It’s back to school week. And for about 2 to 3 percent of New Hampshire students, learning will begin or continue in the home.
Two laws that went into effect this summer give families who home-school a lot more independence than they’ve had in the past.
The first new law says parents who home-school only have to notify their districts once —and not year after year.
The second — which passed without the governor’s signature — says parents can evaluate their children’s academic progress in private.
Three of the Peterson’s high schoolers huddle around the kitchen island in their house in Merrimack.
They’re playing Cash Flow, a board game that teaches them how to budget money, invest and borrow — without dipping into the red.
"One, two, three…you’re offered $100,000 for a 3-2 rental house."
As in life, not everything goes according to plan.
"So I need $3,900 from the bank. I’m gong to go bankrupt so fast."
The game can take hours, as Hannah Peterson explains.
"It depends how fast I get my passive income over my total expenses, and then I move on to the fast track."
Craig and Karen Peterson have eight children.
For nearly 30 years, they’ve been teaching their kids at home, using a combination of games, online courses and textbooks.
The older five have either graduated college or are in college.
The Petersons say their style of teaching developed as a backlash to their own memories of school.
"I had very bad experiences in public schools when I was growing up. And my wife had bad experiences as well. And we looked at what they were doing in school and didn’t think it fit where we wanted our kids to be. We wanted them to be independent. We wanted them also to find their way, to let them provide some direction based at what they were interested in."
The Petersons say they don’t teach to the test or adhere to strict schedules.
"More or less, we try to follow the grade levels so they’re where they should be. However, that’s not the most important thing. People who are used to doing public or private schools are used to having mathematics from 10 to 10:45. We do math when the kid shows an interest."
In Merrimack, only about 85 out of 4,000 students are homeschoolers.
Mark McLaughlin is the assistant superintendent in the Merrimack school district.
He says New Hampshire’s regulations for homeschooling have always been more lax than in other New England states.
And with the two new laws, there’s even less parents are required to do:
"There’s a one-time notification. In the past, parents would have to notify us each year when they were going to home school their children. That’s no longer required. They just have to say we’re going to home school and that’s all they need to tell us forever. And the second would be the elimination of an end-of-year evaluation."
Sheryl: "So if parents are no longer required to register after the first time, how does the school district know that the students are still being homeschooled?"
"That’s a good question. My presumption is that when a parent notifies us that they are homeschooling their children, then we’ll presume they are continuing to do that in good faith."
Deregulation advocates like Craig Peterson, say that homeschooling parents no longer have to fear that poor evaluations will, in essence, get them fired.
"You don’t have to worry about a sword hanging over your neck."
Peterson explains that if children are failing in public school, they remain in public school. But before this law, homeschoolers were put on probation.
"This law made some big changes that will bring a lot of homeschoolers out from underground where they’ve been hiding for the last 20 years."
Other states have tried to pass similar laws, but New Hampshire is one of the few to succeed.
Henry Levin directs the National Center for the Privatization of Education at Columbia University’s Teachers College.
Levin says that with or without deregulation, most states don’t truly regulate homeschooling.
"There are already very few accountability provisions for homeschoolers in most states. For example, they’re supposed to study a certain number of hours a week. But in fact, it’s parents just reporting that information. When you talk about a portfolio, which does not have to be handed in to any authority, there’s a question even of who put together the portfolio. You don’t know. There’s no supervision."
But parents like Karen Peterson insist that doesn’t matter:
"People who really want to home-school, really want the best thing for their children. And they really do try their hardest."
State education officials say they’ll comply with the new laws.
But they do worry they'll no longer have any records about whether these students are getting the education they need.