Home Education Magazine
January-February 2004 - Articles and Columns
Taking Charge - Larry and Susan Kaseman
Does Homeschooling Have To Be Political?
Well, does it? Do we have to worry so much about getting a call from the local truant officer that our best non-homeschooling friends shake their heads over our hopeless paranoia? Do we have to counter what other homeschoolers or homeschooling organizations do that undermines our homeschooling freedoms? Do we have to oppose virtual charter schools because they blur the distinction between public and private education? Do we have to disagree with acquaintances who think that homeschoolers should be required to take standardized tests "just to be sure they're learning"?
Can't we just all get along? Can't we overlook our disagreements and get on with what we want to do: learn with our children, watch them grow, share with them the thrill of discovery and our growing awareness of how capable they (and we) really are? Isn't that, after all, what homeschooling is about? And won't we miss it if we spend precious hours discussing complex issues, calling legislators, and worrying about new threats to our homeschooling freedoms?
Well, homeschooling is unavoidably political. The term "political" is used here not to suggest that homeschooling is a partisan issue to be identified as either Democratic or Republican or a key topic for local, state, and national elections. It is not to say that homeschoolers represent a large percent of the electorate.
Instead, homeschooling is political for several reasons. First, government regulation of homeschooling has a strong impact on the daily lives of homeschooling families. If our homeschooled children are required to take standardized tests, they have to study the material on the tests to do well. If we are required to submit our curriculum to school officials for review and approval, we must have a curriculum that public school people can understand, something similar to what public schools use. If regulation of homeschools increased, our daily lives would be more strongly controlled by the state.
The extent to which the state regulates homeschools also impacts on the freedom of education in our society. Since homeschooling is part of private education, when the state regulates homeschooling, it is regulating private education and decreasing the freedom of education that is critical to our democracy.
Homeschooling is also political because it stirs up the larger community, the body politic, even though relatively few families homeschool. If less than two percent of families in the U. S. with children aged 6 to 18 decided not to go to movie theaters and instead watched videos or DVDs at home, it is unlikely that the larger community would react very strongly, if at all. But when roughly 2% of children from ages 6 to 18 stop attending conventional schools, the larger community notices. Powerful people in our society view homeschooling as more than just a few parents educating their children at home. It is seen as a challenge to public schools and many peoples' basic ideas about learning and education.
Homeschooling is perceived as a threat by The most powerful interest groups in our society: the educational establishment. That's conventional schools, teachers unions, textbook publishers, educational software people. Now that's a giant you don't want to upset. Really, we didn't mean to waken it. We just wanted to quietly homeschool our kids, just follow our principles and beliefs and let other people follow theirs. Isn't America the land of the free? Shouldn't we be able to do this? But upset the giant we did, big time!
In addition, some individuals find homeschooling unsettling. Some teachers, parents, and grandparents don't realize children can learn without attending a conventional school. Some people who believe schools are part of the melting pot fear homeschoolers will undermine this. Some skeptics don't trust parents and claim homeschooled children will be isolated and hidden from public view. Some supporters of public schools fear that homeschooling will deprive public schools of necessary funds or of some of the best students and strongest families.
Therefore, as homeschoolers, we can't expect to enjoy learning with our kids, doing something most people think only experts can do without stepping on toes. As it turns out, we step on lots, so we have lots of people after us or at least not supporting us because they don't understand what we're doing but they think it must be dangerous. Not surprisingly, the educational establishment and concerned individuals often react by trying to eliminate homeschooling (for example, when people try to convince homeschooling parents to send their children to a conventional school) or to gain control over it. As soon as there were enough homeschoolers to be noticed, the educational establishment devised all kinds of anti-homeschooling schemes: Outlaw it (which never happened). Require homeschoolers to take state-mandated tests or submit their curriculums for review and approval or do whatever it takes to make them like public schools. Entice them to participate in public school programs, take classes, enroll in virtual charter schools.
The pressure to increase state regulation of homeschooling, to keep it under control and make it more like conventional schooling and less of a threat means that actions of individual homeschoolers affect the whole homeschooling community, another reason homeschooling is political. Actions of individuals are magnified. If a family decides to eat only organic food and tells the manager of their local grocery store, other families will not be told to do the same. But if a homeschooler gives a school official more information than is required by statute (because he or she wants to impress the official or gain the official's approval or for whatever reason), this precedent will increase pressure on other homeschoolers to do the same.
Given the fact that homeschooling is inevitably political, how can we as individuals act to maintain our homeschooling freedoms rather than to undermine them?
We can understand our freedoms and rights as parents and as homeschoolers. We will be in a much better position if we understand facts such as:
? Parents have the freedom to choose for their children an education consistent with their principles and beliefs. This freedom comes from outside the law, from nature or God, as a birthright, as part of what it means to be human. (It has also been upheld as a legal principle by state and federal courts and the U. S. Supreme Court.) People and institutions do not originate freedoms. They do not come from the state, from political parties, from legislators, or from bureaucracies. Freedoms are basic and fundamental and exist independently of the state and large institutions.
