• U.S.

Home Sweet School

22 minute read
John Cloud and Jodie Morse.

Earlier this month, J.C. Penney learned the hard way just how powerful the home-schooling movement has become. Penney’s had recently started selling a T shirt that wickedly crystallized many people’s assumptions about the movement: HOME SKOOLED, giggles the shirt, which also depicts a trailer home. The folks at Penney’s say they meant no harm–they didn’t even design the T, which had become popular in other stores first. But they yanked it from the shelves Aug. 8 after enraged missives poured in from home-schooling families, some of whom threatened a boycott.

Penney’s should have known better. Over the past decade, the ranks of families home schooling have grown dramatically. According to a new federal report, at least 850,000 students were learning at home in 1999, the most recent year studied; some experts believe the figure is actually twice that. As recently as 1994, the government estimated the number at just 345,000. True, even the largest estimates still put the home schooled at only 4% of the total K-12 population–but that would mean more kids learn at home than attend all the public schools in Alaska, Delaware, Hawaii, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming combined.

While politicians from Washington on down to your school board have been warring over charter schools and vouchers in recent years, home schooling has quietly outpaced both of those more attention-getting reforms (only half a million kids are in charter schools, and just 65,000 receive vouchers). In many ways, in fact, home schooling has become a threat to the very notion of public education. In some school districts, so many parents are pulling their children out to teach them at home that the districts are bleeding millions of dollars in per-pupil funding. Aside from money, the drain of families is eroding something more precious: public confidence in the schools.

Thomas Jefferson and the other early American crusaders for public education believed the schools would help sustain democracy by bringing everyone together to share values and learn a common history. In the little red brick schoolhouse, we would pursue both “democracy in education and education in democracy,” as Stanford historian David Tyack gracefully puts it. Home schooling forsakes all that by defining education not as the pursuit of an entire community but as the work of one family and its chosen circle. Which can be great. Despite some drawbacks, there are signs that home-schooling parents are doing a better job than public schools at teaching their kids. But as the number of kids learning at home grows, we should pause to wonder: Better at teaching them what? Home schooling may turn out better students, but does it create better citizens?

To see how home schooling threatens public schools, look at Maricopa County, Ariz. The county has approximately 7,000 home-schooled students. That’s only 1.4% of school-age kids, but it means $35 million less for the county in per-pupil funding. The state of Florida has 41,128 children (1.7%) learning at home this year, up from 10,039 in the 1991-92 school year; those kids represent a loss of nearly $130 million from school budgets in that state. Of course the schools have fewer children to teach, so it makes sense that they wouldn’t get as much money, but the districts lose much more than cash. “Home schooling is a social threat to public education,” says Chris Lubienski, who teaches at Iowa State University’s college of education. “It is taking some of the most affluent and articulate parents out of the system. These are the parents who know how to get things done with administrators.”

To be sure, many public schools–and their baleful unions and wretched bureaucrats, their rigid rules and we-know-best manner–have done a lot to hurt themselves. But as the most committed parents leave, the schools may falter more, giving the larger community yet another reason to fret over their condition. “A third of our support for schools comes from property taxes,” says Ray Simon, director of the Arkansas department of education. “If a large number of a community’s parents do not fully believe in the school system, it gets more difficult to pass those property taxes. And that directly impacts the schools’ ability to operate.” Says Kellar Noggle, executive director of the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators: “We still have 440,000 kids in public schools, and some 12,000 [in home schooling] is a small number. But those 12,000 have parents and grandparents. Sure, it erodes public support.”

The thus far steep growth of home schooling does have limits, as it takes a galactic commitment of time and money and patience for a parent to spend all day, every day, relearning algebra (or getting it for the first time) and then teaching it. It’s fair to assume that a majority of parents won’t want to give up those delightfully quiet hours when the kids are at school. The softening economy may also begin to thin the ranks of home schoolers, many of whom are middle-class families that can’t afford private schools; if stay-at-home teaching parents have to take a job, free public school will start to look very inviting.

But for now, home schooling is still growing at about 11% a year, and it’s no longer confined to a conservative fringe that never believed in the idea of public education anyway. “Very different people are entering home schooling than did 20 years back,” says Mitchell Stevens, author of Kingdom of Children, a history of home schooling to be published next month by Princeton University Press. According to the Federal Government, up to three-quarters of the families that home school today say they do so primarily because, like so many of us, they are worried about the quality of their children’s education. A recent report by the state of Florida found that just a quarter of families in that state practice home schooling for religious reasons. The new home schoolers haven’t completely given up on public education, at least not the idea of it. “The problem is that schools have abandoned their mission,” says Luigi Manca, a communications professor at Benedictine University in Lisle, Ill., who home schools his daughter Nora, 17. “They’ve forgotten about educating.”

William Bennett used to be the U.S. Secretary of Education, but today he travels the nation to preach the home-school gospel. “I’m here to talk about the revolution of common sense,” he told a Denver home-schooling conference in June. Working himself up to promote K12, his slick, new, for-profit online school for home schoolers, Bennett even suggested that “maybe we should subcontract all of public education to home schoolers.” It was strange to watch a man once responsible for federal aid to public schools urge people to desert them. Imagine if Colin Powell gave a speech saying we should disband the U.S. Army and assemble local militias.

But many are following. They are folks like Tim and Lisa Dean of Columbia, Md., working parents (he manages technical support for the U.S. Senate; she’s a part-time attorney) who home school Bitsy, 5, and Teddy, 4. Contrary to the old picture of home schoolers, Tim doesn’t leave all the teaching to his wife, and they helped start a home-school support group two years ago that includes parents who are gay and straight; black, white, Asian American and biracial; Democrat and Republican.

The conservative Christians who worked so hard in the 1980s to make home schooling legal in every state are as committed as ever, but more politically moderate Christians have also joined the movement. Susie Capraro, who home schools her son and daughter, used to be part of the Broward County Parent Support Group, the largest home-schooling network in Florida and one founded on Judeo-Christian principles. Although she considers herself a Fundamentalist Christian, Capraro didn’t like group rules that keep non-Christians from leadership roles–or other exclusionary gestures, like the ice skating event that featured only Christian music. “We wanted a place where people could get the support they needed without the religion,” says Capraro, who along with 10 families co-founded Home Educators Lending Parents Support. “[Religion is] not the purpose of our group, but rather to get together for the best education.” Today the three-year-old organization includes more than 150 families representing Evangelicals as well as Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and others.

For this story, TIME reporters interviewed more than 70 home-schooling parents around the U.S. to find the new faces of the movement, including a biology professor at Spelman College; a midwife and artist in Canton, Ga.; an attorney and part-time basketball coach in Houston; an Arkansas state legislator; and Leo Damrosch, a Harvard English professor who began home schooling his sons, 10 and 13, in part because “the two writers I’ve studied most intensively for many years, William Blake and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, were both geniuses of astounding originality, and neither of them went to school for a single day.”

Many of the home-schooling parents we met were religious, but few were home schooling only to instill values. They had come to their decision after a variety of frustrations. Among them: the Fayetteville, Ga., school with 45 kindergartners in one room; the school administrators in Wheaton, Ill., who were so confused over what to do with Sue McCallum’s boy that they put him in both remedial and gifted classes; the Glendale, Calif., school where Robert Phillipps’ fifth-grader Bill saw too many fistfights.

These parents got fed up in different ways, but what they have in common is a willingness to sacrifice–money, career opportunities, watching soap operas–for their children’s education. Sometimes these sacrifices are small, like giving up a dining room to make a classroom. But consider the Carnells of Columbia, Md., who started home schooling Erin, 6, because a shoulder injury required occupational therapy that would have interfered with school hours. The Carnells decided to keep teaching her at home because they feel they can do a better job than local schools. To teach her math and science in the mornings, Fred, a government cartographer, works the office graveyard shift, which means he and his wife Debbie, a claims adjuster, hardly see each other. The family rarely eats dinner together, and the parents are constantly exhausted. Says Debbie: “I have my schedule down to the hour on an Excel work sheet.”

Erin will doubtless benefit educationally from her parents’ exertions. But imagine what American public education would look like if parents who currently home school flooded their local schools with all that mighty dedication instead. One doesn’t diminish a home-schooling parent’s sacrifice for his child to note that he may also be abdicating some of his responsibilities to his community. “In a home school, a parent can really insulate a child from the vibrant, pluralistic, democratic world,” says Rob Reich, who teaches political science at Stanford. Susanne Allen, 35, a home-schooling mother from Atlanta, claims her children will be “better citizens” because home schooling gives them the opportunity to work together, rather than sitting at individual desks. “They learn to be caring for other people by seeing an older sibling care for them,” she says. But will that make them better citizens or just better siblings?

Then again, if a parent lives in, say, California, where 30 kids pack the average third-grade classroom, who can blame her for home schooling? If it’s a choice between being good to one’s family or good to one’s community, it’s not much of a choice at all. Many, of course, try to be both, but some parents say the schools are too far gone. Amy Langley, who home schools her son and daughter in Decatur, Ga., believes two-income families don’t participate enough to make public schools work. “And too much class time is spent on discipline,” she says.

For all that home-schooling parents give up, what are their kids getting? We know the average SAT score for home schoolers in 2000 was 1100, compared with 1019 for the general population. And a large study by University of Maryland education researcher Lawrence Rudner showed that the average home schooler scored in the 75th percentile on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills; the 50th percentile marked the national average. But not all home schoolers take standardized tests, and one suspects the better students are the ones volunteering to do so. It’s also difficult to assess how a child who is home schooled would have done in a traditional school. Because of the paucity of research, no one can say much more than this: home schooling seems to require the same formula for success as parenting, which is to say, it can work when the parents are loving and open-minded and dedicated. As Simon of the Arkansas department of education says, “You’ve got examples of very well-structured home schools and total disasters, just like you do in the public schools.”

Certainly the old suspicion of the academic credentials of home-schooled kids has waned; perhaps three-quarters of universities now have policies for dealing with home-schooled applicants, according to Cafi Cohen, author of The Homeschoolers’ College Admissions Handbook. Today Harvard admissions officers attend home-schooling conferences looking for applicants, and Rice and Stanford admit home schoolers at rates equal to or higher than those for public schoolers. These schools compete for students like L.J. Decker, 17, from Katy, Texas, who scored 1560 on the SAT and was part of a team of home schoolers who won the Toshiba ExploraVision contest for their idea of a futuristic scuba device that would use artificial hemoglobin to convert the oxygen in water into air.

Some colleges, like Kennesaw State University in Georgia, aggressively recruit home schoolers. Justin Tomczak, 22, now a sales associate for Salomon Smith Barney, was one of them. After he arrived at Kennesaw several years ago, he started a group for home-schooled kids, but today home schoolers have become so integrated into campus life that the group has pretty much disbanded. “Back then, [other students] thought we were religious weirdos who couldn’t cope,” he says. “Now the perception is totally different.”

That’s partly because the old canard that home schoolers are hermits has largely been disproven. In fact nearly 1 in 5 takes at least one class in a public or private school, according to the Federal Government. Home schoolers participate in extracurricular activities too. Many of the home-schooling parents interviewed by TIME were just as busy as any parents scheduling baseball practices and ballet classes. Judi Thomas of Marietta, Ga., says her daughter Juliet, 9, “has tap and ballet on Tuesdays; Wednesdays, there’s choir; Thursdays, she has classes with other home schoolers; Fridays, there’s usually a play date or a field trip.”

Home schooling’s successes didn’t come easily, though the practice is actually an old tradition. In the early years of this country, most children were educated at home, either by parents or tutors. Public education started in the middle of the 19th century. When, in the 1960s, a leftist education reformer named John Holt began pushing home schooling as an alternative to conformist public schools, his ideas were seen as fringe. Home schooling was illegal in many states until the 1980s and ’90s, when well-organized evangelical Christians adopted home schooling as a way to escape what they saw as the creeping disorder of the campus.

Today home schoolers run one of the most effective lobbies in Washington, with connections all the way to the White House, where the President recently hosted a reception for home-schooled students. Bush’s Under Secretary for Education Eugene Hickok told TIME that “we cannot blame people for exercising their choices and home schooling until we have some real changes out there.”

Despite its growing acceptance, there are nagging shortcomings to home schooling. If you spend time with home schoolers, you get a sense that some of them have missed out on whole swaths of childhood; the admirable efforts by their parents to ensure their education and safety sometimes seem to have gone too far. In 1992 psychotherapist Larry Shyers did a study while at the University of Florida in which he closely examined the behavior of 35 home schoolers and 35 public schoolers. He found that home schoolers were generally more patient and less competitive. They tended to introduce themselves to one another more; they didn’t fight as much. And the home schoolers were much more prone to exchange addresses and phone numbers. In short, they behaved like miniature adults.

Which is great, unless you believe that kids should be kids before they are adults. John McCallum, 20, of Wheaton, Ill., began learning at home after fourth grade. On the whole, he valued the experience. But if he could change anything about his teen years, he would want more interaction with people his age. “I don’t date, and that’s something I attribute to home schooling,” he says. Or consider Rachel Ahern, 21, of Grand Junction, Colo., who never set foot in a classroom until she went to Harvard at 18. As a child, she socialized with older kids and adults at church and in music classes at a nearby college. “I never once experienced peer pressure,” she says. But is that a good thing? Megan Wallace of Atlanta says if she had gone to high school, “I would have gotten into so much trouble.” One could argue that kids need to get into a certain amount of trouble to learn how to handle temptations and their consequences.

“Home schoolers are often very astute,” says Richard Shaw, dean of undergraduate admissions at Yale. “But they often have to learn how to live with others.” Even the new home-schooling parents, who are keenly aware of this problem and try to ensure their children interact with others, sometimes miss the point. Half a dozen families told TIME that the only aspect of school their kids say they miss is riding the bus. So some of them have arranged for their children to have their own private rides on a school bus. But the singular experience of going to school with other kids on the bus–which is at once terrifying and liberating–can’t be mimicked in private.

The same blinkered approach can extend to academics. “I make pretty much all the decisions about what to study,” says Maren McKee, 15, of Naperville, Ill., who left public school after third grade. “I wasn’t interested in math or composition, so I didn’t really do it. I liked to dance.” But now McKee, who is dyslexic, realizes she will need more than dance steps to get into college. “My mom and I are going to spend this whole year on math and learning to write,” she says, perhaps not fully appreciating that both of those skills can take much longer than a year to learn.

Brie Finegold, 22, a graduate of the University of North Texas, says she did fine without the traditional classroom. “I got to do volunteer work at the food bank at my synagogue and apprentice to a dance company when I was a teenager, when others my age were sitting in classrooms,” she says. But volunteering and dancing aren’t necessarily better than chemistry and poetry. The basic function of a liberal education is to expose people to fields they normally wouldn’t investigate. Whether you believe the purpose of education is to shape one’s character in a democracy or to prepare Johnny for his job, neither is accomplished when kids get to study only what they want.

But what if your educational goals are simpler? Skeet Savage, mother of six in Covert, Mich., argues that “graduation isn’t the ultimate goal for my children. Learning is.” There’s a little tributary that runs off the home-schooling river called unschooling that espouses such ideas. About 7% of home schoolers today describe themselves as using no particular curricular plan, according to the National Home Education Research Institute. Not all these people would embrace the term unschooling, which sounds so anti-intellectual, but many of them follow the path of no paths, allowing their children to pursue their own interests.

The idea is that kids learn best when they determine what to study and when. “I tried to bring the classroom into the home but quickly discovered that wasn’t the best way to bring out the strengths in my children,” says Savage, whose children are 15 to 28. Instead, she practices what she calls “natural home schooling,” using real-life projects as teaching opportunities: caring for animals on the family farm, building an addition on the house, designing graphics for the family company (which publishes Christian home-schooling material). Of her three children over 18, none has gone to college.

