One of the questions we often receive from parents looking to homeschool is whether or not they should enroll in a private “umbrella” school. In Florida, one of the ways to homeschool legally is by enrolling in a private school that serves as an umbrella for homeschoolers (although legally there is no such thing as an “umbrella” school, these types of private schools have earned this nickname, so for the sake of clarity we are going to refer to them as umbrella schools in this article).
In Florida there are three methods of education: public, private, and home schools. Umbrella schools fall under private education. By law, private schools are allowed to have students who are homeschooled by their parents. The school supervises the students’ enrollment, attendance, and in some cases will offer services such as curriculum, transcripts, and diplomas.
In an umbrella school, essentially the parent becomes a teacher of the school, and the student, although learning at home, is not considered homeschooled, but rather a private school student by law. When you enroll with an umbrella school, you must provide them with your child’s full name, date of birth, and address. You are also required to report attendance to the school on a quarterly basis. Some umbrella schools impose additional requirements.
Some parents think that this is a good alternative to registering their children with the county school district as a homeschooled student. Some families have had terrible experiences in dealing with the county school system, and want nothing to do with it. Other parents want to maintain their privacy and would prefer not reporting to the county every year.
On the other hand, in Florida, a registered homeschool is a legal school in the state. When a parent sends a letter of intent to the county, they are opening a legal school in their home. Florida law views homeschools as equal to public or private schools. The parent of a homeschool becomes the school official of that school and has the authority to choose curriculm, hire tutors, establish the schedule, determine what standards (if any) they choose to adhere to, and issue diplomas and transcripts.
The truth is that the decision to use an umbrella school, or not, is a personal preference, and the best decision is what works best for your family. As a Florida DOE certified teacher, my husband does evaluations and testing, so this is the method with which we are most comfortable. However, after hearing many parents from around the state say how they love the “freedom of an umbrella school,” we couldn’t help but look into it for ourselves. After all, if it is better, then shouldn’t we be doing it? If umbrella schools are better, we could start one ourselves!
After researching umbrella schools we decided that it isn’t a good fit for our family. There are some things about umbrella schools that don’t meet our needs, therefore we are going to stay registered as homeschooling with the county and have our children evaluated annually, as we have always done. However, we want to share with you the reasons why we decided not to enroll our children in an umbrella school.
UPDATE 2017 – the #1 reason
In the first version of this article we overlooked a key difference between homeschools and umbrella schools. We did not fully realize that as legal homeschoolers in Florida, registered via letter of intent with the county, we parents are actually the school officials of our school. That fact has now become the #1 reason why we choose not to use an umbrella school, because with an umbrella school, you have to answer to the private school official. They have the power to approve or disapprove of your curriculum, furthermore they have power over your child’s transcripts and diploma.
For example, a mom we met recently told us that her daughter took an accredited Drivers Ed class with FLVS. She wanted the private school to put it on her daughter’s high school transcript as an elective. For some reason that the mom can’t understand, the private school refused to put the Driver’s Ed course on her transcript. Her daughter also completed the entire coursework for a high school English class. The umbrella school official refused to include that whole credit of English on her daughter’s high school transcript, for no good reason except that it didn’t meet their standards. As a result, the mom is leaving the umbrella school, registering with the county, and becoming the school official herself, where she will have the choice to include whatever she deems acceptable on her daughter’s transcript.
In Florida, as the school official of a legal homeschool, a parent has the right to approve courses, issue transcripts, and diplomas for their students. This is all written in the Florida statutes. Furthermore, by law, the parent is who verifies that the student is homeschooled for enrollment in FLVS Flex, not the county, likewise for the Gardiner Scholarship. That is because as a registered homeschooler, the county has no jurisdiction over your child’s education. The county’s sole role is to keep track of students for matters of truancy. This is the same role it has with private schools in the county: the county superintendent can inspect a private school’s record at any time for enrollment and attendance. As registered homeschoolers, they can inspect our portfolios for compliance, but they have to give us a 15 day notice.
