September-October 2008 Selected Content
Taking Charge - Larry and Susan Kaseman
Keeping Homeschooling Freedoms Alive
It's happened again. September. Back to school. Even though we're homeschooling, we can feel it in the air. Time to get going.
We start planning, organizing, preparing. Whether we're new or experienced homeschoolers, we can easily feel overwhelmed. How are we going to get everything done? How do we know the kids are learning enough of the right things? What about all those things we worry about in the middle of the night?
With so many things to think about for our own family, it's tempting to decide that that's all we can do about homeschooling. No time (or money, for that matter) to join a local support group or a statewide homeschooling organization. No time to make sure we're up to date on current homeschooling issues. No time to even think about things that might affect our homeschooling freedoms.
But such an approach is a mistake. We need to be aware of ways in which choices we make will affect our homeschooling freedoms, strengthening them or weakening them. Big rewards come from putting just a little thought into things we can easily do, that take little time (or money), but that make a significant difference in our ability to homeschool the way we want to, the way that will work best for our family. Among the benefits of paying attention to homeschooling freedoms while we're planning and starting a new homeschooling year are the following:
• The fewer homeschooling regulations our state has, the easier it is for us to figure out how to homeschool in ways that will work well for each of our children and for our family, without feeling pressured by state standards and timetables for when kids must learn to read or do long division, without having to do pointless activities that the kids don't like but that may impress officials reviewing our curriculum, without having to spend time preparing reports designed to gain approval.
• When we take responsibility for our homeschooling freedoms, we feel empowered. We realize we can take responsibility in other areas of our lives, such as health care, diet, and work. Learning how to maintain our homeschooling freedoms prepares us to maintain other freedoms as well, important lessons in today's world given the challenges we face.
• Recent events in California, Connecticut, Michigan, New York, Tennessee, and Washington DC show how quickly and easily a single event can undermine homeschooling freedoms in various ways. We need to understand how to prevent as many of these as possible and be prepared to respond quickly when they do. Although homeschooling is now much more widely accepted than it was 20 or 30 years ago, these recent events show how important it is for us to be watchful for challenges to our homeschooling freedoms.
• Working with other homeschoolers to maintain homeschooling freedoms helps develop friendships with people who really understand what we're doing, who don't respond to our doubts and concerns with a "Well, why don't you just send them to the public school?" They give us help and inspiration and support, and we return the favor while the kids play.
But, you may be thinking, isn't maintaining our freedoms dull, onerous, difficult, sometimes hopeless work? Not at all! Most of the time, all that we have to do is to be alert and make sensible choices as we go about homeschooling our families. The few necessary steps, outlined below, are relatively quick and easy, provide great learning opportunities, increase our confidence, and help us learn to take responsibility for ourselves, something we can use throughout our lives. The work is especially manageable if we each do our part. The most significant time- and energy-consuming work is dealing with a crisis, like countering legislation that undermines our freedom. Fortunately, such crises are much less likely to occur if we (and other homeschoolers) have followed basic points such as these.
Essential principles for maintaining homeschooling freedoms.
• Know what is required to homeschool in your state. Have a copy of the homeschooling statutes and/or regulations available for reference in case you need it. You may be able to get a copy from a statewide homeschooling organization, a local support group, or an experienced homeschooler in your state. In addition, be sure to ask experienced homeschoolers how the statutes or regulations are enforced. Enforcement may not follow the letter of the law, and it's important to know what your choices and risks are. Don't ask school officials or the state department of education. They often do not know, have been misinformed, or misunderstand statutes and regulations. Be careful of information from books or websites that cover laws in all 50 states. They sometimes provide only the text of the statutes without crucial information about how they are interpreted or enforced. The best source of information is knowledgeable, experienced homeschoolers who live in the state you're interested in.
• Do ONLY the minimum required by statute or regulation. If a school official asks or tells you to do more than is required, politely refuse and explain what is required. If they persist, ask them to show you the statute or regulation that gives them the authority to make such a request. Occasionally, it may be tempting to exceed the minimum requirements of the law, for example, by showing school officials our curriculums, samples of our children's work, test scores, etc. even though these are not required by statute in our state. Perhaps we are proud of our children's accomplishments, or we want to educate officials about homeschooling or show them how well it works. It is very important to resist such temptation. Actions that exceed statutes or regulations set a precedent that is likely to increase demands officials make of us and other homeschoolers in the future. It also may increase the questions, doubts, concerns, and criticisms that officials have about our homeschooling.
