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Home Education Magazine

January-February 1999 - Columns

Taking Charge - "Homeschooling" In Public Schools: A Dangerous Oxymoron

Larry and Susan Kaseman

In some parts of the country, especially Alaska and California, programs have been established, coordinated, and funded by public schools for families who want their children to learn at home at least part of the time. These children are identified as homeschoolers. However, these families differ from most homeschooling families because of their strong connections to public school and especially the fact that they have to comply with more regulation by school officials than state law requires and than most homeschoolers find acceptable.

In this column these programs will be referred to as "programs for non-public students (PNPSs), although they have been called "public school alternative programs" (PSAPs) or "hybrid programs" in other places.

Not surprisingly, homeschoolers are responding to these programs in a wide variety of ways.

* Some families participate willingly. They may want the guidance of conventional teachers and curriculums and what they see as the security that comes from working with a conventional school. They may be willing to accept increased regulation in exchange for money. They may think they can avoid problems from ex-spouses, social services, or others if they are enrolled in an official program.

* Some homeschoolers have developed private programs that are similar to the public ones except that they are private rather than public.

* Some homeschoolers oppose these programs because they see ways in which these programs undermine homeschooling freedoms or for other reasons.

As authors of this column, our perspective on the relationship between homeschooling and conventional schooling has not changed since we wrote in the Jan./Feb., 1997, issue of Home Education Magazine (HEM): As homeschoolers, we are part of a small minority that is, in a sense, in direct competition with conventional schooling, The largest, most powerful, and most pervasive institutions in our society. There are fundamental differences between homeschooling and conventional schooling. If we want to be able to take responsibility for our lives and homeschool in ways that will work well for our family, we need to be aware of these differences and act in ways that will maintain these differences and prevent homeschooling from being reduced to schooling by becoming a small, insignificant part of conventional schooling.

Therefore, this column discusses the ways in which PNPSs undermine our homeschooling freedoms and what we can do to maintain these freedoms.

How PNPSs Undermine Homeschooling Freedoms

Although PNPSs may seem to offer a better choice than public schools and therefore may seem like a good idea at first glance, it is very important to realize that PNPSs undermine our basic homeschooling freedoms. PNPSs create a highly visible group of families who are willing to accept greater regulation and control by public schools and the government than are most homeschoolers. Because of their high visibility and their willingness to follow conventional practices, families enrolled in PNPSs threaten to become the standard by which homeschooling is understood by the general public and regulated by the government and the educational establishment, thereby unnecessarily increasing state regulation of homeschooling.

Why Families in PNPSs Are So Visible

* Obviously, families in PNPSs are in the public eye because they are in public schools, perhaps attending classes part time and at least connected to the schools in some overt way. Not only are other homeschoolers less automatically in the public eye, but some of us even prefer to maintain a low profile, not because we have anything to hide but because we value our privacy.

* Families involved in PNPSs are more visible to the media because reporters can find these families more easily, simply by calling the local public school. Therefore, it seems highly likely that media reports on homeschooling will increasingly focus on families in PNPSs. People will assume that they are typical homeschoolers, simply because they appear more often in the media.

* Families participating in PNPSs are likely to be the focus of more research studies than more independent homeschoolers, despite the fact that only a small percentage of homeschoolers are involved in PNPSs. Again, it is much easier for researchers to find people in PNPSs. More independent homeschoolers are harder to locate, and once contacted, many of us are understandably and justifiably reluctant to reveal details of our homeschooling to researchers. We respect our children's right to privacy, we don't want our homeschooling scrutinized by outsiders, we are skeptical of some researchers' techniques and reports, we object to the basic assumptions of doing research on people, etc. However, research that focuses on families participating in PNPSs will give a distorted picture of homeschooling. PNPSs will give researchers the illusion that they are doing accurate research on homeschooling when, in fact, they are not.

* Another, more subtle reason is that when push comes to shove, the vast majority of people who have not had personal experience homeschooling don't really believe that children can get an education without the guidance and help of conventional schools. In other words, given a choice between homeschoolers who participate in PNPSs and those who don't, the general public is much more likely to understand and accept, or at least tolerate, those in PNPSs. These are homeschoolers the general public can "see" in several different senses of the word.

Why Families Involved in PNPSs Are More Strongly Regulated Than Other Homeschoolers

Families in PNPSs are inevitably more strongly regulated than most homeschoolers want to be and, in most cases, than state law requires. In some cases, the regulations may seem reasonable at first but then increase fairly quickly as the programs become established. (For an example of how quickly regulations increase, see "Public School Homeschooling Programs" in HEM, September-October, 1998.) Increased regulation is inevitable for several reasons.

