Homeschooling on the rise in Florida, fresh from FPEA Orlando convention

Families from across Florida and other states gathered at the Florida Parent-Educators Association (FPEA) 34th convention this past Memorial Day weekend to share knowledge, inspiration, and support for home education.  From infants to grandparents, generations of families attended the conference, which offered lectures, an extensive list of exhibitors, and activities including a prom and graduation ceremony.  Homeschooling across the state is on the rise, with data from the Florida Department of Education showing a 9.10% increase from the 2018/2019 school year to the 2019/2020 school year.  This number tripled with a 35.17% increase in home education students across Florida for the 2020/2021 school year.

Likewise, data from the School District of Palm Beach County shows a 7.76% increase in home education students from 2019-to 2020, which more than tripled from 2020 through June 2021 with a 26.76% increase of home education students. At the start of the 2021/2022 school year, Palm Beach County School District defied the Governor, State Education Department, and Dr. Ladapo by mandating masks on students instead of allowing parental choice. A battle the School District of Palm Beach County ultimately lost by November. 

State Senator Tina Polsky (D) spoke against concerned parents of Palm Beach County in a January 2022 Senate Education Committee meeting, saying,

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 “…if you don’t like what you see in the schools, then don’t go, then homeschool your kid.” -Tina Polsky

With local leaders dismissing parental concerns, many parents have been looking for alternatives to education outside government-run schools.  The School District of Palm Beach County has not responded to a request for the home education data for the 2021-2022 school year. 

Homeschooling fact sheet
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Governor Ron DeSantis was a keynote speaker at this year’s FPEA convention and proudly declared, “We are the number one state for school choice and parents’ rights in the entire country.”  He furthered that comment by stating,

“We believe that parents have the fundamental right and obligation to direct the education and upbringing of their children.” 

The governor’s remarks were followed by loud cheers and standing ovations from the large crowd in attendance.

While Governor DeSantis has vowed to protect these rights, the right to homeschool did not always exist in Florida law. Thirty-eight years ago, in 1984, Brenda Dickinson recalled homeschooling her children when it was not legal and seeing other families be prosecuted for truancy since non-attendance in schools was a punishable offense.  She homeschooled her daughter in Kindergarten and her son, who was four years old, and both were performing above their age level.  Having never been to the state capital before but believing that homeschooling was the ideal way to educate their children, Dickinson and her husband set out to make home education legal in Florida.

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Governor DeSantis giving keynote address at the FPEA convention

 

The Dickinsons are the founders of the home education movement, which began with drafting legislation and working with the Florida Legislature to pass a bill to legalize home education, which first passed into law in 1985 after nearly a year of convincing and educating legislators of the need.  Dickinson recalls,

“The year we tried to get homeschool law passed, everything was done by landline, and we would wake people up at three o’clock in the morning if we had a bill up… and eight o’clock the next morning people would be calling their legislator’s office.  We were up all night calling key people, but it was the only way we could do it; there were no computers or cell phones.”

“God just somehow connected us all; there were meetings that we heard of by word of mouth, and we connected there.”

From that point on, the Dickinsons remained actively involved in defending and preserving the right to homeschool and ensuring minimal government restrictions.  They knew keeping this right would take the work of a full-time lobbyist to engage with legislators regularly. They established The Home Education Foundation (HEF) to support that need.  Dickinson’s husband passed in 1993, but she’s remained the steadfast advocate of home education rights in the State of Florida by becoming the lobbyist for HEF, where she now also serves as President.  For more information about HEF, visit their website.

I met up with Dickinson in the exhibit hall, at the FPEA convention, and at her booth for HEF, where she was one of over two hundred vendors at the FPEA homeschool convention this Memorial Day weekend.  “Look around here at all these kids; they wouldn’t be here without what I’ve done; these vendors wouldn’t be here because we would have all been locked in our closets and afraid.  These curriculums have developed out of basically homeschoolers who have developed a different way of teaching subjects,” she explained.

When asked what has kept her lobbying for home education laws for the last thirty-eight years, Dickinson said, “issues.”  In describing herself, she says, “I am the queen of Z, so if A doesn’t work, B doesn’t work, I will find a way until we get to Z.” “The fight… [has been] to keep the legislation, the actual laws, from becoming more regulatory, and helping find a different way for accountability that would not put more regulation on private schools or homeschools.”

Over the decades of her advocacy, Dickinson’s accomplishments also include gaining rights for home education students for dual enrollment in college courses while at the high school level.  She says this took three years to accomplish.  In 1995, her homeschooled daughter was in contact with a college that wanted to accept her into an honors program. Still, they couldn’t legally admit her into the college because no laws existed to allow home education students to earn a high school diploma.  Dickinson was able to arrange with the President of the college to accept her daughter if she took the GED test, which she did and received the highest score.  After that, Dickinson worked to change the law in Florida for other homeschoolers to be able to be accepted into colleges.  She successfully got legislation passed that allows homeschool parents to sign an affidavit indicating that their child completed a home education program equivalent to a high school diploma or GED.  Dickinson’s advocacy also allowed home education students to be eligible to receive the benefits of the Bright Futures scholarship program, which awards scholarship money for higher education.

Dickinson also helped lobby for laws that allowed homeschoolers to participate in sports and extracurricular activities in public and private schools, which she recalls, “that was a long hard fight.” A right passed into law in 1996 after two years of advocacy. Now home education students in Florida can participate in athletics at any school in their district.   Former NFL quarterback Tim Tebow was a former homeschool student in Florida who benefited from the passage of this law.

