Do home-schoolers need government oversight?

Nationwide the number of families that home school their children is on the rise, but some argue that regulations ensuring that a home-school education matches national standards are still lacking, and could even open the way to abuse.

Drew Vattiat/The Oregonian/AP/FILE
In an Oct. 23, 2014 photo, teachers Erica Wickham, top, left, and Laura Cerny ask children to see how their hands smell after picking fresh herbs for a soup at Zenger Farm during the Urban Farm Homeschool Program in Portland, Oregon.

The number of home-schooled children continues to rise in the country - now up to an estimated 2.2 million, including thousands in the Kansas City area.

Public oversight of home schooling? Not so much, The Kansas City Star reports.

In fact, Pennsylvania - where home-schooling families had to register with the local school district, submit study plans and follow other rules - recently eased its regulations under pressure from home-school advocates.

Even so, "Pennsylvania is probably still the state that holds parents most accountable when it comes to home schooling," said Rachel Coleman, co-founder and executive director of the Coalition for Responsible Home Education.

The coalition is a new group of home-school alumni from across the country, including Missouri and Kansas. It's not opposed to home schooling, but it argues there must be public oversight to ensure that children are actually doing schoolwork and not being forced to work at family businesses or, worse yet, being abused.

"Children suffer because of parental rights," said Maria Battor, who grew up one of eight children home-schooled near a small town in the middle of Kansas.

Proponents, however, insist that parents who make the decision to home-school are typically committed to the task, and their students end up scoring higher on academic assessment tests than those in traditional schools.

Most remain firmly committed to a total hands-off stance when it comes to government involvement.

"Do they want to tell us what to teach?" asked Lenexa, Kansas resident Todd Kangas, president of Midwest Parent Educators.

"Do they want us to serve what Michelle Obama thinks they should have for lunch? Tell us how much sleep the kids should get?

"As for year-end assessment, I wish public schools did that instead of just artificial advancement."

Caitlin Reynolds, who grew up in the Topeka, Kansas, area, was home-schooled from third grade through high school. Her experience, she said, was mostly positive. Her parents were well educated and made good teachers.

"But I know not everybody has that," said Reynolds, who said she is working on a graduate degree at Indiana University. "There should be some type of review to make sure kids are progressing. I don't know why people are so against that."

In Missouri, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education makes clear on its website that it does not regulate or monitor home schooling.

About the only rule governing home schooling in Kansas is that parents should notify the local school district when they stop doing it.

Religion is probably the biggest reason for home schooling. Others include anti-government sentiment, failing public schools, bullying, social elements, and a child's inability to cope in a conventional classroom.

It is an alternative clearly not for everyone. Most parents wouldn't want to do it - it's a lot of work. And even if they were willing, many families rely on parents working full-time jobs.

Also, the cultural stigma still exists. The Onion, a popular satirical website, recently did a piece on the pros and cons of home schooling.

Pros: Better prepares children for modern world in which they never have to talk to people with different opinions. Guest lecturer: Uncle Ken.

Cons: Slightly more difficult to get rid of underperforming teachers. Almost impossible to punish a child who is already being subjected to home schooling.

Micah and Johanna Gelatt, who home-school four kids at their house in Kansas City, Kansas, have heard it all and do not care. They are doing what they think is best for their family. They also have two younger children.

"Religion is part of it, sure," Micah Gelatt said during a recent visit. "We like for God to be part of the lesson, for him to be the thesis and not the appendix."

Johanna Gelatt nodded.

"We can't do that in public school, but we can here," she said.

Both are former public school teachers in rural Kansas. Now they run a nonprofit that serves refugees from Myanmar, which they still call Burma. Johanna Gelatt says her home school is far more efficient than public school.

"I do in two hours what a public school would take all day to do," she said.

School takes up early in the small classroom off the kitchen. Many days end by noon. The children, ages 12, 9, 8, and 5, then do projects, such as work in the garden, where they learn about seeds and growing seasons. They take field trips. This year, the older ones are learning about World War I, so a visit to the National World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial is planned.

Johanna Gelatt likes that she gets to choose when her kids learn about certain social elements. The Gelatt children have friends who attend public school.

"We shield them from things, but we don't hide the world from them," she said.

Micah Gelatt said he is not against government. Government, he said, can be a great force for good. Vehemence against government could serve as a "red flag" when it comes to home schooling, he said.

As for a formal assessment, Johanna Gelatt said most home-school parents do that already with the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills.

But they are not eager for any required assessment.

"My question would be what they do with that information," Micah Gelatt said.

When Pennsylvania relaxed home-school rules, Jim Buckeit, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, said the move amounted to a loosening of standards for a subset of students while at the same time giving them the same credentials as other students.

"This comes at a time when public school students face more rigorous standards and teachers are being judged on student performance," Mr. Buckeit told The New York Times.

The National Education Association, a union of teachers and other school employees, has never wavered in its position that "home schooling programs based on parental choice cannot provide the student with a comprehensive education experience." It, too, continues to push for more oversight.

But Brian Ray of the National Home Education Research Institute said much of the opposition is misguided. Legislatures and court decisions have concluded that home schools are simply private schools.

"People calling for control of home schooling should be asking the same for Catholic and Lutheran schools," Ray said. "And they are not doing that."

A difference, of course, would be that private schools such as Barstow or Rockhurst are not run by one or two people. There are lots of eyes.

Unlike home schools.

"That's why accountability is absolutely necessary," said Coleman of the new coalition. "With good parents, things go well. But some parents aren't good - certainly not good teachers."

Her organization has created a network of home-school alumni from all over the country. Most involved went on to college. Some are teachers and lawyers. But they knew others growing up who were used mainly for manual labor, couldn't read by middle school and were abused. Many, like Coleman, who grew up in Indiana, were unknown to authorities.

"No one knew we even existed," she said.

Battor, who grew up near Partridge in central Kansas, said housework always came before schoolwork and science was intelligent design only.

"My parents didn't answer to anybody and nobody really cared," she said. "I haven't spoken to them in more than two years."

She acknowledged, however, that she learned. Now 30, she is studying education at Western Washington University.

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