However, with a private/umbrella school, you must go through the private school official who has to approve and verify everything you want your child to do: FLVS, dual enrollment, Gardiner Scholarship, etc. On the other hand, as registered homeschoolers in Florida, we have the freedom of not having to rely on anyone else, and we have the authority to do all of these things ourselves. The law makes using a private school unnecessary.
Here is the rest of the original article:
When we sent our letters of intent to the county, notifying them that we were establishing a homeschool program, we had to provide the county with the full names, dates of birth, and address of each of our children. That is pretty much the same information that a parent has to provide to an umbrella school. However, the umbrella school also requires medical information, a copy of the child’s birth certificate, and quarterly attendance reports.
The difference between providing this information to the county, as opposed to an umbrella school, is that the county is required under Federal Law, known as FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act), to keep my children’s information private. Although we don’t suspect that umbrella schools are doing dastardly things with your children’s information, there is nothing stopping them from selling their database of information as many times as they want to. They are not under any oversight or requirements to keep that data safe, either. There are a number of umbrella schools that exist virtually, with an email address, and perhaps a website, but no way to call or speak with an actual person. We don’t feel comfortable relying on someone we don’t know, and can’t speak to, to be in charge of our homeschooling.
Most parents don’t know that an umbrella school has to have their records open for the superintendent to review enrollment and compliance with attendance laws. Also, if the umbrella school closes for some reason, they are obligated to turn their records over to the county superintendent. So, ultimately the county still has access to your information, and more of it; enrolling with an umbrella school does not mean you are “under the radar.”
Here is a list of the Florida Dept. of Education’s requirements that all private schools in Florida must comply with: http://www.fldoe.org/schools/school-choice/private-schools/requirements-for-private-schools.stml
Furthermore, there have been instances where umbrella schools have been lackadaisical with their responsibilities in reporting to the state, and it has hurt students.
Which leads to our next reason why we do not use an umbrella school …
2. Free now can be expensive later
When researching umbrella schools we learned that some umbrella schools charge fees, and some are free. Most parents would think that it would be a no-brainer to enroll in a free umbrella school. Why pay when you can get it for free? The problem with not paying a fee is that you have no recourse if something goes wrong. If there is no monetary transaction, then there is no obligation to you on the part of the umbrella school. This can be a problem if later on you need information or verification that your child was enrolled.
The safer option is to choose an umbrella school that does charge a fee. This way you have a business relationship with the school, and they are obligated to you in that sense. However, if you are going to pay someone to simply record your information and take attendance, it hardly seems worth the time and the money. You can invest that time towards keeping a portfolio of work samples and pay an evaluator to do a portfolio review. The costs just don’t seem to justify the scant benefits, especially since an annual portfolio evaluation should cost less than $30 and keeping a portfolio is ridiculously easy.
3. Options for extra-curricular activities get complicated
If you are beginning to homeschool and your child is still elementary-school aged, then using an umbrella school has few repercussions compared to when they are older. Things get a little more complicated, however, once your child gets to middle and high school. Students enrolled with the county as homeschoolers have lots of benefits that umbrella school students don’t have, thanks to the Craig Dickinson Act.
Extra-curricular sports, music, or other activities are not as readily available for umbrella school students. Umbrella school students are not allowed to play sports for other private schools or public schools, unless the umbrella school does not have an athletic program and, according to FL Statute 1006.15 8 (g):
“Only students who are enrolled in non-FHSAA member private schools consisting of 125 students or fewer are eligible to participate in the program in any given academic year.”
Although there is no specific statute for music or arts programs, the Florida School Music Association guides itself by the same FHSAA requirements. Their eligibility requirements can be found here: http://fsma.flmusiced.org/eligibility/.
If you think your child might want to participate in public school sports or arts activities, then this should guide your decision of which umbrella school to join. Or, you could just take the easier route and register with the county as a homeschool program. This way your child can take full, legal advantage of the Craig Dickinson Act.
