Home-Schooling: A Primer 

In January, George W. Bush took a break from his role as defender of the free world to sign his vaunted No Child Left Behind Act, a controversial education measure which, among other provisions, mandates a system of national standards in education. Bush and his minions claim the new law "will help close the achievement gap between disadvantaged and minority students and their peers." But an increasing number of parents in Tucson and across the country are rejecting not only the idea of national standards, but the entire institution of public education in favor of home-schooling. In the last 20 years all states have revised their statutes in favor of in-home instruction. For the first time since the 1930s, it is now legal to home-school your child anywhere in the United States.

Compulsory education, mandated by the state and supervised by boards of education, became accepted about the time that technology made child labor obsolete and the industrializing nation was faced with a "second wave" of immigration. These "new immigrants," as they are sometimes called, came from places other than Northern Europe. The non-English speaking newcomers, with their darker skin and "foreign" cultures, filled the streets and tenements of urban centers. For various reasons the so-called progressives of the time generally agreed that a system of mandated public education would get the children off the streets and into schools where they could learn American values and become patriotic "productive members of society." It worked.

For several generations, most parents supported the efforts of public education to teach their children what they needed to know in order to make their children's lives easier, more prosperous and more secure than theirs had been.

Despite some reformers who believed education should focus on children rather than viewing them as resources for the nation's factories, the public school system was largely modeled on the factory system, and for good reason. It was what was needed at the time.

Today, factories sit empty, silent shells rusting away in deteriorating cities while the public education system stumbles along with its frayed edges and questionable efficacy. In those same cities some schools are increasingly starting to resemble the disintegrating factories while developing characteristics of what one local home-schooled youngster called "a war zone."

Conceived in fits and starts, the public education system was designed to produce citizens loyal to the nation and equipped with the skills needed for the marketplace. But since the 1960s, voices condemning the institution of state-supported education, seeking an alternative to the system, have grown in volume, number and diversity.

When those advocating alternatives were primarily a scruffy bunch of longhaired back-to-the-Earth types reading Mother Earth News for advice on everything from raising chickens to raising children, few listened. But over the course of the last two decades, as fundamentalist--or evangelical, as they prefer to be called--Christians began to pull their children out of public schools in ever-increasing numbers, things began to change.

Having learned something from the civil-rights movement that preceded their actions by close to 30 years, home-schoolers were prepared to go to court and go to jail to defend their beliefs and what they felt was a constitutional right. At first only a few cases were heard at the state level as courts were forced to deal with the slowly growing phenomenon of home-schooling.

In the early '80s, states began to make changes to compulsory school attendance laws. Home-schoolers lobbied and litigated and followed state after state made home-schooling legal.

The Home School Legal Defense Association, founded in 1983 by two home-schooling fathers, continues to play a major role in the defense of home-schooling families and in rallying support for state and federal legislation deemed supportive to home-schoolers. It is a Christian organization that thanks God for its successes rather than its lawyers or lobbying efforts.

The number of home-schooled children currently is about one million, though some sources place the number lower and others place it as high as 1.7 million. That compares to an estimated 46.8 million children in the nation's public-school systems. Although statistics indicate a majority of the current home-schooled population is white, middle-class and Christian, support groups exist for African-American, Jewish, Catholic, Muslim and pagan home-schoolers. And there are those who couldn't care less about any group or religious affiliation who choose the home-schooling route out of a feeling of necessity or conviction. A growing number of secular support groups continue to form to serve this population.

Locally the agency in charge of home schooling is the Pima County School Superintendent's Office. If you request a "home-schooling packet," you will receive an Affidavit of Intent to Home School, a couple of pages of information about Arizona's home-schooling requirements (virtually none) and a page listing Tucson area home-school support groups on one side and correspondence schools on the other.

The affidavit is a simple one-page form that requires minimal information: name, address, telephone number, notarization and proof of the child's age. While the child is being home-schooled, parents are free to forego all testing of the child, including standardized tests and the AIMS test. However, if a child enrolls in a public school after "receiving instruction in a home-school program," the child is tested in order to determine "appropriate grade level."

Bridget Anderson doesn't pay much attention to the idea that all children of a certain age must be academically at the same level. "You can show a 3-year-old his letters every day and when they're ready, it just clicks," she said.