* Local school districts are accountable for the money that they spend. Those that spend money on homeschooling programs are responsible for demonstrating to taxpayers that this money is being well spent, that children are learning as a result of the PNPSs. And of course, especially since public schools are administering the program, learning will be assessed in conventional ways through use of standardized curriculum, tests, grades, etc.

* On a more subtle and fundamental level, regulation is inevitable because public schools by their very nature are regulatory institutions. One reason they were established is to regulate learning, and that is what they do. For public schools to stop regulating learning, or even reduce the extent to which they regulate it, would change their very nature. Therefore, it is inevitable that any program connected with public schools will be highly regulated.

Some people may ask, "But what's wrong with having people assume that families in PNPSs are typical homeschoolers? Wouldn't this lead the general public to finally accept homeschooling, since they can clearly see that these homeschoolers are getting an education comparable to that of the public schools? Couldn't officials who want to regulate homeschoolers focus their attention on these homeschoolers and leave the rest of the homeschooling community alone? Couldn't officials and the general public assume that since the families in PNPSs are doing all right, so are the rest of the homeschoolers?"

Most people do not think this way. Instead they will be quick to say that PNPSs are the way homeschooling really should be done. Most people assume, based on their own experience, that students need schools in order to learn, or at least that students learn better in school settings. PNPSs seem to confirm and strengthen this assumption, because PNPSs seem to indicate that even homeschoolers need or at least will accept help and support from conventional schools. This is The saddest consequences of identifying PNPSs with homeschooling. Just when it seemed that more people were starting to understand that children really can grow and learn with their families, outside of conventional schools, along come PNPSs that seem to many people to confirm the idea that schools really are necessary. How ironic. The homeschooling movement has shown many people that learning can happen outside of conventional schools, often even better than within them. Now PNPSs may seem to say that conventional schools are so important that even homeschoolers need them.

Why PNPSs Will Lead to Increased Regulation of Homeschooling

PNPSs are likely to lead to increased regulation of homeschooling for several different but related reasons.

* When the highly visible families in PNPSs accept a significant amount of oversight and regulation by public schools, the general public begins to think that such regulation is acceptable to homeschoolers in general.

* When families in PNPSs comply with increased regulations, they set a precedent for the regulations to be applied to all homeschoolers. Such precedents are seized upon and used by those who want to increase the regulation of homeschooling. (Many school officials and members of the general public feel homeschooling needs to be regulated to make sure homeschooled children are getting a good education. Many people assume that the conventional school model is the only or at least the best approach to education and that homeschools should be regulated so they become more like conventional schools. Other people resent homeschooling freedoms, feeling that if they themselves have to live under regulations, homeschoolers should have to as well.)

* PNPSs make it seem that school officials are qualified to assess and regulate homeschools. They weaken the argument that homeschoolers have used very successfully that homeschools are different from conventional schools and that public school officials lack the background, understanding, or experience to regulate them fairly or effectively.

* PNPSs turn the most visible portion of homeschooling into a branch of the public schools, which everyone expects to be strongly regulated, especially these days when state legislatures are setting standards for public schools, requiring increased use of testing and assessment in public schools, and increasing penalties for truancy.

Other Problems With PNPSs

Among the other problems that PNPSs raise for homeschoolers and the negative effects they have are the following:

* In addition to the blatant regulations, required curriculums, testing, and other obvious ways in which PNPSs interfere with families' freedom to choose an education consistent with their principles and beliefs, PNPSs limit and redirect individual families' homeschooling in subtle ways. For example, notice Sue Patterson's comments in "Public School Homeschooling Programs" in HEM, September-October, 1998. It is helpful that she shared with us the ways in which receiving money from the public schools encourage her family to focus more on consumerism. Also, being required to submit lists of educational materials they wanted at the beginning of the year interfered with her ability to respond to and support interests that her children developed during the school year.

* PNPSs disempower families by making them more dependent on authorities, school officials, standardized curriculums and testing, and conventional thinking. Supporters of PNPSs sometimes claim such programs are important because they make it possible for families to homeschool who otherwise would not be able to homeschool. This claim underestimates and weakens these families, who instead of enrolling in PNPSs could turn to the other sources of help and support that are now available for homeschoolers, including homeschooling organizations and support groups, numerous books, learning materials, etc. Using these alternatives would strengthen the families rather than weakening them as PNPSs do.

* PNPSs offer new and more devastating ways for school officials (and therefore the government) to become involved in families' lives (including what children learn at home, how parents parent, and how families function) in ways that are more intense and intrusive than previous interactions between government officials and families have been. It is ironic. The homeschooling movement provides many families with the opportunity to take greater responsibility for their lives; to discover that they can do things without the direction, control, or regulation of conventional schools and without the "assistance" or interference of the government. But now a small part of the homeschooling movement is providing a way for the government to become even more involved in some families' lives and to gain even greater control of private lives.

In summary, PNPSs will lead to increased regulation of homeschooling and cause or contribute to a variety of other problems as well.

