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Home Education Magazine

September-October 2000 Issue

Taking Charge - Larry and Susan Kaseman

Homeschoolers, Is Our Good Name For Sale?

Public schools and business people are increasingly trying to convince homeschoolers to enroll in their programs and use their services. At first glance, the offers may seem attractive. However, they undermine homeschoolers' identity and freedom and serve the interests of their promoters to the detriment of homeschoolers. The way we respond will strongly influence the future of homeschooling. It may be difficult for some families to refuse the offers, especially the financial incentives. But aren't our freedoms worth it? Many families homeschool happily and successfully on very limited budgets.

This column will discuss why homeschoolers have become the targets of this marketing, how accepting these offers would affect us, and what we can do, including sharing this information with others, since even if we refuse these offers, our freedoms will be undermined if other people accept them.

Offers Discussed in this Column

Here are some examples of the offers being marketed to homeschoolers:

* Public school districts in states such as Washington are setting up programs in which parents work with their own children at home under the guidance and direction of teachers, coordinators, and school officials. Specifics vary. Participants often can take courses and use school equipment. Sometimes families are given equipment, such as computers, to use at home and vouchers to cover expenses the school district designates as "educational." Although children do school work at home, and although they are called "homeschoolers," this is not homeschooling. The dangers of these programs being confused with homeschooling are even greater when well-known homeschooling leaders allow their names to be associated with them.

These alternative public school programs are large enough to cause serious concern about their effects on homeschooling. For example, in Washington state, the growth rate for homeschooling, which had consistently been 15-20% per year, has dropped to zero in the past two years, in large part because of the growth of alternative public school programs.

* On-line publicly-funded community schools (referred to as "charter schools" by the media) will be operating in Ohio by the fall of 2000. Promoters are marketing them primarily to homeschoolers.

* Wisconsin recently passed legislation allowing homeschoolers to take courses in public schools (under certain circumstances) and school districts to receive state aid for these courses.

* Around the country, local school officials are holding meetings and mailing out surveys to ask homeschoolers what services the public schools could provide them.

Why are these programs being offered? NOT at the request of homeschoolers. In fact, the vast majority of homeschoolers want to be as independent as possible of control by public schools.

School districts have strong financial incentives to enroll homeschoolers. The more students enrolled, the more money a district receives from state and local taxes. Homeschoolers are especially appealing because schools have to spend less money on classrooms, teachers, etc. Also, public school officials want to control homeschoolers because they feel threatened by comparisons with homeschoolers and because they think children really cannot learn outside the control of public schools and trained teachers.

There is also financial incentive to market distance learning programs (in which the primary communication between students and teachers is via computers) to homeschoolers. Tax money is available through charter schools, vouchers, and other sources, and some programs charge tuition.

How will these programs affect us as homeschoolers?

When we interact with public schools, we are drawn into their values, standards, mentality, assumptions, and approach to education. We increase the incentive and opportunities school officials have to question us and investigate our homeschools. For reasons such as these, the vast majority of homeschoolers choose to homeschool without being involved in public schools.

The more involved in the public schools we are, the greater the compromises we make. Something as simple as taking a course in a conventional school requires conforming to the school's schedule, standards, beliefs, values, and tests. Homeschoolers who are clear about what they are doing and why, seem to navigate these waters with the least trouble. However, it is important that they not set precedents (such as taking qualifying tests) that could be applied to other homeschoolers, unless these are required of all students, public and private.

By contrast, families enrolled in alternative public school programs are more seriously involved in public schools. They are agreeing to the values, standards, goals, basic curriculum, testing, and approaches to education of conventional public schools. Their participation in publicly funded programs gives the government a basis for holding them accountable.

Unfortunately, even if we don't participate in such programs ourselves, our homeschooling freedoms will be undermined if others do. A significant increase in homeschoolers' participation in public schools will change the definition of homeschooling, which will increasingly be viewed as an arm of the public schools. The new definition is likely to spread rapidly because families enrolled in alternative public school programs are so visible; after all, they are part of public education. Because it is so much easier for the media and researchers to identify and contact them than homeschoolers, these families will increasingly appear in news stories and research on homeschooling.

Of course, this change will be especially serious if the term "homeschoolers" is used to refer to children enrolled in alternative public school programs. The general public will conclude that "homeschoolers" are people who teach their children at home under the control, guidance, direction, and supervision of public schools. This perception would make sense to the general public because it is familiar and therefore feels "safe." But we homeschoolers will have lost our good name.

In addition, many alternative public school programs and charter schools are built on programs originally designed for at-risk students, dropouts, and those in special education, which sends the subtle message that many children learning at home are problems.

