Defending Homeschooling

Where do you stand on homeschooling regulation?  Does your particular state’s rules influence your opinion?  Do you prefer Borders or Barnes and Noble?  Regular or decaf?  Again, keep it polite.

Iced decaf coffee in one hand and three books in the other (Battles at Sea, Best American Essays of 2009, and The Children’s Blizzards), I approached to lone cashier at one of our remaining Borders.  Generally a Barnes and Noble shopper (closer to home, nicer staff, better selection, near Trader Joe’s, etc.) I had a Borders gift card to use, so I drove the extra distance and browsed for my boys.  I’m up to my eyeballs in unread books and assiduously avoided all my trigger sections.

We need more books like we need more foster cats.

Once at the counter, I dig for my Borders Classroom Discount card.  I pass it over, seeing that it expired ten months earlier.  (See?  Told you I prefer BN.  Their Educator’s card is always up to date.   Even the name is more inclusive.)  She looks over the card, which has only my name, the word “Homeschooler” and an expiration date, and blandly asks for my check stub.

Yeah, right.  If only.  “Boy, that would be great if homeschooling parents received paychecks!” I said.  Now, I don’t want to be paid or get a tax break, since that would undoubtedly come with more paperwork and oversight than seems necessary, but that’s the line that popped out of my mouth.

Not a flicker of amusement crossed her face.  “I’ll need some identification or certification then,” she continued.

Sigh.  I’d had a similar conversation with a barely-out-of-high-school Border’s employee about 6 years back.  Then I was a new homeschooler and somehow thought bringing my school-aged child to the bookstore at 10 a.m. on a school day might be evidence alone of our choice.  That time, the pay-stub question came after telling him I homeschooled, and my not-so-witty response was born.  After a long back-and-forth about how Michigan homeschoolers don’t have ID cards or letters from the school district, he gave in and signed me up.

This time, no such luck.  After informing her that no such identification exists in this state, she retorted, “That’s terrible!”

Terrible?  Really?  I was taken aback, not prepared for a defense of homeschooling without government papers.  Generally, I’m okay with moderate regulation.  I’m glad the FDA, CDC, and a bunch of groups with letters for names try to keep the country a bit safer, even if they’re not perfect.  I’d love to see national health care  — as a Physician Assistant in a poor area of the suburbs of Detroit, I spend a bunch of time trying to take care of folks with no insurance and no money.  As a single mom, my insurance premium is second only to my mortgage on my house for monthly bills.  And that’s not great insurance.  Yeah, I’m okay with some regulation.

Until recently, I’d relished in Michigan’s lax homeschooling laws.  I report to no one, there are no testing requirements, and I never even had to sign a letter of intent.  It’s a paperwork-phobe’s dream state for homeschooling.  The other homeschoolers I know largely have gifted kids, and they’re home to meet their needs when schools couldn’t.  A few are home for other reasons, but they are all competent folks with high-ability kids.  They fuss over details and work their tails off to assemble a terrific education for their kids.   I know there are kids who don’t receive that level of care and concern from their homeschooling parents, but not personally.  In a bit of a coffee-and-Signapore Math fog, I prefer to think that all kids are homeschooled with at least as much gusto as I homeschool more. But recent reading and a bit of common sense tells me not all homeschooled kids are getting the best education.

Write These Laws on Your Children, by Robert Kunzman, was an impulsive borrow from the library.  From my brief glance at the book jacket, I knew it discussed conservative Christian homeschooling, a subject I don’t know much about except that it seems so much curriculum is written for that audience.  There’s political and financial might in that group, and as a vocal, liberal Unitarian Universalist who teaches the science of evolution, I’m unlikely to get much more information about that segment of the population without a book.  

