NEWARK, Ohio (WCMH) – Conrad Elementary School closed years ago, but every Thursday, hundreds of students cycle through its halls.

The building’s lilac walls are lined with cork boards and decorations, religious posters and world maps, children’s paintings and Dr. Seuss quotes. In the gym, elementary and middle school children play with hula hoops while a kindergarten-age karate class commands the elevated stage.

The Excellence in Learning Community Co-op may rent out a school building once a week, but it is not a school; it’s a cooperative of parents who home-school their children.

“It’s organized chaos,” laughed Johna Vanover, the co-op service hours coordinator.

She pointed to her 12-year-old son just down the hallway. Like most of the people manning the co-op – the hall monitors, aides and some teachers – Vanover volunteers her time there while her children attend programs.

Hundreds of children – 269 this semester – from eight Ohio counties travel to Newark each Thursday, many with parents in tow, to attend the co-op. Although it runs all day, families can stay for as long or as little as they like. Many students are enrolled in classes at the co-op, ranging from advanced biology to American Sign Language, but some go for the sports teams, theater club, 4-H program or simply to see friends.

The co-op is one of several programs across the state that offer a model of at-home learning that, as several parents told Nexstar’s NBC4, creates a community of families to support each other as they home-school their children. And its leaders are cautiously watching proposed state legislation that would upend existing requirements for home-schooled children.

More than 51,000 Ohio children were home-schooled during the 2021-22 school year, according to the Ohio Department of Education. As COVID-19 closed school doors, the number of children withdrawing from public school systems surged nationwide; more than double the number of home-schooled children were reported to the Census Bureau in fall 2021 than in the previous spring.

The home-schooling burst comes as legislation affecting home-school requirements and funding work through the Ohio legislature, none more potentially impactful than Senate Bill 1. Most known for stripping power from the state board of education and moving it under a gubernatorial cabinet position, the bill and its lower chamber counterpart also nix most of the requirements parents must meet to home-school their kids.

Ohio’s homeschooling laws have been criticized as too lenient by state officials. After a neo-Nazi homeschooling network was uncovered in Upper Sandusky in January, Board of Education member Teresa Fedor called for increased oversight of home-school curriculum.

“Somebody who is homeschooling, what is the expectation they are checking in with the school district that their kids are in, for the curriculum they’re teaching in their home?” Fedor previously told NBC4.

Existing administrative law mandates that home-school instructors have a high school diploma or be under the supervision of someone with a bachelor’s degree. SB1 eliminates those qualifications, instead permitting any instructor to teach with parental approval.

Prior to disenrolling a child from their residential school district and each year thereafter, parents currently must notify the local superintendent and file an “assurance.” The assurance outlines how the intended curriculum satisfies course requirements and includes a list of reading and instructional materials, the teacher’s qualifications and an academic assessment of the child, typically demonstrated by the results from the previous year’s nationally standardized test. The local superintendent must sign off on each home-school authorization each year and can request additional information from families before granting approval.

But SB1 establishes a home-school exemption, removing most of the administrative requirements a parent must meet to withdraw from the school system. It strikes physical education, the arts and first-aid from the list of mandatory study subjects. And it eliminates most of the meat from the assurance, requiring superintendents to grant automatic approval to parents who demonstrate their child will be taught in core subjects prescribed by the legislation.

Area of lawCurrent requirementsRequirements proposed under SB 1
Schooling requirementsAt least 900 hours of study

Contains the following subjects:
1. Language, spelling, reading and writing
2. Geography; history of US and Ohio; national, state and local government
4. Math
5. Science
6. Health
7. Physical education
8. Fine arts, including music
9. First aid, safety and fire prevention
“A child is exempt from compulsory school attendance when receiving home education in the subject areas of English language arts, mathematics, science, history and government, and social studies
Notification to superintendentBy the first week of the school year

Brief outline of curriculum, list of basic teaching materials, including textbooks and commercial curricula

If continuing home-school education, an assessment report from previous year demonstrating proficiency
Within five days of the start of the school year
Teacher requirementsHas one of the following:
1. High school diploma, certificate of high school equivalence or standardized test scores demonstrating equivalence
2. Works under the direction of a person holding bachelor’s degree
3. Alternative equivalence to high school diploma, determined by local superintendent
“Supervised and directed by the child’s parent.”
Superintendent’s responsibilitiesRespond to notification with 14 days

If all requirements are met, send signed letter acknowledging fulfilled requirements and granted excusal

If requirements are not met, must explain why in writing and give opportunity to resubmit. Superintendent has obligation to inform parents have the right to due process hearing
“Upon receipt of the notice, the exemption takes immediate effect, and the superintendent shall send a letter of acknowledgment to the parent.”

Most of the co-op’s members, including its board president, Amanda Sillin, don’t view many of the changes proposed under SB1 as positive. Sillin said the co-op’s board of directors value being able to work with the state board of education on changes to the administrative code. 

At hearings on the legislation — which Sen. Bill Reineke (R-Tiffin) has introduced various forms of since he was a state representative — home-school organizations and individual parents spoke against the consolidation of the board’s power into an executive position. Previous versions of the bill, including the version introduced last session, didn’t change home-school requirements, however.

In December 2022, Melanie Elsey, legislative director of Christian Home Educators of Ohio, testified before a senate committee on then-SB 178, expressing concern that educational policies would be decided by a governor appointee instead of an elected state board.

“Shifting the authority to a single appointed director will not change the system, it will
only diminish the consent of the governed,” Elsey said. “Students in every form of delivery of
education and their parents will not have the direct access they have today with their
elected member of the state board of education.”

Under the bill, the newly established director of the Department of Education and Workforce would have 90 days from the bill’s signing to revise the administrative code to comply with the new law. After that, the director would not be able to change home-school requirements.

NBC4 reached out to Reineke’s office about the home-school additions to the legislation, but he did not respond to a request for comment.

At a February hearing on SB1, Education Committee Chair Andrew Brenner (R-Delaware) shot down an amendment to strike the changes to home-school regulations from the bill, calling it unnecessary before the committee voted to table it.

“The parents are the best that would be available for their kids, they understand their needs, they understand what they’re doing, and they would have put together a proper curriculum for their kids,” Brenner said. “I’ve heard from home-school parents all over the state of Ohio. They do these things very well.”

Sillin said as far as the co-op is concerned, the existing regulations are reasonable. The group has incorporated those administrative requirements into its functioning – it hosts training sessions each fall and spring for new home-schooling families to understand the process.

The co-op also offers classes parents may not be comfortable teaching. Several parents noted that going to gym class is preferable to fulfilling the physical education requirements at home, and the co-op’s science experimentation gives students access to laboratory materials they wouldn’t otherwise have.

“I don’t know that there’s good reason to change the laws that have been working very well for a number of years,” Sillin said.

Her husband, Drason, also the board’s moderator, noted that current rules separate families suited for home schooling from the rest.

“There are people who shouldn’t home-school,” Drason Sillin said. “And I think that helps weed them out.”

The Senate voted along party lines to send SB1 to the House. The House’s companion legislation, House Bill 12, has had three committee hearings.