over the issue.
In November 1988, the U.S. Supreme Court declined an appeal of North Dakota's law, the Associated Press reported at the time.
"North Dakota was one of the worst states," said Will Estrada, director of federal relations at the Home School Legal Defense Association. "It was a big deal in North Dakota."
But the tide appeared to turn in favor of home-school advocates.
Then-Gov. George Sinner signed a new law in 1989 allowing parents to home-school if they were certified to teach or passed a national teacher exam. Those with a high school education could teach at home if they were supervised by a certified teacher.
Two decades later, state lawmakers allowed those with a high school or GED diploma to home-school without monitoring. And last year, they eased requirements for parents seeking to opt out of standardized testing.
Dan Beasley, staff attorney with the HSLDA, said North Dakota has a "moderate" level of regulation; 27 states have a lower level.
"In the past 30 to 40 years, we've seen across all 50 states there is a march toward less government interference with families' home-schooling rights," Estrada said. "At the same time, the academic scores of home-schooled students continue to go up."
Robert Kunzman, an Indiana University professor and managing director of the International Center for Home Education Research, said home schooling can be a legitimate educational option, but he argued, the trend toward less oversight is "problematic."
"To my mind, you need to have some basic sense of who's home schooling and how they're doing," he said.
Whether home-schooled students perform better academically appears to be a matter of some debate, as well. A 2009 study commissioned by the HSLDA said home-schooled students tested above those in public school, but Kunzman's group argues there are no studies that "draw from a representative, nationwide sample of home-schoolers and control for background variables like socio-economic or marital status."
Baesler said ACT scores and college admission rates aren't required to be reported to the state, making it difficult to compare students through their K-12 careers.
"The large majority of home educators that I have worked with in the state ... they test annually because they want to make sure that they're doing what they need to be doing to make sure that their students are on par," she said.
'A natural extension'
Sitting at her kitchen table in south Bismarck, Kristy Rose guided her two kids through a history lesson on ancient Rome. She started teaching her son, Adam, when he was in the third grade because he wasn't being challenged in private school.
Now 13, Adam said he likes the flexibility of learning at home. His 9-year-old sister Gracey said she enjoys math, science and art.
"When you think about it, from the time your child is born, you are teaching him or her things," Rose said. "It just felt like home schooling was a natural extension of what we had already been doing as parents."
Rose is the coordinator of a local organization of more than 150 home-school families, the Bismarck Mandan Area Home Educators. Group members can participate in weekly physical education classes; "enrichment opportunities," such as spelling bees; and field trips, according to the organization's website.
Democratic state Sen. Erin Oban, a former teacher from Bismarck, argued "there are benefits to being in an environment where you're around people who are different from you" but said she supports parents' rights to teach their kids at home.
"My interest is just making sure that every kid in North Dakota gets a good education that prepares them to be contributing members of society," she said.