Cheri and Carl Isett’s son Alex showed an interest in broadcasting even before he was old enough to go to school, which posed a dilemma for the Texas parents: They wanted to nurture his curiosity, but as homeschoolers, they were dubious about setting up a television studio in their living room.
Their local school district in Lubbock, however, has its own state-of-the-art TV station, where the 16-year-old now works as part of the two Monterey High School broadcast classes he takes at the studio. “That was just perfect for him, and it was not something we could offer in a complete homeschool setting,” Cheri Isett says.
It’s an ideal arrangement for the Isetts, who still teach the rest of Alex’s classes at home, but it’s a rare one in Texas—the Lubbock district is one of only a handful in the state that welcome homeschool students on a part-time basis. Now a growing number of Texas homeschoolers also want to send their children off to class, if only for a few hours a day. But as in other states, not all educators in the Lone Star State think students should be able to select just a course or two. A bill that would have encouraged schools to offer classes on an a la carte basis failed for the third time in the just-concluded legislative session despite the $5 million schools would have received annually for students’ fractional-day attendance.
To parents and leaders of homeschool movements, it’s an issue of equity. “It’s taxpayers who own the public schools,” says Tim Lambert, president of the Texas Home School Coalition, which has been lobbying lawmakers on the issue for a decade. “They should be able to use them as much or as little as they deem fit.”
Some homeschoolers see selective schooling as a way to enhance their children’s educations, particularly in specialized subjects such as science, math, and foreign languages. They’d also like to use schools’ libraries, achievement testing, textbooks, and other resources. Others want their children to be able to participate in music programs and compete athletically alongside their public school peers—something they say is not likely to happen without legislative or court intervention.
It’s a battle being fought across the country. Homeschoolers have won inclusion in nearly two dozen states, from Alaska to Iowa to Maine, and according to a 2003 National Center for Education Statistics study, 18 percent of the estimated 1.1 million U.S. homeschoolers attend public schools part time. More than 5 percent are enrolled for nine or more hours a week. Some states simply allow districts to set their own homeschooler policies, while others require schools to accommodate part-time students in formats ranging from independent-study programs to alternative schools.
The promise of extra money, such as the $5 million pledged in Texas Representative Brian McCall’s bill, has helped bridge the divide between homeschoolers and administrators in several states. Under such an arrangement, one additional student can mean thousands of dollars in state funding. But as demonstrated in Texas, where all four major teacher groups and several districts came out against the idea, not everyone thinks part-time students are a good idea. Several states, including South Carolina, Mississippi, and Nebraska, have shot down similar proposals.
“The homeschoolers are going to cherry-pick the classes they want—the advanced placement sciences, math, and foreign languages—and those things are very expensive,” says Tony Harkleroad, assistant superintendent of finance and business services for the Richardson Independent School District in Texas. “The money you would get from the additional funding wouldn’t offset those costs.” In Richardson, district officials worried about the financial impact of fractional students on extracurricular and cocurricular activities, as well as about the possibility that full-time students could be displaced from those programs, he said.
Not all homeschoolers want their kids going to school, but some who do see more than money at the root of educators’ objections. Zan Tyler, a homeschooling mother who led an effort to gain access to public school teams and classes in South Carolina a decade ago, says she never got a straight answer about why it couldn’t be done.
“First it was liability issues. Then it was that they didn’t want people to cross district lines,” Tyler complains. “Then they were worried about people failing and using homeschooling to circumvent the academic requirements” for athletics, she says. “We addressed all their issues, and they still wouldn’t pass it. ... That let me know the issue really is turf protection.”
But public perceptions may be shifting. A 1999 Gallup poll indicates that among those asked about sharing public school assets with homeschoolers, the majority approve of allowing access to special education services, teacher development, and driver education.
“The good thing, I think, is we’re seeing the attitudes changing,” says Lambert, who hopes the Texas bill will come back to life in the next legislative session. “We’re not going away on this issue.”
A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 2005 edition of Teacher as Here and There