• Don't ignore violations of your rights even when they seem too small to matter. Major freedoms are sometimes lost one small step at a time. Our failure to object also encourages those who are limiting our freedoms to continue. For example, suppose a school district requires that homeschoolers submit their test scores, even though the statutes in the state do not give districts the authority to require them. If homeschoolers do not object, before long the district may ask for copies of homeschoolers' curriculums in addition to their test scores. On the other hand, if homeschoolers object strongly the first time the district exceeds its authority (either by mistake or in a deliberate attempt to increase its power and authority over homeschoolers), school officials will probably be more reluctant to take on homeschoolers in the future. Responding to small infringements of our freedoms not only prevents loss of freedom in the specific situation in question. It also prevents future, perhaps more serious, challenges. People who think that homeschoolers shouldn't complain as long as no one declares homeschooling illegal, greatly misunderstand the importance of choosing an approach to education and a curriculum, allowing children to pursue their interests and learn at their own pace, and offering children an education consistent with parents' principles and beliefs rather than those of the public schools.
• Do not seek or accept any benefits from the government, including direct funding, tax deductions, or tax credits. Work to prevent the government from offering money or favors to homeschoolers. There is no such thing as a free lunch. Such benefits are likely to be followed by increased regulation, especially because the government is accountable for how tax dollars are spent. Even benefits or favors that seem quite safe, like allowing homeschoolers to play on public school sports teams, open the door for increased regulation of homeschooling. Such regulation would apply to all homeschoolers; families could not refuse the benefit and avoid the increased regulation. It is important to remember that some people and organizations (for example, some school officials, social workers, legislators, teachers unions, etc.) are looking for opportunities to increase state regulation of homeschooling.
• Do not push for new homeschooling legislation except in very, very unusual situations. Small minorities generally have difficulty getting legislation passed. In addition, once a bill has been introduced, it is very difficult to control. It can be changed so much through amendments that it actually ends up very different from the way it started. It is easier for a small minority like homeschoolers to gain support from non-homeschoolers when we are a beleaguered minority being put upon by a large interest group like a teachers union than to find support for legislation we initiated ourselves.
• Stay out of court if at all possible. It is almost always better for homeschoolers to try to reach settlements through negotiation or arbitration than to take cases to court. Rulings in court cases generally uphold the status quo and support the dominant culture. This means that rulings concerning small minorities such as homeschoolers tend to be biased in favor of conventional education rather than alternatives. We are much better off without any court rulings than with rulings that go against us. Evidence to support this idea can be found in a 1990 report written by Jane Henkel of the Wisconsin Legislative Council and titled Recent Court Cases Examining the Constitutionality of Other States' Laws Regulating Home Schools. Her report showed that court cases tend to uphold state regulation of homeschooling. The report states, "Special care was taken to attempt to find reported cases striking down state regulations. With the limited exception of cases which found regulations to be unconstitutionally vague, that effort was unsuccessful, which tends to indicate that there are few, if any, such cases." The report is available at http://www.homeedmag.com/HEM/185/henkel/info_memo90-23.html
• Understand and apply the distinction between compulsory school attendance and compulsory education. Basically, remember and remind school officials and others that the law requires that young people attend school, but it does not require that they receive an education while doing so. Therefore, it is discriminatory for school officials, judges, court commissioners, and others to insist that homeschoolers demonstrate that their children are receiving an education that is equivalent to the education that children supposedly receive in public schools or that they are at grade level or penalize them for failing to achieve specific educational goals. For more information, see the Taking Charge column, "Don't Let Compulsory Attendance Turn into Compulsory Education," available at http://www.homeedmag.com/HEM/224/jatch.html.
Also, understand and maintain the distinction between homeschools and virtual public schools. To be sure, students in virtual public schools learn with their families in their homes. However, homeschoolers take direct responsibility for their children's education with as little state regulation as possible. Virtual charter schools are public schools, parents of their students have turned responsibility for their children's educations over to the state, and they are required to comply with public school regulations. It is critical to maintain the distinction between homeschools and virtual public schools so we can remain free from public school regulations.
• Work with other homeschoolers. Some of homeschooling's greatest strengths stem from the fact that it is a grassroots movement. It becomes even stronger as we communicate with each others, share information and experiences, support each other, and work together to maintain our freedoms.
If your state has a statewide inclusive grassroots homeschooling organization, consider supporting it. Such organizations have contributed enormously to the work that has been done to maintain homeschooling freedoms. Become a member, make a donation, purchase materials, and attend its conferences. It is very important that we homeschoolers be organized and prepared before challenges to our freedoms arise. Such organizations are also a very good way to connect with other homeschoolers.
Also consider joining a local homeschooling support group. If none exists in your area, start one yourself. It can be as simple as getting together with one or two other families for whatever activities you choose.
There's no doubt about it: the choices we are able to make about how we homeschool each day are influenced by what our state requires of homeschoolers As homeschoolers, we need to take responsibility for preventing an increase in state regulation and an accompanying loss of homeschooling freedom. No one else will maintain our freedom for us; in fact, a number of individuals and groups are continually looking for ways to increase state regulation of homeschooling. Fortunately, working to maintain our freedom is not difficult or time-consuming, especially if each of us does our part. It does require understanding some fundamental principles, including those discussed in this column, and keeping them in mind as we homeschool. Don't let the rest of us down. Do your part. Make a significant contribution to the present and future of homeschooling.
© 2008, Larry and Susan Kaseman