New Jersey has long been known as one of the least restrictive states when it comes to homeschooling, not only not requiring much of families that choose to educate their own children but also not even keeping track of who they are.
But reacting to a spate of child abuse incidents and other concerns, State Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) has moved to try to put in place some rules that she calls "minimal" to at least get some accounting of the children's existence, along with their health and education.
Weinberg, the incoming Senate majority leader, on Monday introduced legislation that would require homeschooled students to register with their home districts, submit proof of schoolwork, and present an annual medical exam.
This has been a long-running issue for Weinberg, also chairman of the Senate health committee, who sought to place some rules on homeschooled students nearly a decade ago as an Assembly member.
"The homeschool community flooded me with calls, followed me around the Statehouse," Weinberg said of the last attempt.
But she said this time, she hopes for a "more rational discussion" and already has heard from some organizations willing to meet. She stressed that she was flexible in some of her proposals, especially those that may exceed what is required of public education students, such as the medical exam.
"We are not regulating curriculum or anything like that, that's up to parents," Weinberg said yesterday. "But I think the state has an interest to make sure they are getting a basic education, reading and writing."
Currently, that is not required. New Jersey is among a handful of states with few, if any requirements on homeschool families, only stipulating by statute that children "receive equivalent instruction" to that of public school. But that has allowed some children to fall off social services' radar screen, Weinberg and other child advocates have said, sometimes to tragic results. The most recent was the case of a homeschooling family in Irvington last summer where the 8-year-old daughter died of complications from an untreated broken leg.
Still, the state has no overall tally -- not even a rough count -- of how many homeschool students are out there. By some assessments, it is a few thousand. By others, it may be as many as 30,000 to 40,000 -- extrapolating from the national estimate that homeschool students make up as much as 2 percent of the overall school-aged population.
A state Department of Education spokesman yesterday said a new data system will do better tracking students if they move from traditional schools to homeschooling, but not if they never enter district schools to begin with.
Still, some in the homeschool community are resistant to the notion of any state control or tracking.
"This legislation would move New Jersey from one of the friendliest states in the country [for homeschooling] to one of the worst," said Scott Woodruff, senior counsel for the Homeschool Legal Defense Association in Virginia, which tracks homeschool legislation nationwide. "Anyone who describes it differently is not facing reality."
He said the medical exam would make New Jersey the only state in the country that singles out homeschool students for this requirement. Another restriction in Weinberg's bill would prohibit students in the child welfare system from being homeschooled, one that Woodruff said would also be the first in the country.
"The law as it is now is simple and effective and has worked well for years," Woodruff said. "She's trying to make the homeschool students and their families the scapegoats for the failings of [Division of Youth and Family Services]."
Weinberg said she hoped to find some happy medium that would avoid the battles of the past and at least put some kind of accounting on what is clearly a growing population.
"I just think the state has some interest in knowing these children exist and are getting a basic education," she said.