Anderson and her husband Dean made the decision to home-school when the eldest of their eight children was a toddler. She heard Raymond Moore, whom she describes as a "leader in the movement," on the radio. What Moore had to say made sense to her. Besides having the opportunity to instill in her children the Christian faith and values she and her husband share, Anderson home-schools for several other reasons. "It's a more relaxed schedule, there's more family time, the kids learn at their own pace, the flexibility and slower pace," she said, expressing sentiments shared by many home-schooling families.

The three oldest Anderson daughters, Karin, Kristin and Katie, eventually all enrolled at Sabino High School. Health problems caused Karin to withdraw so she completed high school through the American School, an Illinois-based correspondence school listed on the county school superintendent's handout. Karin is now living with her aunt in Chicago and attending a community college.

Anderson purchases some of her teaching materials by mail; The Greenleaf Press catalog is one source, and some items are locally available. Rob and Cyndy Shearer are the Christian entrepreneurs behind the Greenleaf catalog. In their description of themselves, they write about their 10 children, one of them "a very special daughter from China," adopted in 1997.

As expected some, though not all, of the material available through the catalog has a Christian slant. One book is billed as "A Christian Guide to Six Shakespeare Plays." And while mainstream educators are slowly getting away from the "famous men" approach to history, the catalog lists "Famous Men of Greece" and "Famous Men of Rome."

An interesting title, A Landscape with Dragons, offers "an analysis and a critique of the pagan invasion of children's culture." None of the Harry Potter books are listed in the literature section. Despite vehement objections to the Potter series by some Christians, Anderson said her 12-year-old, Kimmy, has read all the Harry Potter books.

The Anderson family helps dispel the image of home-schooling families as crusading Christian zealots who seek to shield their children from society and the Moloch of public education. Although the children and parents are active in their church, Bridget Anderson is not concerned about her children meeting non-Christians and believes parents who isolate their kids have a fear of others.

After home-schooling for so many years, Anderson is comfortable with the process. There is no "typical" day since each of the children is doing different things at different times. While there may be some group time, Anderson spends one-on-one time with the children as needed. Sometimes the activities are self-directed with the children learning on their own and asking questions as they arise. Math and spelling are "daily disciplines."

It's not unusual for home-schooling parents to barter skills. "It's a real common thing," said Anderson. "If you teach my kid piano, I'll teach yours sewing," she offered by way of example.

Anderson, as did other home-schooling parents, agreed that teaching doesn't need to take the entire day. All the repetitive busy-work characteristic of public education are absent from home-schooling, she said. Independent assignments become increasingly important as home-schooled children get older, and "by the time they're in seventh or eighth grade they know what needs to be done."

The Andersons may be representative of the current majority of home-schooling families, but area parents are also pulling their kids out of the public education system for non-religious reasons. When Candace Jepson's daughter was about to enter middle school, she wondered if that was the best option.

Jepson doesn't accept the "they're just going through puberty" explanation for the obstreperously obnoxious behavior of some middle-school-aged children. "The point of middle school is to make all our kids feel miserable. We're trained to accept cranky kids," she said, noting that her 12-year-old daughter, Caitlin, is thriving in a home environment but had problems in school.

When Caitlin started to read after finishing her assigned school work sooner than her classmates, her teacher would get upset, accusing her of having an "attitude problem" and being "sassy." Although Jepson was able to get her daughter switched to a teacher who gave her extra work to do when Caitlin was done before the allotted time, other difficulties remained.

Growing up on a ranch on the far eastside, Caitlin entered a school district well along in the process of changing from rural to suburban. As her mother explains it, "We have the same social issues TUSD does." Kids smoking in the bathroom, girls wearing makeup and "provocative" clothing, and boys and girls "pairing up" at 11 or 12 all made Caitlin, sporting jeans and a well-scrubbed face, feel uncomfortable, Jepson said. When a boy deemed a special education child attacked Caitlin's friend, Jepson withdrew her daughter the next day.

Though Jepson has been home-schooling for less than a year, she already notices a change. She describes Caitlin as relaxed, calm and "not afraid about anything." And though she is thinking about home-schooling Caitlin's younger sister Jane, she believes public school teachers "do as good a job as they can."

Adrienne Ward is less sanguine about public education. Atypical in the world of home-schoolers, Ward is a single mom, a certified teacher who has taught in Arizona and other states, and not at all hesitant about letting her feelings be known. "The public school system doesn't want to acknowledge that people home-school because the public system stinks," she said.