? Compulsory school attendance laws require that children attend an educational program but do not require compulsory education. This distinction is crucial. When parents have sued public schools for failing to educate their children, courts have consistently ruled in favor of the schools, stating that they are not responsible for specific educational results.
? Many programs (such as preschool screening) are voluntary, even though school districts seem to claim they are mandatory. It is important to know which programs are voluntary and to seriously consider whether we want to participate. Also, many laws allow parents to exempt their children from certain requirements. For example, although Wisconsin statutes require some immunizations for school attendance, parents can have their children exempted "for reasons of health, religion or personal conviction." Wisconsin parents can also have their children exempted from state-mandated standardized tests without needing to give specific reasons or meet special requirements.
? The U. S. Constitution does not mention "education." The role of the federal government in education is limited to providing money in exchange for people's compliance with government requirements. Through legislation such as Goals 2000 and No Child Left Behind, this role is growing.
We can realize that homeschooling laws have greater potential to do harm than good and should be used only as a last resort.
Here are some specifics.
? As homeschoolers, we need to know what laws require of us, what they do not require, and what protection they give us. Often public officials are uninformed or misinformed about the specifics of the laws. It is our responsibility to know what laws say and to question and educate officials when necessary.
? It is important to comply with only the minimum requirements of the statutes. Doing more than is required sets precedents and encourages officials to demand more of us in the future and more of other homeschoolers as well. This is an example of how the action of a few individuals (who, for example, voluntarily offer officials more reports, test scores, or other documentation than the statutes require) can set a precedent that increases demands on other homeschoolers.
? We don't need laws to grant us the right to homeschool. At no point in history has homeschooling been illegal in any state. It is much better to keep reminding legislators and the general public of this fact than to ask the government to confirm it by passing a law, which then gives the government some authority over homeschools.
? Especially threatening are laws that give homeschoolers federal or state tax dollars, either directly or indirectly through tax deductions or tax credits. With money comes increased regulation. "There is no such thing as a free lunch."
? Federal or state laws that grant homeschoolers the right to participate in public school classes or activities, apply for scholarships that public school students are eligible for, and so forth open the door for increased government regulation of all homeschoolers as part of the process. It is far better for individuals who want such opportunities to try to gain them through negotiation with local officials (as many homeschoolers have done) and, when necessary, to accept the fact that homeschoolers don't get everything, good or bad, that public school students get.
? About the most a homeschooling law can do is calm a tense situation by providing a way homeschoolers can simply tell the government they are homeschooling and therefore complying with the compulsory school attendance law. Then homeschoolers can get on with their homeschooling, and officials know (and can tell others) that these people are homeschooling, so it's okay. This kind of a law is not necessary, as shown by the fact that homeschoolers in states like Illinois are getting along well without one. But if there is so much tension that something has to be done, this kind of a law is much better than one that requires homeschoolers to test their children or report to the state on their progress or have their curriculums reviewed and approved.
We can consider the long-range effects of developments that affect homeschoolers. However tempting a proposal may be, we can have the strength, discipline, and commitment to refuse what in the long run could cost us our homeschooling freedoms. Because of the pressure to increase government regulation of homeschooling, we homeschoolers need to be alert for proposals that would open the door for unnecessary regulation.
We can accept our responsibility as parents and do the best we can to help our children learn. Perhaps the most important reason that homeschooling has gained so much acceptance and respect in the past 20 to 30 years is that homeschooling parents have taken their responsibilities seriously and done such a credible job.
We can work to gain acceptance and support from the general public. Favorable public opinion helps secure our homeschooling freedoms. School officials are unlikely to harass homeschoolers if they think such actions will be criticized. Judges and juries make decisions based on their interpretations of the law, on the demands and requirements of the power centers within our society, and on the climate of opinion in their communities. On the other hand, homeschooling freedoms would be undermined by strong public sentiment that homeschooling is too risky, that parents cannot be trusted, or that our society cannot afford the diversity of opinion fostered by allowing parents to choose for their children an education consistent with their principles and beliefs. Positive public opinion grows when homeschoolers write polite, articulate letters to the editor; are featured in media stories about the strengths of homeschooling; are active in their communities; etc. Positive public opinion is undermined when homeschoolers seek special privileges, behave irresponsibly, etc.
There's no way around it: Homeschooling is political. Homeschooling statutes and regulations affect the daily lives of homeschoolers. Homeschooling is viewed as a threat by The most powerful interest groups in the U. S.: the educational establishment. Many individuals feel concerned about homeschooling. As a result, there is pressure to increase regulation of homeschooling. This pressure in turn magnifies the actions of individual homeschoolers. However, we can act in ways that maintain our homeschooling freedom, some of which are outlined in the second half of this column.
© 2004 Larry and Susan Kaseman
January-February 2004 - Articles and Columns
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