What We Can Do

* We can understand, remember, and explain to others that for most homeschoolers, homeschooling has as much to do with freedom as education. The fundamental underlying principle of homeschooling is that families have the right to choose an education consistent with their principles and beliefs.

What is most important to most homeschoolers is not where our children learn but the basic choices we have made. We have chosen:

* to take direct responsibility for raising and educating our children;

* to make our own decisions about what, how, and when we'll learn;

* to be directly involved in our children's learning, not necessarily all of the time (we work with mentors; hire tutors for math; take private music and horseback riding lessons; use video, correspondence, and community college courses) but at least a substantial portion of the time;

* to be accountable to the standards and goals we have chosen rather than those of the state. (Note: This description of what is most important to most homeschoolers is NOT presented here in at attempt to provide a basis for deciding who is REALLY a homeschooler and who is not. Such an attempt is unlikely to solve the basic problems caused by PNPSs and would be very likely to divide the homeschooling community.)

Many non-homeschoolers have a general awareness of the importance that making deliberate choices such as these plays in homeschooling. That is why we don't use the term "homeschoolers" for students in work-study programs or in schools that have open campuses, or those taking correspondence courses or doing their school work at home temporarily because of health problems. Although people like this are literally studying in their homes, or at least outside of conventional classrooms, they are not identified as "homeschoolers."

We need to remember how essential it is that we homeschoolers be recognized as different from conventional schools and be able to make decisions that are different from those made by conventional schools. If all homeschoolers were regulated by the public schools the way some PNPSs regulate their participants (and remember that even in PNPSs that begin with minimal regulation, it quickly and inevitably increases for the reasons given above), it would be much more difficult for us to make choices that work for our family:

* We would be expected to follow a curriculum similar or perhaps even "equivalent" to that of the public schools. It would be much more difficult for us to include subject matter that the public schools do not consider appropriate, such as religion or little-known or unconventional approaches to topics such as history, science, or social sciences.

* Any type of "unschooling" would be very difficult to do. Public school personnel seldom understand concepts such as trusting children and allowing them to focus on their interests. They would not be very receptive to the idea that children can learn acceptable math (including statistics) from an interest in sports.

* Our children would be under much greater pressure to be "at grade level" as determined by standardized tests, even though such tests have been shown to be inaccurate, unfair, biased against women and other minorities, and incapable of measuring important qualities such as creative thinking, artistic ability, mechanical skills, and honesty. Most people would assume that homeschoolers who are below grade level should be forced to attend a conventional school.

* We can asses the situation concerning PNPSs in our local area and state and react accordingly. At this point, PNPSs are a concern in Alaska and on the West Coast, especially in California. However, they do not seem to be a serious concern in the rest of the country. Their presence in Alaska and California is not hard to understand. Homeschooling in Alaska has always been closely tied to the public schools because many Alaska families are homeschooling simply because they live in such remote areas that their children cannot realistically attend a conventional school. They have not deliberately chosen homeschooling as a way to secure for their children an education consistent with their principles and beliefs. In fact, many of them welcome support and direction from the public schools. California has a unique private school law (that predates the homeschooling movement of the 80's and 90's) that encourages public school districts to provide a wide range of services to private school students, including homeschoolers, in exchange for reimbursement from the state. Some homeschooling families choose these public school programs because they interpret California law to mean that these programs are the easiest and safest way to ensure that their homeschool is legal.

The critical point here is that homeschoolers who do not live on the West Coast or in Alaska do not need to think that PNPSs are inevitable in their area. If we assume that PNPSs are "inevitable," our assumption and resulting actions will contribute to their spreading throughout the country, something which may not happen otherwise since California and Alaska are so unique.

Of course, we can also take action to counter the establishment of PNPSs. If PNPSs are proposed in our local school district, we can counter such proposals by attending school board meetings where they will be discussed and sharing our concerns about the ways they will affect the regulation of homeschools.

* We can decide not to accept the media's oversimplification of who we are as homeschoolers. We can refuse to fall for the idea that there is now a "second wave" of homeschoolers, a "new breed" of parents who don't have the courage and determination of the "first wave of pioneers." Such inaccurate oversimplifications and limiting labels undermine the confidence of new homeschoolers and play right into the hands of people who are trying to make money from homeschoolers' fears and insecurities.

We can also realize, however, that there have always been homeschoolers who didn't and still don't see any problem with using public school practices and resources. A tiny fraction of these have gone into the business of establishing hybrid programs. But let's not accept their view as widespread or inevitable.