When her son Alex, now 11, was in the middle of first grade and had no letter recognition, "It became apparent to me he wasn't going to get caught up in public school." Eventually she pulled her son out of the system even though "I preferred being his mom more than being his teacher."

Despite her efforts, she ran into obstacles trying to get her son tested for learning disabilities in the Amphi School District. At the time, the psychologist who did the testing for Wilson Elementary School told her that children her son's age were too young to be diagnosed. Ward learned her son was dyslexic after taking him to a private psychologist for testing, but Amphi would not accept the results, she said.

"I've seen it time and time again. They wait until the kid is so far behind," she said, explaining why testing for special education isn't done sooner. As Ward sees it, the public education system is laboring under several handicaps.

"Special ed is overwhelmed with kids. Teachers in the early grades pass kids on rather than identify problems. The public schools are full of overwhelmed, burnt-out people. Kids come to school with little or no foundation."

Ward believes Amphi and "districts like that" don't want special education children. At one time she interviewed for a teaching position at a middle school in the Catalina Foothills District. When she asked about special education, the principal told her: "You don't have to worry. We don't emphasize those services so they tend to go elsewhere," Ward said.

Karen Downs thinks any district that places an "A+" on its buildings doesn't want kids who have learning difficulties. Her son Cody, now 11, had a difficult year in Amphi while in kindergarten. It was "a bad, bad year," she said. There were no resources to help Cody, and both she and her husband Rod felt "bullied" by the teacher and principal. "They had all the power and we were supposed to do whatever they said."

When the Downs brought Cody to have his vision tested, the eye doctor recommended a private school specializing in children with learning difficulties. The first year was an "awesome" experience for their son, but in the second year, when Karen Downs witnessed a teacher humiliate a child during a reading group, they decided home-schooling was their best option.

She home-schooled Cody for a year. It was difficult at first getting over the "mom-as-teacher" transition, but soon her son accepted it. Downs worked hard in her new role: she went to the local teaching supply stores; she got the curriculum for the second grade; and she made sure she was prepared for each lesson.

Cody is in the fourth grade in the Vail School District now and doing well. Downs said she stopped home-schooling Cody because she realized her "limitations." Downs "can't say enough good things" about his current teacher; "She keeps them striving and motivated."

These days Downs spends part of her week volunteering at the school that Cody and his younger brother Bradley attend. After her experiences with the public education system, a private school and home-schooling, Downs discovered she was not apt to feel bullied again: "I've learned to be an advocate for my child."

Although it is likely that most parents of home-schooled children share that attitude, not all parents place their children's needs ahead of their own. While the legality of home-schooling provides options previously unavailable to children and families, it also raises difficult questions about parental rights and the obligation of the state to intervene in that nebulous area--"the best interests" of the child.

Who does a child "belong" to, if anyone? Do parents have "rights" when it comes to their children, or only responsibilities? If they have "parental rights," who grants them? God? The state? Or are they inherent?

In addition, educators ask two key questions: Who should educate children? Are parents the most appropriate adults for the job?

In 1992 Helene Richards, a mother of four children and member of the Home School Legal Defense Association, refused to allow a social worker into her home following an anonymous child abuse hotline call. In Alabama, the Court of Civil Appeals ruled: "an invasion of a parent's home was a violation of the legal right to privacy," according to the HSLDA. There are other cases similar to this one. Whether Richards was home-schooling is not clear; the question is how the notion of "the legal right to privacy," is inconsistently adjudicated by the courts.

Some parents share a belief expressed by Glenda Lovera. "God gives you your parents," Lovera told The Arizona Republic. "If they're messing up big time, God will take care of it. You don't need the government."

Home-schoolers almost always wins court challenges dealing with privacy issues. But members of organizations such as the HSLDA may be more likely to be concerned with their own agenda rather than question the inconsistencies in government policy. Sometimes focusing on your kids takes all the energy you've got.

One local group committed to home education for their children is the Sonoran Desert Homeschoolers. A secular support group comprised of approximately a hundred families, these home-schoolers meet on a weekly basis at a Tucson park. The kids have an opportunity to socialize (some young teens participate in adult-facilitated discussions) while their parents exchange ideas and teaching techniques.

This diverse group of families comes from all parts of the metropolitan area and represents a wide range of religious and political beliefs. Their motto is "hozho," a Navajo word meaning "harmony" or "walking in beauty or friendship." Among the many activities available as a result of members' efforts are science projects, a chess club, a reading club and writing projects as well as group activities geared to the adults.

