Keeping Attendance: Legally and with Common Sense

One rather contentious topic among Wisconsin homeschoolers revolves around whether or not we are mandated to keep attendance records. The text of the actual homeschool law does not delineate such a requirement, and the law actually doesn’t (absent a legitimate, verified accusation of “educational neglect”) permit school/state employees to request “proof” of any aspect of our private home education programs. Yet the DPI includes a “recommendation” on both its website and the PI-1206 form that we keep “a school calendar,” leading some to believe that doing so is part of the actual law. Additionally, some who have analyzed education-related law in Wisconsin believe it indicates that homeschoolers must keep attendance. However, other legal analysis has come to the opposite conclusion.

Because of this confusion, some have chosen to err on the side of caution by keeping an annual attendance record. I understand that motivation – and I always encourage parents to keep records of their choice. But it also grieves me to see people living in fear based on an activity (i.e., a possible but highly improbable bureaucratic request for attendance records) that has never occurred (outside of occasional court cases specific to families under direct investigation) in the 35+ years since the current Wisconsin homeschool law was passed.

In fact, feeling compelled to keep attendance runs afoul of the great freedom we have under the letter of the homeschool law. The law itself mandates that we “provide” at least 875 hours of “instruction” per year. But it doesn’t require a certain number of “school days,” or mandate that we “do school” on particular days of the year or for a certain amount of time each day. Indeed, it doesn’t require us to “prove” the hours to anyone; the actual language of the law presumes we have the integrity to comply without verification by any outside source. And – even more importantly – the law does not define the nature of “instruction” or limit what "counts" to the six content areas it specifically lists. So we are permitted under the law to include any other subject areas of our choice and to "count" all of it as legitimate components of our educational programs. And, because “instruction” is not limited to school-style seatwork and textbooks, it includes the use of any resource or participation in any activity - in any "subject area" - that can reasonably contribute to a child’s overall education in any way. So “instruction” can legitimately include living books, media, hands-on activities, project-based learning, field trips, software and online resources, etc., in addition to (or instead of) textbooks. In a nutshell, if a child learns from it, it "counts" as "instruction" under the actual language of the homeschool law.

But if we feel compelled to keep attendance, we suddenly worry about which activities are “legitimate” (in some anonymous bureaucrat's eyes...even though the law does not grant permission for any bureaucrat to review our records) and what amount of time in a day is “enough” to warrant counting it for “real” attendance. And then before we know it, we have lost our freedom to define our hours and means of instruction even though the law grants us that right as the legal administrators of our own home-based private educational programs. What a tragedy!

I would like to propose a solution - grounded solidly in the actual language of the homeschool law - for those who really cannot get past the fear (no matter how irrational and unfounded) of random bureaucratic “audit.” Homeschooling in Wisconsin is defined under the law as “a program of educational instruction provided to a child by the child’s parent or guardian or by a person designated by the parent or guardian,” and the law doesn’t mandate particular days or hours of instruction, limit the content, or define the nature of “instruction.” Thus, in order to "keep attendance," I suggest printing out a one-page annual calendar similar to this one and indicating – as I have with red X's – that “instruction” occurs each and every day of the year. Keep the pre-marked calendar in a file with a paper copy of that year’s PI-1206, and then forget about it.

Some will suggest that such an idea is an attempt to flout the law, but nothing could be further from the truth. Again, the nature of “instruction” - i.e., content, resources, and activities that contribute to a child’s overall, holistic education – is not dictated by the law. Neither are we mandated under the law to view “instruction” as only occurring on weekdays or on the same days as children attending local institutional schools. And (in contrast to the law governing public/government schools), “instruction” need not occur for a certain amount of time for a day to “count.” Thus, it matters not if a child engages in something of educational merit for 30 minutes or nine hours on any particular day; if education/learning/instruction occurs under the direction of the parent/guardian or a person designated by the parent/guardian, it counts as a real, legal day of "attendance."

That said, if we can conceive of a day during the year when a homeschooled child would somehow not learn anything at all and/or not be under the direction of his parent or a person designated by the parent, that day could not be legitimately marked as a day of attendance. Though such a day is realistically quite unlikely to occur, if you feel it's possible, just mark a calendar as you go - but be absolutely sure to indicate a day of attendance every day the child is being "instructed" (i.e., learning of any sort in any content area you deem valuable for the child's overall well-being) for any length of time under the direct tutelage or indirect guidance and supervision by you or your designee.

Otherwise, keeping a pre-marked calendar indicating that every day of the year is a day of real attendance in a home-based private educational program is honest, maintains our legal freedom as administrators of our individual homeschools, and is completely viable and defensible under the real language of the actual homeschool law.

Be responsible, yes. But be free as well.