Government Ought to Support, Not Obstruct, Homeschoolers

(The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS) -

The last thing my mom expected was an unannounced visit from a social worker to “check up” on us. Yet there was a woman from the Board of Education, looking in on a homeschooling family of four kids living in New York City, where public school classrooms averaged 34 students each and private educational institutions were charging $30,000 or more per year.

I was a middle-schooler, and mom told my younger brother and me to stay put with our workbooks.

That visit was uneventful, but not all families are so lucky. A couple in Missouri, with the help of the Home School Legal Defense Association, has filed a lawsuit after a police raid on their home last year resulted in the state taking custody of their children. All this started from an anonymous tip that this homeschooling family’s house was messy.

It is one thing to have families submit a record of educational progress and for the state to look out for the welfare of children. There will be calls for more such oversight after the tragic deaths in Detroit of Stoni Blair and Stephen Berry, whose mother is facing murder charges. Their deaths are nothing short of horrifying, and already Michigan lawmakers are calling for more accountability in the homeschooling system, which their mother claimed to be part of.

Pennsylvania recently updated its homeschooling code, a change that I appreciate. Last year, Gov. Tom Corbett signed a bill that eased up on the regulations and processes parents must endure to receive approval to teach their children. Pennsylvania has some of the strictest requirements and accountability procedures for homeschooling.

Learning at home creates the capability to cater to the needs of the child. My older brother was dyslexic. To help him tell a “b” from a “d,” my mom tried four different phonics curricula and finally made up her own rhyming, illustrated story system. The ability to efficiently address his reading problem allowed him to cultivate his strengths.… After graduating this year from the School of Visual Arts in New York City, he already has a job in his field.

The option to homebrew an education is invaluable. It allows parents, in their own three-bedroom, two-bath castles, to foster the talents of gifted pupils in a direct way that would be impossible in regular school. There are kids like my 11-year-old cousin, who composes fugues and visits Chinese restaurants where he orders and converses with the waiter in Mandarin. And someone who has a learning disability or illness can learn at his or her own pace without fear of falling behind the crowd.

Then you have people, like me, who are very average, and who could easily operate in a classroom environment but have chosen to take the do-it-yourself route.

Some think that government-funded educational establishments are something special academically. Admittedly, some of them are, like New York City’s Bronx High School of Science, where one of my brothers attended high school and joined its nationally renowned, 200-person debate team. However, I recently overheard a teen barista talking about his public school classes: “I’ve never studied in my life, and I’ve made it this far,” he said.

Currently, the United States has 2.2 million scholars being schooled at their bedroom desks. These teens score 15 to 30 points higher on standardized academic achievement tests than their counterparts in regular classrooms. Yet we’re still looked down on. Even though our country has prided itself on liberty and equality, people still fear diversity of thought and look down on different ways of doing things. We’re not alone in such fears. Twenty-eight nations have banned homeschooling.

Homeschooling isn’t for everyone. Physics in the living room requires a certain amount of organization. Some parents do not or cannot give adequate attention to maintaining a schedule. Kids can fail to re-enter the public school system smoothly. Others can rebel against their parents and refuse to learn.

But retaining the freedom of choice for families that raise skillful and smart children is a right that should not be withheld. The mothers who we know are responsibly caring for their children’s schooling re-evaluate curricula and strategize on how to get their students into college. They adapt, abandoning what doesn’t work and trying something new. Such parents are deeply invested in their children’s success.

Having accountability to and support from the state as we work through this process would be wonderful, and Pennsylvania’s new law is encouraging. But government workers don’t always treat us kindly, and such behavior can make homeschooling families wary of the state’s involvement.

During that long-ago visit in New York, my mother, remembering her civil rights, did not allow the unannounced Board of Education representative into her home. The woman’s appearance turned out to be a misunderstanding over a missing piece of paper. Why she couldn’t have just called we never found out.

Oblivious to the hostile presence outside our door, I continued reading for history, when my mom reappeared and resumed using multiplication flash cards with my little brother.