4. Dual-enrollment: not an option in most counties
Right now, about two-thirds of the state colleges in Florida are charging umbrella/private schools for the dual-enrollment tuition for their students. That is because dual-enrollment is not free for most umbrella schools, and you will be forced to pay the course tuition. If you plan to take advantage of FREE dual-enrollment with a local college, then choose your umbrella school wisely. Registered home education students, by law, cannot be charged tuition. The benefits of dual-enrollment are huge, so if you want your child to take advantage of it, an umbrella school is most likely not the route to do so.
5. College Enrollment can be Hindered
“Be sure that your umbrella school is approved by the university or college that your child wants to attend,” says Brenda Dickinson, director of the Home Education Foundation, and a homeschool lobbyist in Tallahassee. This is because umbrella schools are required to register annually with the Dept. of Education database. If they don’t register and don’t fill out that form (for whatever reason: school administration changes, school closings, or in the case of a home-business school, personal family issues) and they are not shown on the Dept. of Education website, the students of that umbrella school are not going to be eligible with an umbrella/private school diploma to be admitted to any state college in Florida.
In other words, if your child is college bound, it is important to make sure that the umbrella school your child is registered with stays on the Florida Dept. of Education’s Private School Database. If, for any reason, your umbrella school is not on that list, their diploma cannot be validated by the college or university, and it will delay their college plans.
Homeschoolers registered with the school district don’t have to validate their diplomas. That is because homeschoolers aren’t required to have a diploma, we just turn in our transcripts.
Another problem that has happened is when students of an umbrella school decide to wait a few years to go to higher education, and when they do decide to enroll in a college or university, they try to contact the umbrella school and are not able to. When your child is enrolled in an umbrella school, the school has to send the student records to the college or university directly. Records cannot come from the parent. If the school is no longer in existence, then it becomes very difficult to obtain these records. On the other hand, being enrolled as a homeschooler with the county, the parents keep the records, and the parents provide the records to the university, as per state statute 1007.263.
“Admission to associate degree programs is subject to minimum standards adopted by the State Board of Education and shall require:(a) A standard high school diploma, a high school equivalency diploma as prescribed in s.1003.435, previously demonstrated competency in college credit postsecondary coursework, or, in the case of a student who is home educated, a signed affidavit submitted by the student’s parent or legal guardian attesting that the student has completed a home education program pursuant to the requirements of s. 1002.41. Students who are enrolled in a dual enrollment or early admission program pursuant to s. 1007.271 are exempt from this requirement.”
In either case, the best thing to do is to call the Director of Admissions of the university or college that you think your child will be attending, and ask them what they are going to require from a private (umbrella) school or a homeschool. Also, ask them what courses they need to have on their transcripts in order to get into the major of their choice. This will help you in deciding if an umbrella school is going to meet your needs.
6. Bright Futures Scholarships
If your child is going to apply for a Bright Futures Scholarship as a home educated student, they must be registered with the county in the 11th and 12th grades levels to qualify.
Home education students only have to apply on time, submit their SAT or ACT scores, and provide proof of having registered with the county, whereas umbrella school students are requried to submit much more documentation, much of which relies upon the umbrella school administrators to provide.
Florida Bright Futures scholarship requirements change frequently, so please check their website for current requirements: http://www.floridastudentfinancialaid.org/ssfad/bf/
For all of these reasons we have decided not to use an umbrella school, or start one up ourselves. It just seems easier and more beneficial to stay registered with the county as homeschool program. Our children range in age from 6 to 15, so we are definitely going to take advantage of the things that are available to homeschoolers, such as dual-enrollment, and extra-curricular activities. Keeping a portfolio is just another educational activity in our family, it’s something we do naturally. We would much rather be accountable to ourselves, than rely on someone else that we may or may not be able to contact.
This is our preference. We do not think that using an umbrella school is inferior or wrong in any way. It simply doesn’t make sense for our family.