To maintain our homeschooling freedoms, we have to make it clear, first to ourselves and then to others, that despite apparent similarities (children learning at home), families who choose public school programs are doing something fundamentally different from what homeschoolers do.

What is that difference? Homeschoolers say things like, "We are taking fundamental responsibility for choosing the values, approaches, methods, curriculum, and assessment for our children's education. We may choose to purchase a curriculum that tells us what to study each day and follow that curriculum precisely. Or we may develop our own curriculum, based on our children's interests, strengths, abilities, and unique timetables. What is central to our homeschooling is that we are freely choosing each of these things. We willingly take on the responsibility for our children's education and are free to change any time, to make mid-course corrections, to skip math today and do two math lessons tomorrow, or to skip today's math entirely because it's a review of things our children already know, or skip geometry altogether because music is more important and we only have so much time and energy."

Families who enroll in an alternative public school program say things like, "In exchange for resources, guidance, and money, we agree to adopt your values, use your curriculum, take your tests, and comply with your standards. We realize that if we skip today's math lesson, we still have to make sure that our children can pass the required math test. This means that skipping geometry altogether is not really an option, and the music that the children love will just have to wait."

The differences between homeschooling and participating in alternative public school programs are difficult to put into words. And it's risky. We do not want to come up with a definition of homeschooling, because then all homeschoolers would be expected to comply with the definition. The best parts of homeschooling is the space it has for every family, whatever approach to education they choose. However, we can clearly identify many things that are not homeschooling, including alternative public school programs and distance learning through charter schools.

But what about public school programs that say, "Oh, you can choose the subjects you want your child to study, and we'll help you find resources"? Don't they offer the best of both worlds: freedom to choose what our family will study and support and resources from the public schools? Unfortunately, they do not. Participants still have to comply with whatever general requirements the program has. And new programs that do not have many requirements at first will soon add them.

What We Can Do

Now comes the tricky part. How can we protect our right and freedom to homeschool without interfering with the rights and freedom of families who want to participate in such programs? How do we as a society balance the needs and wants of a given individual with the needs and wants of other individuals and the good of the whole society? If my freedom is being undermined by what you are doing, do I have the right to prevent you from doing it, even though this limits your choices? Or do you have a moral imperative not to do it? Such questions, too complicated to be answered in this short column, show the complexity of this issue.

We may not be able to prevent public schools from offering alternative programs and having at least a few families enroll. But we are not being responsible to our children, to ourselves, or to those families who are coming after us if we stand idly by while homeschooling is taken over by alternative public school programs. If even learning that takes place in people's homes is controlled by the government, where is our educational freedom? At least parents who send their children to conventional public schools realize (or should realize) that they are surrendering most decisions about their children's education to the government. The debate over whether alternative public school programs should exist, and if they do, whether they should be called homeschools, is not simply a question of homeschoolers' freedom versus the freedom of families who want to enroll in alternative public school programs. It is a question of fundamental educational freedom.

Here are some things we can do:

* We can share our concerns with others in informal conversations, support group meetings, workshops at homeschooling conferences, etc.

* We can make choices for our own families that minimize the opportunities public schools have to control our homeschools.

* We can show parents that it is not only possible but highly desirable and rewarding to homeschool without assistance or resources from public schools or the government, that you don't have to be connected to or regulated by the government to learn, and, in fact, for many families it is much better not to be. We can share ways we have discovered to homeschool inexpensively. We can communicate such information through magazines like this, inclusive grassroots state organizations, local support groups, homeschooling conferences, and meetings to inform the general public about homeschooling.

* One option we do have, if we feel strongly about the risks of alternative public school programs that are called "homeshooling," is to oppose the formation of such programs. If such programs are being considered in our community, we can contact public officials, parents, and others to explain the problems involved. We can attend public meetings designed to discuss and plan such programs. If such programs already exist, we can request audits by pointing out to our legislators that public funds are being misused.

* If we cannot prevent such programs, we can work to ensure that they are not called "homeschools." Instead they could be called alternative public school programs, off-campus programs, or some such.

* If we are contacted by our local public school superintendent who wants to draw homeschoolers into the public school by offering services or resources, we can explain clearly that we don't want what public schools have to offer and neither do most homeschoolers.

Conclusion

Alternative public school programs that allow students to do some of their school work at home and charter schools with distance learning programs undermine our identity as homeschoolers and our good name, especially when participants in these programs are incorrectly called "homeschoolers." To maintain our good name, we homeschoolers need to alert others to this problem and work to minimize these programs and ensure that they do not use the term "homeschools."

2000 Larry and Susan Kaseman

September-October 2000 Issue

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