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Buying Into Home Schooling

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Portland, Maine

Welcome to the Homeschoolers of Maine Christian Homeschool Convention. Some 800 people have gathered at the Holiday Inn by the Bay in mid-April for two days of seminars, networking, and shopping. And there's plenty to buy.

Rows of tables squeezed into the crowded exhibit hall in the basement showcase book catalogs with titles ranging from 75 Easy Physics Demonstrations to Cases and Controversies in U.S. History. There's the Harris Homeschool Planner to map out daily lessons. And pricey full-service curriculum packages that allow parents to mail in completed lessons and get them back corrected, all courtesy of the publishers.

Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C., markets "HomeSat," a home-centered satellite network that rebroadcasts interactive high school-level courses into home-schooler living rooms. It also sells standardized-testing services so parents can pay to have their children take the Stanford or Iowa achievement tests--and almost anything else the home-schooler might need, from study guides to No. 2 pencils.

Promotional materials for Landmark's Freedom Baptist curriculum, from Haines City, Fla., promises that it "equips the student with the knowledge needed to fight the evolutionary philosophy of our modern era" and offers "Scripture-based analysis of modern trends in our culture with practical examples."

Water purifiers and herbal home remedies beckon parents from other nearby booths. Signs advertise Christian medical insurance, health-maintenance organizations, and legal services. A CD-ROM Bible reference library. Christian home-schooler summer camps. For $15, parents can even buy their home-schooled student a fill-in-the-blank diploma from the Home School Legal Defense Association, complete with a faux-leather burgundy display case.

Some products come from big publishing houses with glossy, four-color mail-order catalogs. Others are available from shoestring operations that home-school families have started on their own, like the hybrid writing boards--one side for chalk, the other erasable pen--sold by Henry and Jeanne Berthiaume from Somerset, Mass.

"It's very important that my kids learn my values and my faith," explains Jeanne, a mother of seven who calls herself a born-again Christian. "Besides, I'm accountable for my kids; the Bible says to teach your children. I don't like the New Age philosophy and the banning of God from everything in the schools."

Many of the vendors here travel the home-school conference circuit. Each state has at least one major meeting like this every year, organized by statewide home-school organizations. Some of them are more secular in orientation than this one, others religious, pointing up the schism that often exists between religious and nonreligious home-schoolers.

While this meeting is avowedly Christian, other national home-school groups cater to their own niches: the Jewish Home Educators Network, the Unschoolers Network, the Homeschooling Unitarian Universalists and Humanists, and the Islamic Homeschool Association of North America, for starters.

Maine school officials expect to tally 3,500 registered home-schoolers by the end of the current school year. Some 1,500 families subscribe to the bimonthly newsletter put out by the Homeschoolers of Maine, which is heralded as a "Christian ministry dedicated to promoting home education" across the state.

The tone in many of the seminars here is intense. These are believers.

In a presentation called "A Mother Looks at Home Schooling High Schoolers and the Options Beyond," the speaker explains how one of her children continually asked to go to school. The mother refused. "I don't hesitate to force home schooling down my children's throat because I know it's good for them." Like broccoli and vitamins, she says.

"We're directed by God to educate our children, not the state," one woman says during a question-and-answer period. She asks about the possible consequences of not registering her home-schooled children with the state, which she sees as an intrusion into her privacy.

Samuel Blumenfeld, the featured luncheon speaker and author of such books as NEA: Trojan Horse in American Education, calls on parents to stay far away from the public schools, as he rails on the evils of outcome-based education, which he says is part of the "pagan, socialist, New World order."

Not everyone here agrees with everything that's offered up at the seminars or display booths. Blumenfeld represents the more extreme side of the opinion spectrum, says Ed Green, the president of the Homeschoolers of Maine. "Most people say they feel most comfortable somewhere in the middle."

Dan Cote--a member of the state group's governing board and the father of three--puts himself squarely in the middle. Academic concerns largely drove his family's decision to educate the children at home. But, as with many families here, religion played a big part, too.

"Our Baptist faith has a lot to do with our home schooling. It's woven into it," Cote says. "But I'm not the religious guy in the cabin saying, 'I'm pulling out of society,' which, I think, is how a lot of people view religious home-schoolers. Our kids aren't in a closet or anything. We're part of the community."

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