The Curious Case of the Spell Family, or, The Entirely Invented (Non)Threat to Homeschooling in Florida

Proving again that one should be careful to make promises one cannot keep, I feel that I must break my promise to myself that I would stop writing about homeschooling for a while. In the last few days a story has been making the rounds about a supposed threat to homeschooling in Florida. The potential for hysteria and misinformation is huge, so as a Florida homeschool graduate whose parents homeschooled for a total of 18 years in Florida, I want to help set the record straight.

On September 27th, a woman named Kathy Stock posted an entry on her blog entitled, “A War on Homeschooling.” In it, she claimed that Steve and Kristina Spell of Tallahassee, Florida, were arrested for homeschooling on February 3, 2011. The version of the story told in her post is that they were charged with violating the compulsory attendance laws despite being enrolled in an umbrella school. She claims that the Spells followed the letter of the law and were still prosecuted.

Now, as someone who was enrolled in an umbrella school in Florida for my entire K-12 homeschooling education, when I read the post things didn’t add up for me. For much of my childhood, my parents ran the umbrella school that we were part of, founded another umbrella school, and for a number of years after I graduated, my dad was the administrator of a third umbrella school. They were also involved in the founding of the Florida Coalition of Christian Private School Administrators (FCCPSA, the “A” now standing for “Accreditation”), a group that originally was for umbrella school administrators but has since branched out to work with other private schools as well. In other words, I have more than a passing knowledge of how these things work, and the whole story feels off.

Before looking at the facts of the case, here’s a brief overview of how homeschooling works in Florida.

There are two ways you can homeschool in the state. The first is by registering with the county by notifying them of your intent to homeschool under the Florida homeschool law. You’re required to submit test scores or an evaluation by a certified teacher every year to show that your children are progressing commensurate with their abilities, but other than that the rules for compliance are minimal. In return, your children have access to public school facilities and can be involved in extracurricular activities like sports or band. It’s a great law; one that most famously produced Tim Tebow.

The second way you can homeschool in Florida is under an umbrella school. Umbrella schools are legally incorporated private schools operating under the Florida private school laws that enroll homeschoolers and provide legal oversight and protection. They originated as a homeschool method prior to the passage of the Florida homeschool law when homeschooling’s legality in the state wasn’t clear. Because people like the value-added benefits that many umbrella schools provide (record keeping, transcripts, diplomas, and achievement testing, to name a few), they continue to operate and thousands of children are enrolled in umbrella schools throughout the state. They are in a bit of a legal gray area because of the passage of the homeschool law, but they’ve operated alongside the homeschool law, unhindered by the state for nearly 30 years.

Kathy Stock has attempted to spin the Spell case as a threat to umbrella schools. If that were true, it would be undeniably troubling because it would put thousands of families in legal limbo until the umbrella school issue was sorted out. Good thing then, that no matter how it’s been spun by the Spell’s blogger friend, it’s not actually about umbrella schools.

My first red flag that something was fishy about this case is the fact that it happened in my own state in 2011, and yet I didn’t hear a thing about it until I saw the blog post that was made three days ago.

Florida homeschoolers are extremely organized. There’s even a homeschool lobbyist, Brenda Dickinson of the Home Education Foundation (HEF), working out of Tallahassee. The Florida Parent Educators Association (FPEA) is also a major force for homeschooling in the state. If this case was as big a threat to homeschooling as the Spell’s friends are painting it, I can guarantee you that I would have heard about it two years ago as my Florida homeschool friends posted and reposted stories on Facebook. Brenda Dickinson, HEF, and FPEA, and for that matter, FCCPSA, would have gotten the story.

Since people have started asking questions in the blog comments, Stock has been spinning by implying that HEF and FPEA are aware and supportive, but she made no mention of them before other people brought them up, and her responses appear tailored to match what other people have already said. And, as I said, despite the fact that they’re suggesting this is a threat to umbrella schools, neither HEF or FPEA have said anything, nor has HSLDA gotten involved (even though the Spells aren’t a member family, I’d think HSLDA would have been interested if all was as it seems).

The reality though, is that prior to the blog post, there was a single story, posted in 2011 on the WFSU—Florida State’s NPR station—website. More on that in a bit.

Until three days ago, it’s been crickets.

Just to be sure that I didn’t miss anything, I emailed my mom to see if she’d heard anything, since she’s still in the Florida homeschool loop more than I am. Her response? “Haven’t heard a peep. That’s bogus. Nobody gets harassed in FL.”

Let me remind you, my parents started homeschooling in 1986, not long after the homeschool law was passed, were heavily involved in the administration of several umbrella schools, were involved in the founding of the FCCPSA, and got multiple kids into college when schools still didn’t know what to do with homeschoolers. They remember the era when the first question asked in response to, “we’re homeschooling,” was, “is it legal?” And my mom’s snap response was, “That’s bogus. Nobody gets harassed in FL.”

Kathy Stock’s version of the Spell’s story and the claims she makes are so unbelievable given what I know about homeschooling in my home state that I had to go digging for more information. It simply didn’t pass the smell test.

Here’s what I found.