Dickinson has lobbied for home education, but she was also instrumental in the start of what is now called Florida Virtual School (FLVS), which started as “Project Orange” in 1996. She was asked to participate on the advisory board of a group trying to create a virtual high school. Dickinson recalls many legislators were bewildered by the question. Still, a few were able to see the vision, and it ultimately became Florida Virtual School in law.

Recalling the years of her advocacy to increase the rights of homeschoolers, Dickinson recalls:  “…when we first started lobbying, up until 1996, the House, the Senate, and the Governor were all Democrats.  It wasn’t until ’96 that the Republicans gained the majority. We still had earned some rights under the Democrats, but it was a hard lift to get to that point. When the climate changed in ’96, we were able to make some tweaks to the homeschool law because we had a Republican Speaker of the House, and he would shepherd it through.” On lessons learned over the decades, Dickinson shared, “A lot of it is timing; you have to figure out the right timing for something to be done.”

When speaking of the political climate among Florida legislators regarding home education support, she says Democrats and Republicans support homeschooling, but

“if you start giving money, like for an education savings account, unless the Republicans have enough clout to just ram it through, it’s probably going to be a hard fight because when you start taking money out of funds, you’re gonna fight.”

However, Dickinson shared that there is bipartisan support when supporting legislation for children with special needs.

Advocating for children with special needs has also been a part of Dickinson’s work. She explained, “One of my main things I really felt bad that we needed was after they started all the scholarship programs is a way to help parents who have children with disabilities who wanted to homeschool.”  She had developed a connection with Florida Representative Andy Gardiner in 2007 when he headed a task force on autism.  “I said you gotta do this for homeschool kids,” Dickinson explained.  By 2014, Gardiner was the Senate president, and he understood the need to help parents that have children that needed special help.  The Gardnier scholarship was created the next year as a whole new program to provide financial support to homeschool children for materials and other therapy services for children who qualified under specific diagnoses.  This program continued until July 1, 2021, until it expanded into what is known today as the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities (FES-UA).

After decades of work lobbying for home education laws, she says, “It’s a hard job; it’s rewarding in that you know you have made a way for kids that otherwise would not have been able to develop their abilities to their fullest extent.” 

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Brenda Dickinson pictured left and Sue Puchferran pictured right.

Sue Puchferran, from Boca Raton, is now a grandmother who had homeschooled her four children, that were able to benefit from the homeschool laws that Dickinson and her husband helped create. Puchferran’s children received the Bright Futures scholarships and graduated college with careers now as a doctor, nurse, attorney, and CPA.  Puchferran exclaimed, “I feel so indebted to what she has done; she paved the way for us.” 

Puchferran, an attendee, lecturer, and vendor at this year’s FPEA convention, began her family’s homeschool journey twenty-five years ago after a homeschooled friend got her interested. She decided to attend the FPEA conference for more information.  At the FPEA conference twenty-five years ago, Puchferran and her husband listened to a lecture about the importance of family and how the family dynamic looked like under a homeschool model. That looked appealing to her and her husband, and they agreed to try homeschooling for a year. Puchferran has been coming to the yearly FPEA conference ever since with her children, who ultimately attended their graduation ceremonies at the FPEA conference. She explained, “It’s a different mindset, spending your life with your kids rather than sending them off, we would travel with them, and at the end, you have this friendship with your kids, and the kids have a friendship with each other.”

About twenty years ago, when Puchferran was a few years into her homeschool journey, she was introduced to Dickinson, and they became friends. Puchferran wrote a book called “Completing the Journey,” All proceeds go to Dickinson as a home education lobbyist. The book has information for homeschool families entering high school years to help them learn about what courses they can take, what sports they can play, and how to make a transcript for college. For over ten years now, Puchferran has served on the Board of HEF for Dickinson, and she helps her fundraise and spread awareness for her lobbying efforts. 

Puchferran’s advice to anyone starting out and not sure about starting homeschooling: “Everybody is not sure; every single mom I talk to is: can I do this? And the answer is yes, yes, yes. Nobody loves your kids more than you do, nobody knows your kids more than you do; the help is out there.”  Puchferran founded a Home Education Enrichment Day (HEED) program that helps homeschoolers who need extra support services. Nineteen years ago, when her oldest child was in high school, she hired tutors to put together a one-day-a-week enrichment program, Home Education Enrichment Day, HEED, which operates in Boca Raton.  This program does not replace parent home educators but rather provides additional support from experts who help teach five different subjects. Students can then go home and work through the material with their parent educator.  High school students can choose from Math, English, Science, Social Studies, and an elective where they can pick just one subject or all of them for the one-day-a-week program.  For seniors, the HEED program offers a relationship with Palm Beach Atlantic University, where students can earn credits for college.

The HEED program exists for high school and middle school-aged students. Three years ago, a program for elementary kids began for hands-on learning adventures where each class participates in five adventures: Science, Math, English, History, and Art.

Of homeschooling, Puchferran says, “There is enough help that you can do it.”

Organizations like HEF and FPEA help provide essential resources and services for home education families.  Local programs like HEED and other local support groups also add to the support of home education families.  If you would like more information on these organizations and programs, you can visit their websites at HEF,  FPEA, and HEED.


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