Kunzman visited six conservative Christian homeschooling families over three years, observing their lessons and interviewing all family members.  While his focus remains on how conservative Christianity informs their homeschooling, he spends a good amount of time discussing the merits of some form of basic skills testing and appropriate civics education. Roberts has an education in Education, and his naiveté to homeschooling grated on me initially but actually was refreshing.  With no previous experience as a homeschooling child or parent, he comes with the expected baggage of one from the schools but with a willingness to see what’s there.  And while he focused on concerns about the childrens’ understanding of history and politics, I found myself drawn away from what made conservative Christian homeschooling different from other homeschooling and towards a few of the families he visited.

Kunzman remains remarkable even-handed and even generous about the families he visits, even in the face of, what to me, looks like educational squalor.  I’m not referring to unschooling with plenty of opportunities and enrichment with encouragement to focus.  I’m talking about just not much educational, self-directed or parent-directed, going on.  After reading the first half of the book, I found myself crossing the state-involvement fence, thinking perhaps a bit of reporting or testing would be better than the hands-off approach of Michigan and many other states take.  Not that I want to deal with paperwork and bureaucracy (okay, I’m most afraid of the paperwork), but a few of these families worried me. I know plenty of kids don’t thrive in public education.  They fall through the cracks, they don’t learn to read, write or do math, and plenty drop out.  But in the very happy place of my head, homeschooling families managed better.  After all, why would one go to all the work of homeschooling if not to give it one’s all?

Back to Borders.

I paused at the cashier’s remarks, unsure what was so terrible.  Homeschooling was terrible?  Perhaps.  The fact that I don’t have an ID card with me?  No.  It had to be the lack of regulation.  Despite knowing nothing first-hand about homeschooling (okay, that’s a guess), she’d decided that us rogue homeschoolers need supervision by the state.  I sputtered a bit about my older son’s ACT score last year, realizing that was a lame defense at best, and fumbled to a remark about the kids in school who slip through the cracks.  She continued her “terrible, astounding, awful” murmurings while I stumbled ahead in my defense.

And then I changed my tune.  “It might be better to have a bit of oversight,” I conceded, recalling my reading.

She softened, saying, “That’s the part I think is a problem — the lack of regulation, not the homeschooling.”

I held my tongue.  I wanted to add a thousand caveats, how one rule would lead to another and another.  How just simple testing of basic skills would raise the hackles of many independent, free-thinking folks who hold it is their right to do it their way.  How mandating testing would lead to mandated curriculum or intervention.  Is that good or bad?  I don’t know.  Probably a bit of both.  Like those in the public school system, kids at home can fall through the academic cracks.  I hate to see kids lose opportunities as adults because of a poor education, wherever that education takes place.  Success isn’t guaranteed at either, as any honest parent or teacher will tell you.

But I said nothing more.  Instead, I took my books and updated card with only polite good-bye to the clerk.  And spent the ride home thinking.

Your turn.


8 thoughts on “Defending Homeschooling

  1. Here is my unpopular opinion. I have had some very negative experiences this year with families who are not conscientious about their homeschooling–and their kids are suffering. These are not official “un-schoolers” , they are just people who have pulled kids out of school (possibly to avoid special ed. labels) and then done NOTHING with them under the guise of “home schooling”. In more than one case, I have met kids fully on the autism spectrum, who can’t read, are almost non-verbal, and have received no therapy or services for several YEARS. These parents do not participate in co-ops, they are not visiting museums or libraries, playing educational games with their children, or even completing projects on topics of high interest. They are unable to tell us the grade level at which their child is performing (in any one subject, or overall).

    While I know some parents (YOU) who take the responsibility very seriously, and go well above and beyond what would be expected, I also see the other end of the spectrum–and, frankly, what I’m seeing borders on criminally negligent behavior. I honestly question whether these kids will be able to function in society on their own. Because of this discrepancy between homeschooling families, the lack of oversight concerns me. Homeschooling parents can take offense at this–be defensive–and say, well I’m not like that–but my feeling is, that as long as there is no standard by which all homeschoolers are judged, then there WILL be families out there taking advantage of the system, and hurting children in the process.