* We can remember that homeschoolers (sometimes in very small numbers) have stopped other government programs that would have directly affected homeschoolers and that some people have thought were inevitable. Consider the following examples:

* During the 1980's, some people (including some homeschoolers) claimed that homeschoolers would have to agree to take standardized tests in order for homeschooling to be recognized as legal. However, roughly half the states do NOT require that homeschoolers take standardized tests. In states that do require testing, homeschoolers have worked to minimize the strength and effects of the requirements. Sometimes parents can choose the tests, sometimes they can administer them, sometimes they do not have to report the scores to the state, etc.

* In recent years, some people have claimed that homeschoolers would soon be allowed to play on public school sports teams, despite the fact that this would lead to increased regulation of these homeschooling athletes and set a precedent for increased regulation of all homeschoolers. However, homeschoolers in a number of states have resisted a change in the regulations that prevent homeschoolers from participating on school teams.

* Tax credits for homeschooling expenses have been proposed in a number of states and at the federal level, but few have been adopted, partly because of the opposition of homeschoolers who do not want to surrender their freedoms for a few dollars.

* In Wisconsin, a local school official tried to increase his district's enrollment and its control of homeschoolers by making homeschoolers part of its "home bound" program designed for students who are temporarily unable to attend school. An article in the newsletter of a state-wide inclusive grassroots organization alerted homeschoolers to the problems with this approach, and the idea disappeared.

* Homeschoolers by and large have not become proponents of vouchers and the idea itself has not caught on in the homeschooling community.

* As homeschoolers we have learned to distinguish between large social systems and individual families. In this case, we can oppose public programs such as PNPSs while at the same time maintaining the principle that families have the right to choose an education consistent with their principles and beliefs. In other words, we can oppose PNPSs because of the ways they will affect homeschooling freedoms without excluding families who participate in them. We do not need to refrain from opposing PNPSs just to avoid criticizing families who participate in them.

* We can share our ideas and concerns with other homeschoolers through informal conversations, presentations before support groups, conference workshops, newsletter articles, web sites, etc. Among the points we can make are the following:

* PNPSs typically require more of homeschoolers than state law requires, if not immediately, then in short order.

* PNPSs are disempowering to families who enroll in them and in this way increase their dependence on authority and the public school system.

* PNPSs give the impression to legislators, the general public, and the educational establishment that homeschoolers are comfortable with and willing to accept public schools as appropriate and correct settings for homeschooling. PNPSs seem to say that public schools are so important and essential that we need them even to homeschool.

* We can work to ensure that material about PNPSs that is presented in public forums, including spoken presentations and articles published in newsletters and magazines, includes a clear statement of the ways in which PNPSs undermine homeschooling freedoms. This is especially important in material that focuses on positive aspects of PNPSs. When we homeschoolers present material that seems to support PNPSs and that does not express concerns about their effect on homeschooling freedoms, other homeschoolers and anyone else who reads it (including public officials, the media, legislators, and the general public) will probably assume that most homeschoolers support PNPSs. (Such material can even be used by people who want to make the case that homeschoolers are willing to agree to increased regulation of homeschooling.) It is not reasonable to think that we can present one side of a question in one issue of a newsletter or magazine, especially without acknowledging that this is only one side, and then provide balance or even out the discussion by publishing letters and articles that express the other side in subsequent issues. The initial impression made by the first information presented is generally too strong to effectively overcome.

This is one specific example of a more general principle. Homeschooling has attracted at lot of attention in the media and to a lesser extent among the general public. This means that we homeschoolers need to be aware of our public voice, realizing that public officials, the media, legislators, and the general public may be reading our publications and perhaps even using some of what they find there against us. Whenever possible, one-sided statements on potentially divisive issues should be shared with other homeschoolers through private channels of communication, such as conversations in person and by phone, personal correspondence, and private Internet chat rooms.

* We can develop and maintain good working relationships with our state legislators. We can say that increased regulation of homeschooling is not necessary and in fact would adversely affect thriving homeschools. We can also explain that we do not want additional homeschooling legislation that would provide financial benefits or educational services since these lead to further regulation. We do not want legislation that will allow homeschoolers to take public school courses, play on public school sports teams, or participate in other school programs. Such legislation would decrease our homeschooling freedom.

If there are PNPSs in our state, we can explain to our legislators that the vast majority of homeschoolers do not participate in these programs, which are not representative of homeschooling. Legislative proposals based on these programs should be considered critically and not accepted as something that homeschoolers want, even if they appear to offer financial benefit to homeschoolers.

Conclusion

PNPSs undermine homeschooling freedoms by leading to increased regulation of homeschooling by school officials and the state. As homeschoolers we can minimize the extent to which PNPSs undermine our freedom by understanding why PNPSs lead to increased regulation, by sharing our concerns with other homeschoolers and with non-homeschoolers, by realizing that the development of PNPSs is not inevitable, and by continuing to maintain strong homeschooling organizations that include all homeschoolers, including those who participate in PNPSs.

1998, Larry and Susan Kaseman

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