The educational level among the parents ranges from minimal formal education to graduate and professional degrees. Philosophies and approaches to teaching are as varied as the membership; there's no "one size fits all" thinking.

Karen Metcalf explained that the group operates with minimal rules and little official organization. A two-thirds vote of all the members, including children, is required for anything that involves the whole group. If there is a problem involving parents or children, they resolve it through discussions. If someone wants to do something, they just do it and others can join the project if they choose.

Metcalf's twin 12-year-old daughters have never been in the public school system. When her children were approaching school age, comments by friends helped her decide to home-school her children. Hearing people talk about teaching children how to be safe on the bus, or saying they couldn't wait until the kids got back to school after summer vacation, gave her pause.

A sense of family and the flexibility home-schooling provides are important to Metcalf. She also values the opportunity for "more input into how my kids develop." Other members of the group agreed that home-schooling provides the opportunity to have more influence over the direction of their children's lives.

At one time Metcalf used to test her children to see how they were doing, but stopped doing so when she discovered, "What happens is you get the test results and the kids are exactly where you thought." At this point she sees no reason to test her daughters.

She is confident that since home-schooled children grow increasingly self-directed as they get older, college choices will not be limited as a result of the home-schooling process. In fact, they may be expanded. As one home-schooling parent said, "A college professor doesn't care if you can take a multiple choice test."

While college is a concern for some home-schooling parents, Joe Luongo already has plans for his 5-year-old son Nicholas. Laurel Springs School is an accredited California-based institution that issues high school diplomas and provides curriculum for grades K-12 for at-home instruction. Though it's a matter of people's perception, Luongo says he believes that having a diploma rather than a G.E.D. will serve his son well no matter what Nicholas ends up doing as an adult.

Luongo and his wife Gail made the decision to home-school their son after realizing some aspects of Nicholas' personality could jeopardize his education. "If my son doesn't like you, he's going to give you a hard time," Luongo said.

Like many parents, Luongo visits stores specializing in teaching tools, checks out the curriculum, and buys books he concludes are appropriate for his son's level.Though not yet six, Nicholas is reading at a first -grade level.

For now, he spends time with other children at a park. When Nicholas gets older, Luongo plans to enroll him in music and art classes. "People tell me we should involve him in sports, but as a society we're already sports-minded or business-minded. Maybe we'd be a little kinder and solve our problems in a non-violent way if kids were creative-minded."

With the advent of new technology, home-schooling parents and their children are finding it easier to access resources, connect with other home educators and keep tabs on relevant legislative efforts on home-schooling at the local and national levels. Books, curricula, schools, support groups and online resources are increasingly available. If there is any single thing that indicates how close to mainstream home-schooling is becoming, it may be the publication of Homeschooling for Dummies and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Homeschooling.

In an October 2001 article in Reason magazine, Daniel H. Pink's analysis of home-schooling makes the trend sound like the most promising educational innovation since the end of corporal punishment. Pink correctly points out that while other American institutions have changed dramatically over the course of the last century, public schools remain essentially the same. As a result they have become irrelevant in a world substantially different from what it was.

Pink believes home-schooling is exactly what is needed to prepare the next generation for what he calls the "free agent nation." Simply put, Pink envisions a growing number of self-employed, independent people--he calls them "free agents"--doing their own thing without the routine that accompanies a traditional "job."

He argues: "More free agent teachers and more free agent students will create tremendous liquidity in the learning market--with the Internet serving as matchmaker for this new marketplace of learning."

Perhaps Pink is correct. Following his argument to its logical conclusion, home-schooling may be seen as a handmaiden to "free markets" and will serve well our brave new world of globalization. On the other hand, whatever advantages home-schooling may offer children and families, the question remains: Which children, which families? Parents struggling to earn enough money to pay the rent and feed their children do not have the option of staying home to nurture them.

In 1998, then-U.S. Sen. John Ashcroft received the Home Schooling Freedom Award in Washington D.C. According to HSLDA, this award was presented as a result of "the successful attempt to halt national testing and protect the home-schooling families from having to endure federalized elementary and secondary education." If Bush the Younger, together with other advocates of national testing prevail, a troubling and undemocratic scenario may unfold.

With home-schooled children exempt from any testing other than what their parents choose, and with private schools able to decide what tests, if any, they will administer, only children left in the public school system will be tested, tracked, monitored and left to the vagaries of state-supported education. As this occurs, there is little doubt which children will be left behind.

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