All parents want a good education for their child.
But an increasing number of Americans refuse to accept the notion that the school down the street is the best way to provide that. And catching their attention - alongside the growing number of charter or alternative schools - is homeschooling.
Arguably the fastest-growing trend in education, homeschooling now surpasses charter schools in the number of children it attracts. Homeschooled students equal about one-fourth the private-school population, experts say.
Home-based education has long since shed its stereotype as the province of religiously conservative parents who don't like public school culture. The typical profile of a family is still white, two-parent, and better educated and more religious than average. But many people who don't fit that bill are opting out of the school system as well. Their growing presence - and the resulting diversity of viewpoints - are challenging a once-small movement to figure out how inclusive it can be.
"In the early days of the modern homeschooling movement, homeschoolers worked together," says Laura Derrick, public relations director for the National Home Education Network (www.nhen.org), a group started as an alternative to exclusively Christian organizations. "There were homeschoolers working across political lines, across religious beliefs. But there came a time when there was a split."
Advocates of more-inclusive groups - some of whom add they are personally quite religious - say issues range from ensuring that all parents get the accurate information and support they need, to concerns about research given to media, much of which has been conducted by specifically Christian groups who often get a self-selecting response.
Homeschooling research may be notoriously problematic, but there's no doubt the growth of the movement has been explosive. About 15,000 families homeschooled in the early 1980s. Now, the National Home Education Research Institute (NHERI) puts the number at between 1.5 million and 1.9 million students - close to 3 percent of the school-age population. They say the homeschool population is growing 7 to 18 percent a year.
That's been helped in part by high-profile success stories like homeschoolers' 1-2-3 finish in the National Spelling Bee this summer and the Colfax family in California, who sent three sons to Harvard and wrote a book about their years learning together. Influential as well has been wider public acceptance - perhaps in part because of the increasingly varied constituencies who have joined the movement.
Meeting on the playground
At a recent "park day" in Longmont, Colo., where a group of homeschoolers meets once a week for play and chitchat, mothers discussed their own varied approaches to homeschooling.
One chooses to follow a more traditional, "Charlotte Mason" approach. (The 19th-century educator advocated a liberal, core-subject education that inculcates a love of learning.) Anothe does unit studies and sets out a plan for each day. A third has decided to send her four children to school this year for the first time. Sally Vinke, also a member of the group, calls her approach with her nine-year-old daughter, Corey, "pretty radically unschooling" (see sidebar).
The women - and it's just mothers here today - all emphasize that they speak only for themselves when they talk about homeschooling. But they're united in their desire to dispel certain myths: that homeschoolers need a lot of money; that it is difficult and requires well-educated parents; and that their kids will be poorly socialized.
Betsy Shaffer says she falls into a lower-middle-class bracket and has made some income sacrifices in order to homeschool her two children. She works part-time for a cleaning business, and sometimes brings her kids with her. But, "it's enriched our focus," she says. "You have more time to spend together as a family."
Ms. Vinke emphasizes that it's commitment, rather than training, that makes a parent a good teacher. She has just a high school diploma, but says she has created "an environment where people value knowledge."
Like many homeschooling parents, these mothers laugh when the issue of socialization arises. Their kids have an abundance of opportunities to interact with both children and adults of many ages, they say. Indeed, the socialization question is one reason they say they opted out of school. They didn't want social life limited to kids of the same age, which can magnify peer pressure.
"[School] is an artificial environment," says Vicki Brady, a mother in Idaho Springs, Colo., who teaches her seven children and also airs a national homeschooling radio show. "Nowhere else are people segmented by their own ages."
Parents point to activities like dance and drama, martial-arts classes, or park days - or, when they're older, community college classes - as places where their
kids have an active social life.
In a society where school is often viewed as the primary shaper of social skills, however, many are not convinced. "I think the jury's out on [socialization] as far as how well it works," says Paul Houston, president of the American Association of School Administrators. While Mr. Houston says that in many ways he is positive about homeschooling, socialization is one of his two big concerns. "In a diverse society, do we want people who haven't dealt with people who are different from them?" he asks.
But what about standards?
He also cites the lack of uniform state standards for homeschoolers as a cause for concern. While it is legal in every state, some, like New York, require rigorous reports and testing. Others don't even know how many families are homeschooling.
"I worry about that, particularly in an era where accountability has become so important," Houston says. "How do we provide that protection to children being homeschooled?"
The National Education Association is harsher in its judgment. Each year, the Washington-based organization passes a resolution stating in part that "homeschooling programs cannot provide the student with a comprehensive education experience&#8230;. Instruction should be by persons who are licensed by the appropriate state education licensure agency.&#8230; Homeschooled students should not participate in any extracurricular activities in the public schools."
The last item is a sore point for many homeschoolers, who see their tax dollars paying for fancy lab equipment and state-of-the-art gymnasiums - which some of them would like access to. A few school districts are offering this access to homeschoolers, and sometimes get an increase in state funding as a result. But the majority still resist opening their doors.
Why they homeschool
Of course, some homeschoolers insist that to truly be a homeschooler, parents should keep their children away from any contact with the public schools.
But the reasons people homeschool are as diverse as the methods they use. It's a fact often emphasized by homeschoolers who have chosen the route for nonreligious reasons, but who worry that fundamentalist Christian groups like the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) are the only organizations with a major voice.
"Many homeschoolers feel [HSLDA's mission] has little to do with homeschooling and everything to do with religion and politics," Ms. Derrick says. "Once public perception of homeschooling has grown to include everybody else, we'll all be a lot better off."
Patricia Lines, a former researcher for the US Department of Education, points to an annual survey conducted in Florida. Several years ago, the leading reason to homeschool was religion. Now, it's dissatisfaction with the public school system.
Some parents cite other reasons. Vinke comments that for her, homeschooling was "more a lifestyle choice than an educational choice" - she wanted to "pull back into more of a simple, family-based life."
When a child is labeled
Some families start homeschooling upon seeing a child struggle in school. The Bradys were told their oldest daughter was "ineducable," and some officials suggested she be put in an institution. The Bradys decided to school her themselves. Emily has since finished the equivalent of high school, plays flute and piano, and screens calls to the family's radio station. "Many parents come on when a child is labeled," says Mrs. Brady.
Homeschoolers' achievements have helped build acceptance of the movement. It's difficult to quantify test scores, since homeschoolers often resist evaluation. But Brian Ray, president of NHERI, says that 15 years of research indicate that homeschoolers typically score 15 to 30 percentiles above the national average on standardized tests.
And many move easily on to college. Last year, Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., accepted 27 percent of homeschooled applicants - nearly double its overall acceptance rate. One Web site, learninfreedom.org, lists more than 1,000 colleges, many highly selective, that welcome homeschoolers.
"We were the new kid on the block when I started out," says Treon Goossen, director of the legal group Concerned Parents of Colorado. "There were no programs. People in the state legislature called us child abusers."
Michael Smith, president and co-founder of the HSLDA (www.hslda.org), echoes that sentiment. "It was an idea that was considered very threatening to children," he says. "That's all gone by the wayside with the research on how well children do."
Indeed, most homeschoolers comment on the drastic improvement in acceptance, not just from colleges, but also from friends, neighbors, and family. And inclusive groups are trying to make the movement more accepting from within, as well.
"We are very strong in feeling that this movement is for everybody," Ms. Goossen says.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society