Choosing Homeschool Oversight: School District or Umbrella

In many states, homeschooling families have to report to some entity. In Maryland, homeschooling families have two choices for oversight. They can either review with their county school district or they can choose to be supervised by a non-public institution (commonly known as an umbrella). In the local homeschooling Facebook groups, many people lament the struggles they have reviewing with the school districts. The standard advice given is always to join an umbrella. However, finding an umbrella that fits a family’s budget and belief system is not always easy. Let’s take a look at the factors that go into choosing between the school district and an umbrella.

Do you want to pay for oversight?

Reviewing with the school district in Maryland is free (aside from the taxes you are paying anyway). Umbrellas require an annual membership fee per family, sometimes with additional costs per child. The lowest cost is around $50, with a median cost around $75, and some charge $150 and more. Continue reading the other considerations to determine whether that cost is worth it to your family.

What is your worldview?

You are reading a blog called Secular Home Education, so I presume you are at least open to education outside of a religion. Since the public schools are (at least in theory) part of the separation of church and state deal, reviewing with the public schools is going to be pretty secular. The school district does not require religion to be taught in any capacity. They expect you to show evidence of math, science, social studies, English, music, art, P.E., and health.

The umbrellas must be part of a non-public institution which can be either a private school that is approved by the Maryland Department of Education or it must be operated by a “bona fide church organization”. Therefore, many umbrellas are run by churches and impose requirements ranging from being a member of a particular church or faith to teaching the Bible as part of your homeschool to just not talking trash on social media about the church that runs the umbrella. There are a few umbrellas that are not affiliated with a church, but they are few and not conveniently located for every family in the state. So, you have to read the rules of umbrellas carefully and decide if you can live with them and if you are okay with your money going to support the mission of the organization that runs the umbrella.

What is your homeschooling style?

Umbrellas are in the business of working with homeschoolers. They want you to keep homeschooling, so that you keep paying them the membership fee. The people that work for umbrellas tend to be homeschooling parents themselves and therefore, know the wide variety of approaches to education that exist. So, they may be more open to ideas such as unschooling or doing reviews over Skype for road-schoolers. Then again, they may be more hard-line than the school district and impose additional requirements. You have to talk to the people running the umbrella to see if it will work for your family.

Depending on the particular school district, there are various levels of acceptance of home education that does not look like school. You will do better with school district reviews if you can present portfolios that contain work that looks like traditional school work. The public school reviewers have no incentive to keep you homeschooling. In fact, they may be encouraged to herd kids back into schools, so that the schools get funding for the additional kids.

How do you feel about government control?

Some people are adamant that they want to keep their kids out of the clutches of government institutions. Some children have had less than ideal experience in public school and the parents do not want to be told how to educate their child by an institution that can’t manage its own affairs. Some parents figure most kids go to public school and turn out fine, so sitting down with someone from the school district for a 30 minute meeting twice a year isn’t going to harm anyone.

How good are you about record-keeping?

This is actually a two-part question. Can you keep a semester-long portfolio? Can you make a high school transcript?

The school district reviewers are going to want to see evidence of instruction. That means, you will need to gather some combination of work samples, photos and videos, art work, ticket stubs, book lists, etc. to prove that you tried to educate your child over the last several months. Then, you will need to present that evidence to the reviewer in an orderly manner to convince them that your child isn’t just playing Minecraft all day every day. In exchange, the reviewer will tick off some boxes or write a little blurb that you have met the requirements for homeschooling for that particular interval of the school year.

Reviews with umbrellas can be very different from the public school reviews. A representative from your umbrella may just meet you for coffee and have a chat about what your plans for the year are or what your children have accomplished in recent months. No pressure to bring a bunch of work samples. You will get the same stamp of approval as far as the state is concerned, as you would with the school district. Unlike the school district, however, some umbrellas may translate what your child has done into a transcript for you. This is important if you plan on sending your child back to high school with credits or for post-secondary education. If keeping track of your children’s educational journey over the long-term sounds intimidating to you, then an umbrella that provides transcripts, and maybe even diplomas, would be your best bet.

My Personal Experience

For the three years I have homeschooled so far, I have chosen to review with the school district. Mostly my choice hinges on the fact that it does not cost me any money. I already spend enough on curriculum and activities. My homeschool is pretty schoolish and I am a former school teacher, so I maintain much more elaborate records for my own sake than I bring to my reviews. All of my reviews have been successful, though not without annoyances. If you’d like to check out my previous review experiences, I have written about them here: