States Should Help, Not Hinder, Parents' Home-Schooling Efforts

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It is estimated that as many as 50,000 children are being instructed at home today. This is a dramatic increase compared with a decade ago, when experts thought the number to be around 10,000.

Why are so many families doing it? Some object to the political or religious values they find in public schools. Some want to spend more time with young children before putting them in school, or with a child who is having trouble adapting to school and who needs individual attention at home. Whatever the reason, the burden parents undertake is enormous, and home schooling is not something they take on lightly. Parents--some of them former teachers--typically think through their teaching methods very carefully to meet the individual needs of their children.

The more puzzling question is: Why do some states oppose the home-schooling movement? Home instruction has a long and respectable history. John Stuart Mill received his early education from his father. In isolated places in early America, home schooling was the only choice. In a few places in Alaska, Montana, and other sparsely populated areas, this is still true.

More important, home schooling seems to work. A single outstanding example was the admission to Harvard University last year of a young man who had been taught entirely at home. And from the broader pattern of available evidence one must conclude that, on average, children educated at home do well academically. Alaska and Arizona, two states that test home-schooled children, report that they perform at above-average levels as measured by nationally standardized tests. One study of children in a home tutorial network in Los Angeles showed that the children in the network scored higher on standardized tests than did the children in Los Angeles public schools. The "concern" about home schooling, therefore, should be tempered by the knowledge that more children are failing academically in public schools than at home.

Home instruction is usually regulated through the application of compulsory-education laws. These laws were originally passed approximately 100 years ago to address the problem of truancy. Typically, they are criminal laws. Today, a few states do not expressly allow home instruction as a way of satisfying such laws, and in these states parents are being prosecuted and in some cases jailed because they teach their children at home.

There is a great irony in this: It is now more common in this country to use compulsory-education laws against parents who are making a good-faith attempt to educate children than to use them against truancy in the classic sense. That is, there is much more enforcement involving home-educated children than children who aren't being educated at all.

Most of the estimated 50,000 children being taught at home are in states that accept home instruction as a legitimate activity. (About 800 are actually enrolled in a home-instruction correspondence program operated by the state of Alaska.) A small number—perhaps 5,000—are in states where home instruction is either illegal or so strictly regulated that their parents cannot meet the state's requirements. A few states require, for example, that a parent be a certified teacher, even though there is no evidence that a noncertified person cannot do a good job as a home instructor.

The numbers of truant children, in contrast, may be in the millions. Admittedly, the statistics on these students are rough. But one class of truants--the "occasional" truant, who is enrolled in school but is often absent--can be counted with confidence. Based on its annual surveys of high-school seniors, the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan reports that, in 1983, 34 percent of high-school seniors skipped a class once in a four-week period and 28 percent skipped a whole day in that period. Full-time truants are more difficult to count, but they may account for around 9 percent of the school-age population. Thus, there may be 5 million full-time truants in the nation. These are only estimates, but it seems safe to say that the population of truant children exceeds the population of children in unapproved home instruction by a factor of 100 or more.

The arguments that educators use against home schooling are weak, both logically and legally, and the first step toward setting priorities straight is universal "decriminalization" of home schooling.

Why do state and local education professionals oppose home schooling? Some are up in arms because of the recent (and rapid) development of home-instruction support materials, such as the Packet on Accelerated Christian Education (PACE), which is produced by Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) in Louisville, Tex. ACE reports that 2,000 children are currently enrolled in its home-study program. A number of other religious distributors are producing home-instruction materials. Secular schools—such as the prestigious Calvert School in Maryland—also distribute home-instruction curricula, but the religious materials are showing the largest growth.

The PACE packets--a fairly typical example of home-instruction materials with a religious slant--are designed to help parents or other noncertified persons guide children through a sequential home-study curriculum that contains Biblical passages, moral homilies, and similar religious content throughout the lessons. Educators who favor the standard public-school program--and its relative bias toward progressive education and secularism--do not like the packet, but it is difficult to say that a child will not learn from these materials.

Furthermore, there would be severe problems under the free-speech clause of the First Amendment if state officials attempted to regulate the content of these instruction packages. So far, they haven't tried.

In general, states that view home instruction as illegal do not succeed in enforcing their laws. Often, as recently happened in Washington state, prosecutors will refuse to take these cases. Some do, of course, and courts in Alabama, North Carolina, North Dakota and West Virginia have upheld state requirements that greatly restrict home instruction and may effectively prohibit it. The state supreme courts in Arkansas and Kansas seem to have ruled out all hope for home schoolers. In both states, the courts have said compulsory-attendance laws require school attendance, and they have refused to say home schools can satisfy that requirement. (The Arkansas legislature has responded by making home schooling legal, however.) Although there is no definitive court ruling in Nebraska, Missouri, Texas, and Colorado, home schoolers in those states fear similar enforcement of compulsory-attendance laws.

In some states, parents are now actively lobbying for legal recognition of home schooling. They have succeeded this year in Arkansas, New Mexico, Washington, and Wyoming. At this point, 39 states, the District of Columbia, Guam, and the Virgin Islands permit home instruction either explicitly or implicitly. Meanwhile, parents in other states have gone underground or have moved to a state offering a more favorable legal and political climate.

Legal precedent seems to be on the home schoolers' side. In cases involving the free exercise of religion, courts have weighed the state's interest against the individual family's interest in freedom of conscience and the family's freedom to determine a child's education. Most legal scholars believe that the family interest should prevail in the matter of home schooling and that the state's interest can be met in other ways. For example, the American Civil Liberties Union policy on this matter states:

"We believe that, in the interest of parental right to choose an alternative to public education, [home instruction with safeguards, such as approval of curriculum or testing of the child] ... should be extended to all jurisdictions because the state's interest in assuring minimum levels of education does not extend to control of the means by which that interest is realized."

There are several options available to states that feel a need to regulate home instruction. As the ACLU policy suggests, many states choose to test children. Reasonable standards for the teacher (short of a teacher certificate, which, if it is meaningful at all, is probably not extremely relevant in a one-to-one teaching relationship) are another option. Better yet, a state could permit several different avenues by which home instruction could receive approval.

In states where home instruction is not legal, parents could wait for court rulings and then decide what they will do. But legislative change can be quicker, more sure, and less costly. States should be seeking ways to help rather than hinder parents who want to educate their children at home. The dedication and idealism of individuals form a great reservoir of untapped energy, and educators should tap such energy. The result will probably be children who are educated to be different, but such differences can ultimately stimulate the intellectual development of a nation.

Vol. 04, Issue 34, Page 24, 17

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