An unexpected “disappearance” of thousands of students from school enrollment in Hawaii during the COVID-19 pandemic has some education officials concerned that parents might have withdrawn their children without following procedures mandated by state law, technically making them truant.
In addition, while a growing number of homeschooling family clusters, or “pods,” have contacted the Hawaii Association of Independent Schools to ask how to start a private school, not all are getting licensed, said Philip J. Bossert, executive director of the nonprofit association.
“We are aware of about five or six unlicensed private schools currently accepting students, and not sure that they are informing parents about the need to register their children with the (state Department of Education as homeschooled students) until they become licensed,” Bossert said.
A subsidiary of the association, the Hawaii Council of Private Schools, handles private school licensing on behalf of the state.
Before the pandemic, the association typically got one or two inquiries each year from parents asking how to start a private school, “but during the past two years we have received eight or 10 such inquiries each year,” Bossert said. “About 15 groups have started the process of opening a school by applying for licensing. But some groups have simply ‘opened a school’ without becoming licensed.”
Hawaii law requires that every child 5 to 18 years old attend a public school, or a licensed or accredited private school. Possible exceptions that must be filed with the DOE include homeschooling, an “appropriate alternative educational program” approved by the DOE, “suitable employment” after age 15, and direction from a doctor or family court. Students not under one of the approved options are considered truant.
While the DOE is the main enforcing agency, police also may make arrests: A parent or guardian responsible for a truant may be charged with a petty misdemeanor. Truant juveniles also can be taken into custody.
While the DOE did not grant requests for an interview, a spokesperson confirmed via email that “all parents choosing to homeschool their children must notify their local public school through the completion of a 4140 form or by submitting a letter of intent. A student would be considered truant if they did not do either of the above and were also not attending a private or public school.”
Hawaii’s overall student counts from the past two school years suggest at least some parents who pulled their children from public or private school because of the pandemic didn’t follow the procedures set in state law for homeschooling.
In the 10 years before the pandemic, the total count of students enrolled in all types of education in Hawaii — public, charter, private and homeschool — have ranged from approximately 216,000 to nearly 222,000, according to data maintained by the association. Falling birth rates nationwide and shifting economics have been cited among the reasons for the changes.
But in the 2020-21 school year, the first full school year during the pandemic, when schools across the U.S. largely shifted online, Hawaii’s total enrolled student count plunged to 211,356.
Then with the start of the 2021-2022 school year, as many schools and families were still struggling with reopenings and other pandemic-related issues, Hawaii’s total enrolled student count dropped significantly again, to 208,139.
While the pandemic compelled some local families who lost jobs to disenroll their children and move to the mainland in search of better economic conditions, Bossert said, “also, a bunch of parents at that time just said, ‘Well, I’m not going to deal with this,’ and decided to homeschool their kids.
“So when (then-state Schools Superintendent) Christina Kishimoto first called me when the loss was almost 6,000 students, she said, ‘Did they come to you (in the private schools)?’ And I said, ‘No, we actually had a slight decline. …’”
The number of registered homeschooled children in Hawaii jumped by 44% to 4,755 in 2020-2021, but fell back to a more typical 2,999 in 2021-22.
Bossert, who has studied more than three decades of Hawaii school enrollment data, said parents should learn the rules and procedures for homeschooling, as well as for licensed private schools, to ensure the best education for their children.
“Most parents do not know about licensing, and so they may put their children into one of these new schools,” Bossert said. “If parents put their children into an unlicensed school, then they are homeschooling their children and must register them with the (DOE). If they do not, then their children are truant. Licensing primarily focuses on the health and safety conditions of a school, and also checks to see if a school has a ‘real’ curriculum … and a faculty qualified to teach that curriculum.”
Parents or guardians who homeschool their children must submit to the DOE an annual report showing academic progress, among other documents. The DOE maintains a webpage of information on homeschooling, with frequently asked questions, at 808ne.ws/ homeschool.
Information on Hawaii private school licensing requirements can be found at hais.us/about-licensing.
By participating in online discussions you acknowledge that you have agreed to the Terms of Service. An insightful discussion of ideas and viewpoints is encouraged, but comments must be civil and in good taste, with no personal attacks. If your comments are inappropriate, you may be banned from posting. Report comments if you believe they do not follow our guidelines.
Having trouble with comments? Learn more here.