PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — South Dakota saw one of the nation’s highest percentages of increase in students who received their lessons in home school settings rather than public K-12 schools in recent years.

That’s according to a new analysis by The Washington Post comparing enrollment data from 2017-18 through 2022-2023 school years. The Post was able to obtain numbers from 30 states and District of Columbia.

South Dakota’s 94% increase during that period ranked third-highest. District of Columbia was tops at 108%, followed by New York at 103%. Rounding out the top six behind South Dakota were Rhode Island at 91%, California 78% and Tennessee 77%.

Among South Dakota’s neighbors, Wyoming saw a 47% increase, Montana 45%, Minnesota 39%, North Dakota 38%, and Nebraska 31%. Iowa’s numbers weren’t available.

South Dakota loosened its compulsory attendance laws in 2021 when the Legislature passed substantial changes, which were backed by Governor Kristi Noem at the urging of home-school supporters.

“When kids and their parents can choose the educational path that’s best for them, kids flourish. That has happened here in South Dakota because of Governor Noem’s courage to protect parental choice in education. We are looking forward to seeing the enrollment numbers for this year,” said Julie Christian of Sioux Falls. She chairs Families for Alternative Instruction Rights in South Dakota.

According to the South Dakota Department of Education, there were 4,696 students participating in alternative instruction during the 2017-18 school year and 9,120 students in 2022-23.

For comparison, South Dakota’s public school districts reported K-12 enrollments totaling 133,861 in 2017-18 and 138,075 in 2022-23. Non-public schools including tribal and parochial schools reported enrollments of 15,638 in 2017-18 and 15,068 in 2022-23.

Public schools in South Dakota receive state financial aid based on enrollment. The Legislature in 2016 established a ‘partners in education tax credit program’ to help publicly subsidize students at non-public schools. Governor Noem later appointed the legislation’s prime sponsor, then-Senator Phyllis Heineman, to the state Board of Education Standards.

Department of Education Secretary Joe Graves
Department of Education Secretary Joe Graves (Bob Mercer)

State Education Secretary Joe Graves provided this response to KELOLAND News about the Post’s findings. Governor Noem appointed Graves to her cabinet in January. He previously was superintendent for the Mitchell public school district.

“Competition is good for all schools and all students: the Department of Education is interested in the academic success of all South Dakota kids, whether they attend public, private, tribal/BIE schools, or receive alternative instruction at home. Parents have the right and responsibility to see to it that their children are properly educated. Families that choose to provide homeschooling often do a wonderful job.”

Graves continued, “The state’s role is to provide the process for families and school districts to notify intent of alternative instruction, and ensure students have access to textbooks or other materials that are selected by the local public school district, should the homeschooling family choose to access them.”

One reason why homeschooling is expanding is that parents have more tools today to teach their kids at home, according to Graves. “With the opportunities available for online schooling, parents can ensure that their kids are learning current information while at the same time curating a curriculum that fits the individual child,” he said.

There also came COVID-19, starting in 2020. “Another possible cause of the increase in the numbers of students in alternative instruction is the recent pandemic. Some parents began homeschooling out of dissatisfaction with measures related to the pandemic and even the perceived lack of sufficient measures to protect kids from the disease,” Graves said. “Once they began homeschooling, some found they liked it. Due to new technologies they found they were able to make it work for their children, or that they appreciated greater family time they could enjoy with their children.”

Mount Vernon was the only public-school district in South Dakota without an alternative-instruction student during the 2022-23 school year, according to the department. The department provides instructions for home-schooling on a webpage.

Here’s a look at some of South Dakota’s largest districts, comparing home-school enrollments for 2017-2018 and 2022-2023.

  • Sioux Falls 511/1,271  
  • Rapid City 644/1,393 
  • Meade (Sturgis) 197/439
  • Spearfish 152/376
  • Aberdeen 153/247 
  • Brookings 80/245 
  • Brandon 130/223 
  • Harrisburg 115/209 
  • Custer 108/168
  • Watertown 70/150 
  • Pierre 87/142 
  • Yankton 54/136
  • Hot Springs 51/127
  • Huron 42/118 
  • Tea 38/107 
  • Mitchell 68/98 
  • Lead-Deadwood 40/81 
  • Madison 26/52
  • Stanley County 14/27
  • Onida 10/26
  • Kadoka 11/19
  • Haakon 8/18
  • Wall 1/12
  • Redfield 20/6