Of course, unschooling lies at an extreme. Home-schooling families fall along a continuum between copying the traditional classroom and “learning” by building Mommy and Daddy a lovely cedar deck. The success of the venture may depend more on the parents than the kids. If they are like Marilyn and Gene McGinnis of Atlanta, devout Mennonites who nonetheless make a conscious effort to teach their children about other cultures and religions, home schooling can broaden and enrich children’s minds as much as any schooling. Home schooling also works when parents are like the Deckers in Katy, Texas, parents of five, who were humble enough to get help from another home-schooling parent for a child of theirs who was struggling with spelling.

“You have to feel like you’re on a mission,” says Ronnie Palache, who pulled Spencer, 9, from fourth grade in Tarzana, Calif., because the boy was bored and unchallenged but also has attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. “I wake up every morning saying two things to myself: ‘I’m on a mission to have Spencer turn out O.K.’ and ‘I have to live outside the box.'”

And even then maybe it’s not enough. Robert Phillipps of Glendale, Calif., began home schooling Bill, 15, and Denise, 11, four years ago. He works hard at it and carefully tracks what his kids are learning. But he can’t provide an art class at home even though Denise likes to sketch, and ice skating three days a week has to count for PE. The kids read great books, but they have no one outside the family with whom to discuss them during class. As Phillipps says, “There is no one to hide behind. What you do is yours.”

But if home schooling is flawed, and our public schools are weathered, some believe there’s a way to improve both by reinvesting home schoolers in their communities and making public schools more nimble. A few school districts are showing the way. In some states, including California and Texas, school districts now allow home-schooled kids to sign up for such offerings as a physics class or the football team. A growing number of districts are opening resource centers where home schoolers come for class once or twice a week. In Orange County, Calif., two school districts have combined two reform ideas by opening charter schools that offer home-schooling programs.

This cooperation is largely motivated by self-interest–many schools can regain at least a percentage of their per-pupil funding by counting home schoolers, who get more options without being fully part of the system. “These programs can win parents back when they see the school is willing to offer alternative forms of education,” says Patricia Lines, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute in Seattle and one of the foremost experts on home schooling. “There’s something very efficient about [traditional] schooling, and home schooling isn’t exactly efficient.” That’s one reason TIME found so many home schoolers who had formed de facto “schools” that offer science labs and basketball teams.

But this healthy synergy would require both public school administrators and home schoolers to stop being so suspicious one another. That may take years. Too many public school administrators silently agree with what Wayne Johnson, president of the California Teachers Association, says in objecting to any public expenditure on home schoolers: “Putting money into home schooling is throwing money down a rathole. You have no idea if that money is being spent properly or children are benefiting.”

For their part, many home schoolers take the hard line of the movement’s leading advocacy group, the Home School Legal Defense Association. It avoids representing home schoolers who are trying to get access to public school services that their taxes help fund. Many home schoolers feel that exposes the movement to too much government interference. “We are really afraid,” says James Carper, an education historian at the University of South Carolina, who home schools. “When public schools extend the opportunity to become involved, it is inevitably going to compromise our independence.”

But newer apostles of home schooling like William Bennett believe the future holds more cooperation. He says school administrators will work to develop a “Chinese-menu-style education,” for instance, that allows home schoolers to have a math class here and a band course there without buying the whole K-12 puu-puu platter. On the other hand, it remains to be seen whether public schools can still play a vital role in communities if they become simply another consumer good pushed by market forces and not a common good that transcends them.

–With reporting by Steve Barnes/Little Rock, Amy Bonesteel and Leslie Everton Brice/Atlanta, Beau Briese/Cambridge, Deborah Fowler/Houston, Kathie Klarreich/Miami, Jeanne McDowell/Los Angeles, Maggie Sieger/Chicago and Rebecca Winters/New York

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