    • And that’s where my concern is, Sharon. In my fluffy, nice world in my head, I couldn’t imagine why anyone would choose the WORK of homeschooling unless they were seriously committed to educating their children. I’d prefer there be some oversight if that would reduce the occurance of the negligence you’ve seen. I know the objections come from the slippery slope. Reporting in as homeschoolers, testing, defining what is a deficiency, making sure deficiencies are remediated, assuring special needs are being met — that’s all okay with me (but not with the more fiercely independent homeschoolers – and many are). What do I not want? Teacher oversight of my lesson plans, turning in attendance reports, accounting for every hour and what subject it covers, and the like. Several states require that stuff, and I doubt the outcome for those students is much different than for those without. It’s not a hard set of records to falsify. Lesson plans and attendance don’t assure learning, not in school or at home.

      I’d delight in a way to protect every child and assure every child has educational needs met. I’m grateful for the freedom to homeschool, which for us was a last ditch shot at assuring my older didn’t fall into despair at school. I don’t know what regulations could allow both to occur.

      Thanks for joining in, unpopular or not. You see another side that those of us on “the inside” don’t.

  2. I hate to see kids loosing opportunities too and I agree with your that that is far worse than harassing parents with paper-work. The question then is: does a bit of testing and regulation prevents some families from under preforming? Would children from under preforming families do better at school? Or is that wishful thinking? Or maybe it is just a percentage: some of the kids of these under preforming families will do better at school, some won’t because if there isn’t an educational passion within a family, it is really hard for kids to be different. On the other hand: talented kids and gifted kids are unstoppable, so they will find their way anyway early or later in life.
    I appreciate your and anybodies concern for children that are provided good education. But, this world isn’t perfect and we often think more regulation and more rules and more state-involvement will cure all problems.
    Would it be a good idea if home school organisations or neighbouring home schoolers start up support-services for these families?
    I like to think so, because implementing rules might feel good, but might not be to any real help at all.

  3. Hi, Sharon,
    I live and home-school in Belgium. In Belgium home education is legal but you have to allow inspection by the Ministry of Education. (Which is what I did and I felt happy about it, not in the least because it feels good when others confirm you’re doing a good job).
    However, when you write “that as long as there is no standard by which all homeschoolers are judged, then there WILL be families out there taking advantage of the system, and hurting children in the process”.
    I wonder if standards would seriously prevent underachieving families to take advantage of the system. I’m afraid not. Wouldn’t it be more efficient to help these people on grass-root level? My question is: should we -home schoolers- reach out to help or let this be handled by the state? What would have the biggest impact? Maybe both?

  4. I live in MN, where we have a moderate amount of regulation. We must file papers with the state every year listing which standardized test we will give our children (we don’t have to report the results but are required to look into additional testing to screen for issues if our children score below 30%), our “calendar” for the year, vax records, etc. Parents who do not have a BA are also required to submit quarterly report cards, which I find patently ridiculous (as if we’d give our children F’s?).

    I see the sadness in those situations where children do not get the home educations they deserve, but I don’t think regulation is the answer. Frankly, there are just as many parents who are harming their children in their discipline methods, dietary choices,and other aspects of child rearing. Child abuse is rampant in this country, but we do not talk about monitoring every family to make sure they all know effective, non-abusive discipline. Even though I know plenty of families where the kids grow up (and grow sick) on diets of nothing but junk food and pop, nobody would suggest that all families need to have dietary monitoring from the state.

    Education seems to be the only aspect in America where most citizens are perfectly comfortable blindly giving over their power and control to government oversight. It IS terrible when children aren’t given a basic home education, just as it’s terrible when children are not given enough love, healthy food, time, exercise, guidance, safety, etc. But I don’t think it makes real sense to have sweeping regulations about this one population (all homeschoolers) in this one area (education) and leave every other parenting issue to parents unless someone reports them and an investigation is deemed to be warranted.

