Nikita Bush comes from a family of public school teachers: Her mom, aunts, uncles – nearly all of them have been involved in public education at some level.
But her own teaching career ended, she says, “in heartbreak” when she had to make a decision about where her own child would go to school.
After being reprimanded repeatedly for folding Afro-centric education into her Atlanta classroom, she left. Fifteen years and six children later, Ms. Bush leads a growing homeschooling co-op near Atlanta’s historic West End neighborhood.
Despite the promises of the civil rights movement, “people are starting to realize that public education in America was designed for the masses of poor, and its intent has been to trap poor people into being workers and servants. If you don’t want that for your children, then you look for something else,” she says. To her, the biggest flaw in public education is a lack of character education, an "absence of a moral binding," that contributes to low expectations – and lower outcomes for children of color.
Ms. Bush is part of a burgeoning movement of African-American parents done waiting for public schools to get better. The numbers of black parents choosing to home-school their children has doubled in a little over a decade – about 220,000 black school-aged children are being homeschooled – up from estimates of 103,000 in 2003, according to the National Home Research Institute (NHERI).
“Moms and dads are saying, ‘We just want what’s best for our children,’ ” says Brian Ray, who founded NHERI and has written a paper on black home-schooling parents and how their children perform academically. “They’ve been told for 20, 30, 40 years that public schools will get better, they’ll get better for black kids, but ... black kids are still at the bottom of the totem poll in terms of academic achievement… and black families know it.”
The reasons black parents cite for home-schooling their children cover a wide range. Some sound similar to the homeschooling movement as a whole: religious beliefs, a desire to shelter children from an increasingly crass or materialistic society, a conviction that they are best-suited to teach their kids the values they need to live a fulfilling life.
But other parents cite incidents of racial bullying, studies showing that black students are less likely to be recommended for gifted and advanced classes, and multiple studies showing that African-American children – especially boys – are disproportionately likely to be suspended or arrested.
In short, in order to protect their children from school-related racism, more black parents are keeping their kids out of school entirely, writes Ama Mazama, a professor of African American Studies at Temple University in Philadelphia who has written extensively on home-schooling. She has dubbed the movement “racial protectionism.”
On academic performance, home-schooled students in his study scored between 23 and 42 percentile points above their public school counterparts in math, reading, and English, says Dr. Ray of NHERI. But he and others stress that research is nascent and more comprehensive studies need to be conducted before broader conclusions can be drawn. Ray's study looked at 81 home-schooled students, for example.
Interestingly, given one common concern about home-schooled students not getting needed socialization with peers, the students in his study scored above average “on measures of social, emotional, and psychological development.”
Georgia's twist on home-schooling
In most states, home-schooling parents tend to be dual-parent and middle- or upper-income, according to Ray's research, enabling one parent to stay home and teach the kids.
But Georgia is different, says Cheryl Fields-Smith, a professor of education at the University of Georgia. While most states prohibit homeschooling parents from teaching anybody except their own children, Georgia has no such restriction. That has given rise to co-ops, where, in essence, groups of parents serve as rotating teachers, based on their own skill sets, talents, and fortes.
That, Professor Fields-Smith says, has allowed single black moms to band together to give their children an education that they say better reflects their values and history – while still being able to work.
“Some of the most amazing inventions come forward out of a need," says Queen Taese, a Lithonia, Ga., mom who has homeschooled her seven children. "And with the way public education is going, there was an inevitable need, especially for the black community, because less funds go to our schools and there are a lot less opportunities unless our children go outside our community.”
For her part, Fields-Smith says she's not surprised parents are citing racism as a reason for choosing to home-school. She has seen instances where middle-class black parents, whose extra social capital would normally enable them to advocate effectively for their children, have a harder time “unlocking those benefits” than most other folks.
“You know, trying to get their children into the gifted programs, all kind of things like that – because when you’re not white all those things are challenging, I think, because of all the assumptions that are made,” she says.
And then there's the question of history.
“If you only go to public schools, and that’s the only place you’re educated, then you learn that your history began with slavery and it pretty much ended with MLK,” says Fields-Smith.
Bush says that, even in majority-black districts like Atlanta, there is little African history taught. For both her and Ms. Taese, it was important their kids received a well-rounded education that reflected their heritage.