To begin with, a Lexis Nexis search turned up not just the 2011 arrests in question here, but also multiple arrests between 1994 and 2005 for both Steve and Kristina for writing bad checks. Now, if it had been one arrest back in 1994 when they were both young, and they had kept their noses clean since then, that would be one thing, people make mistakes when they’re young and stupid. By my count though, there were at least five arrests on worthless check charges. And, while I’m reluctant to bring up something from nearly 20 years ago, in 1994 Steve was convicted of domestic violence and sentenced to six months probation.

A search of the Leon County civil court records that are available online reveal dueling domestic violence restraining orders filed by Kristina against Steve in 1994, and by Steve against Kristina in 1995. Also in 1995, Steve’s mother successfully petitioned the court for grandparent visitation. Now, granted, this was nearly two decades ago, and the only court records since then are traffic offenses, multiple animal control citations (including for unprovoked dog bite), and the aforementioned worthless check charges, but it paints a picture of a family in turmoil and makes one ask what we’re not hearing about this family now.

After some thought, I’ve decided I’m not going to link directly to those cases. It’s not hard to find them if you really want to, but the goal of this isn’t to go dragging the Spells through the mud because of their past bad decisions. I bring it up only because it feeds into my gut reaction that there’s way more going on here than we’re being told.

Here’s what we do know about the case at hand.

First, the Spells were not charged with violating the compulsory attendance laws as claimed. They were charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor for failing to compel school attendance under Fla. Stat 1003.27. This statute deals with habitual non-attendance where the parents make no effort to compel the student to attend school. The statute also states that,

The register of attendance of students at a public, parochial, religious, denominational, or private school, or of students taught by a private tutor, kept in compliance with rules of the State Board of Education is prima facie evidence of the facts which it is required to show.

All well and good, the Spells should have been able to show investigators their attendance records and gone on their merry way, right? Not so fast.That brings us to the second charge against the Spells. They were also charged under Fla. Stat 1003.23 for failure to keep attendance records.

Now, this statute is not part of the homeschool law, it’s part of the law governing public and private schools. It appears that as they were part of an umbrella school, wanting to be under a private school rather than the state homeschool law, the state is treating them as a private school and holding them to those laws. If you are a public or private school official or teacher, you are required to keep daily attendance records that mark each student’s absences. Failure to do so is a misdemeanor under the law. There isn’t a requirement in the Florida private school law that the private schools actually teach the kids, the only hard and fast rule is that you must keep attendance. All they had to do to be in compliance with the law was to keep a sheet of paper and check off each day they did school, but the Spells failed to even do that.

My mom kept a chart on the refrigerator door that she checked off in red pencil every day we did school. If anybody had showed up at our door wanting proof that we were in school, she could have showed them the chart. It’s not a hard requirement to meet by any stretch of the imagination. And yet the Spells couldn’t be bothered to check off a square on a sheet of paper each day.

Returning to the aforementioned WFSU report, which references documents that aren’t on Lexis Nexis and I can’t access because I don’t have a subscription to the Leon County criminal court records, this was apparently an ongoing matter where they tried to work with the Spells. The article states that dating back to 2010, repeated requests for documentation were rebuffed. When the article was written in August 2011, the court dates had been pushed back because the state was trying to work with the Spells to get them in compliance with the law in order to avoid prosecution.

It sure looks as though the state went out of their way to try to get the family into compliance so that it didn’t come to the point we’re at now where they’re facing trial, but they still failed to comply. Even now, it looks as though rather than getting in compliance, they’re getting their friends to make this story go viral to piggyback on the outrage among the homeschool community over Germany. Here I say to you, save your outrage for a case that doesn’t involve parents who so obviously flouted Florida’s easy-to-comply-with options for homeschooling to the point they couldn’t even be bothered to keep attendance records.

And with that, I leave you with a quote from State Attorney Sean Desmond, who was handling the case in 2011:

“We’re not looking at this case saying, we want to put someone in jail or worse for doing this. We want you to comply. We want you to show us the records of where you’re teaching your children. We’re not going to get in there and police how well they’re doing it or their methods or anything like that, just tell us that you are.”

Emphasis added

UPDATE: 03. October. 2013

WFSU has a new story out about the case, including links to documents. Apparently what happened was that the State Attorney’s office tried to work things out to make sure the kids were getting educated and set up a deferred-prosecution agreement (DPA) that included mutually agreed upon provisions that, if followed, would have led to the state dropping charges. The reason this case is back in court is because the state is alleging that the Spells failed to follow the agreement. 

Also, the article includes a comment by an HSLDA attorney saying that in the 11 years he’s been assisting Florida homeschoolers he can’t recall another parent getting arrested. Given HSLDA’s propensity to sensationalize cases, that’s a pretty damning comment on HSLDA’s part. It’s probably as close as they’ll get to saying that they’re not buying the Spell’s story.

With HSLDA weighing in, that means that other than the FPEA District 2 coordinator, no homeschool leadership is getting behind this family. I spoke with Brenda Dickinson yesterday and she told me that she thought there was more to the story than had been told up to that point. Today I spoke with the director of FCCPSA (a great organization that has done a lot of work to increase the credibility of non-traditional private schools in Florida), and he confirmed to me that he saw no threat at all to non-traditional private schools in the state. He told me that as long as those schools, and parents homeschooling through those schools, are following the law, there’s not going to be a problem. In other words, Kathy Stock’s fear mongering about how Florida is attacking umbrella schools is just that–fear mongering with no basis in reality.