    JMHO 🙂

    • Alicia,
      It’s the sort of regulations in MN that I’d object to. There is nothing in those that makes sense to me; nothing that actually sees that kids aren’t seriously slipping away from basic literacy and numeracy. Educational neglect is one concern, yes. But another is missing learning disabilities that require either outside assistance or a very concentrated, informed effort by parents. Missing dyslexia (and simply waiting for a child to read when he or she is “ready”), for example, could very easily happen if a family isn’t attuned to signs and symptoms.

      Yes, there are parents who discipline in ways that I would not, ways that don’t respect the child. Yes, there are families that have a lousy diets. No, the government doesn’t intervene and, aside from cases of frank neglect and abuse immediately endangering the child. And that’s probably an appropriate line for a government. (One of the arguments for mandatory schooling is that signs of neglect and abuse are more likely to be seen with more eyes to see them.)

      I think there’s a long road between minimal evaluation and testing of all children for the diagnosis of learning problems and “blindly giving over…power and control to government oversight.” One of the arguments for mandatory schooling is that signs of neglect and abuse are more likely to be seen with more eyes to see them.

      As a responsible homeschooler to two kids with learning differences, I have concerns. I have the means and education to be aware of their struggles and seek out assistance for them. I have the knowledge to research curriculum and educational methods that may work better for them. I know plenty of folks are missing one or more of those components, and I’d hate to see their children lose out on a good (home or otherwise) education just because their parents either didn’t know what to look for or couldn’t afford to intervene. Here’s where schools and homeschoolers need to play nice and get along.

      Nothing will be perfect, I think improvements would occur if the educational system and homeschooling families can see each other as allies rather than enemies.

      Thanks for sharing!


  5. I found your blog because of your wonderful curriculum reviews. When I saw this post, I thought, I should comment.

    In Alberta, when I was a teenager homeschooling, homeschoolers were required to sign up with a schoolboard, but they could choose which schoolboard from anywhere inthe province. My local schoolboard required homeschoolers to use correspondense courses, which they paid for. But because we could sign up anywhere… there was one particular Catholic schoolboard that had a reputation for being lax with homeschoolers. All the homeschoolers I knew signed up with that one, which then had money from the province to have teachers available to help us if we wanted. We could actually sign up for distance courses through them, or we could simply do our own thing and have them “audit” us periodically. I remember the guy coming and sitting in my kitchen and my mom showing him a file folder with my essays in it and the guy didn’t bother reading it, he just asked what grade we wanted to give it and suggested that we make sure my average grade wasn’t above 90 and that I didn’t get listed as being in more than the normal number of courses, or someone else would be back to audit us again.

    I am homeschooling in Ontario, where there are no regulations and no one looking in on what I’m doing unless someone reports me to CPS for neglect, in which case the schoolboard may ask for me to submit a written plan for what I’m doing. If I want I can have my kids write the standardized tests in grades 3, 6, 9, and 12.

    I do have concerns for those children who homeschool badly. Personally, I would be willing to have my educational plans audited by someone, if requiring that of homeschoolers would help catch those children whose education is being totally neglected. Except I have trouble seeing how it could help… perhaps tests every couple of years, just on reading and math, with the idea that it is okay for a student to fall say two years behind, but no more? Testing social studies or science would start putting too much restrictions on curriculum choices, and allowing portfolios or simply looking what what textbooks the parent plans on teaching… well… those who really disrespect the government and don’t want their children taught much could simply print off whatever essays they want from the internet and claim their child is doing fine. But maybe knowing that someone could inspect would help encourage people? I don’t know.

    What made me think that it could be okay for the government to take an interest in homeschoolers was the book Triumph, Life after the Cult, by Carolyn Jessop.

    • Thanks for another international perspective. I would be open to testing or auditing, but like you, I’m not sure it would be overly helpful. If done with respect and support, I think minimal testing in math, reading, and writing could help assure students are getting the basics and that kids with learning disabilities are identified and assisted, either in or out of the home. Partnership between school and families could really help some kids, although I don’t see that happening anytime soon around here. I’ll dream on…

      Thanks for your thoughts.

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