A fraught history
African-American parents have been struggling to get their children access to a good education since long before the Supreme Court's historic Brown v. Board of Education desegregated America's schools in 1954. Decades after Emancipation, teachers in clandestine schools in Southern states faced violence or even murder – as in the case of Julia Hayden, a 17-year-old black teacher who was killed in Murray County, Tennessee, in 1874, three days after she arrived to teach.
In the Jim Crow South of the first half of the 20th century, schools for children of color worked to do more with less – with governments unevenly distributing funds in favor of white schools.
Decades later, funding disparities persist, educators say. A 2012 Center for American Progress report found that a 10-percentage point increase in students of color at a school correlates with a $75 per pupil decrease in funding. Data analyst David Mosenkis studied 500 Pennsylvania school districts in 2012 and found that, "At any given poverty level, districts that have a higher proportion of white students get substantially higher funding than districts that have more minority students.”
“Brown versus Board of Education was groundbreaking legal work about desegregating our schools, but I think [it] missed the mark in terms of failing to talk about integration,” says Donna Ford, a professor at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of Education.
Professor Ford says genuine integration is not just about students of different racial backgrounds going to school in the same building. It is about them coexisting in schools where the curriculum is culturally responsive and historically accurate, where teachers have high expectations of all students, and where black students, especially boys, aren’t disproportionately disciplined.
She cites recent Office for Civil Rights data showing that 19 percent of all preschoolers are black males, yet they represent 50 percent of suspensions at that level.
“Those who’ve chosen to take their kids out of public schools have said, ‘I don’t trust public schools, public education, I don’t trust policies and procedures, I don’t trust tests, I don’t trust educational institutions to help my child be all he or she can be, so hence homeschooling, especially for African Americans,” says Ford.
“Then you have to consider that black children are so underrepresented in gifted education that blacks of all income levels are desperate to get the educational rigor and challenge that they think their children need," she adds. "There’s a lot wrapped into that, but trust is fundamental.”
'You're raising adults'
In Massachusetts, Jovia Godfrey, a second-generation Haitian-American who attended the prestigious Boston Latin School and has a degree in journalism, decided with her husband that she would just stay home with the kids until they were ready for school. That lasted until her oldest child was 6 and attending a private Seventh-Day Adventist school.
Unhappy with how his behavior changed in just a matter of months – as well as her feeling that the education system isn’t keeping pace with the fluid, multi-career lives her children will be expected to lead – she decided she was the best person to teach them.
“I've always said … you're not raising kids, you're raising adults – tomorrow's adults – so when they are adults I want them to be very perceptive thinkers,” says Ms. Godfrey.
Godfrey and her Honduran-American husband, Chris, who is a middle-school teacher in the Boston area, have come in for criticism.
When a preschool friend’s mom who owns a daycare found out Godfrey was homeschooling, she was not impressed.
“She even asked me, ‘So what's wrong with the schools?’ says Godfrey, who is expecting her fifth child. “And she kind of looked at me like, ‘You think your kids are better?’ ”
Her three school-age children attend woodworking and sewing classes and are part of the 450-child Boston Children’s Chorus where they make friends. Like many home-schooling parents, Godfrey still faces questions, but she’s confident she’s made the right call.
She recalls an interaction with her brother on a recent afternoon:
“He came in and we were in the basement doing something. He said, ‘Oh, you guys are home,’ And I said, ‘yeah, we home-school.’ ”
“He said, ‘You're still doing that? Aren't you worried about their social skills?’ And I'm thinking, ‘Dude, you're a bachelor, have you ever even thought about that? You're just repeating what you hear out there.’ So I said to him, ‘Are you worried about their social skills?’ And he said, ‘Actually, no!’ ”
Taese's oldest daughter is now 20. She runs a small catering company and is a certified yoga instructor. Her son, 16, just learned how to fly an airplane – and not a toy one, either.
“A big part of it for me was wanting to nurture my children to their particular goals, their particular purpose for being here, and spirituality is a huge part of that,” says Taese. “All of us have different gifts that we come with to offer the world. I didn’t want them in a cookie-cutter education where everyone is going to get the same type of information, process it, and get pushed to whatever levels of education and careers.”