A Homeschooler Is a Homeschooler Is a Homeschooler…

Originally published as a letter to the editor in the May/June 1998 issue of Home Education Magazine. For permission to reprint, please contact Mary.

There’s a small sermon of sorts floating around the homeschooling community these days. After seeing a couple of variants in recent months on websites and mailing lists, I’ve come to think of it as the “Woe Unto Thee, O Homeschoolers” homily.

The basic message goes something like this:

Homeschooling is more and more popular these days, which is a threat to government schooling. The public schools have responded to this threat by creating their own homeschooling programs, complete with resources, teachers, extracurricular activities, meeting facilities, and cash reimbursement for “approved educational expenses.” Independent homeschoolers, unable to resist such seductive goodies, will flock to government sponsored homeschooling programs. Successful, long-existing homeschool support groups will find their membership dwindling and private homeschooling programs will lose students to the unfair competition of the “tuition-free” public programs. Once enough homeschoolers have enrolled in government-run homeschooling programs, educrats, with the eager cooperation of legislators, will drop the other shoe and make independent homeschooling illegal, bringing all homeschoolers under direct government control.

There is a moral to this disquisition, of course: Real Homeschoolers Don’t Use Government Homeschooling Programs.

It’s a nice little sermon, isn’t it? Makes us independent homeschoolers feel all virtuous and upright—stalwart individualists standing firm in defense of our rights against a fearsome Other. There’s that bit of bureaucratic conspiracy to give us a thrill of foreboding, and the prophecy of a dire outcome to keep us uneasy in our sleep.

It makes such a good story I almost wish it had some connection to reality. But it doesn’t take much analysis to realize that there are a few holes in the progression from enticement to disaster and that the whole question is considerably more complicated than this clean Good Guys vs. Bad Guys scenario makes it appear.

Unwarranted Assumption #1: All public homeschooling programs are alike.

Currently, there are many public homeschooling programs available, and new ones all the time. In California, homeschooling families can choose from a huge variety: traditional workbook-and-a-weekly-test programs to study for the GED, long-existing home study programs designed especially for homeschoolers, newer homeschooling charter schools, and even online homeschooling charter schools. These programs run the gamut from wonderful through merely adequate to abysmal. Each—regardless of its quality—has its own personality and style, which varies according to its administrative and teaching staff. For some, their enrolled families exist to follow their rules and regulations; others work indefatigably to make their rules and regulations serve the needs of their families.

Some public homeschooling programs are created by school districts or county education offices in order to reach populations they believe they are missing or neglecting. Others are the result of years of effort on the part of parents to create the sort of program they’ve been unable to find elsewhere, either within or outside the public school system.

Some public homeschooling programs are extremely attractive to homeschoolers. Others are not. Some programs draw enrollment mainly from existing homeschooling families, others draw heavily from conventional school students looking for alternatives. Many attract a complicated mix of families and students from both conventional and alternative education.

Unwarranted Assumption #2: All homeschooling families are alike.

Homeschoolers have a variety of reasons for choosing among various educational alternatives. Money is certainly one factor, usually one of the more important. But there are also issues of program quality, access to materials, location and convenience, evaluation and assessment, along with those more intangible factors of style and atmosphere.

Some families believe firmly in public education and choose to support it by enrolling in public homeschooling programs.

Some families oppose the very idea of public education and refuse any alternative which might contribute to its continued existence.

Some families lack confidence in their own ability to help their children learn effectively and find suitable support in public homeschooling programs. Often such families use public programs for a year or two as a transition between conventional schooling and independent homeschooling.

Some families have one or two children who they feel are better suited to a public homeschooling program than to learning independently with their family. It’s not at all rare to find a single family with some children homeschooling independently and others each enrolled in different public homeschooling programs (or even one enrolled in a conventional public or private school).

Some families use public homeschooling programs for a year or two, opt for independent homeschooling for the next couple of years, and return again to public programs as their circumstances and interests change.

For every homeschooling family, the point is choice in education. Families know their own needs and wishes and are capable of choosing alternatives which best serve those needs.

Unwarranted Assumption #3: Private homeschooling programs cannot compete with public homeschooling programs.

At first glance, it may seem obvious that private homeschooling programs can never compete successfully with public programs because they must charge tuition in order to stay solvent. But this assumes that money inevitably outweighs any other reason for choosing an educational program. If this were truly the case, none of us would be homeschooling: public school programs are always “free” and less expensive (monetarily, anyway) than any form of independent homeschooling.

Private homeschooling programs vary just as much as public programs, both in their offerings and in their quality. Good programs survive because they are able to provide services that families want at prices they are willing to pay. Some otherwise good programs may not succeed because their administrators are not effective managers, but the same is true of public homeschooling programs: some fail because of administrative or financial problems unrelated to the content of their programs.

Because public programs are often subject to rules and regulations which do not apply to private programs, those private programs-with greater flexibility to meet their families’ needs-can actually be more attractive to homeschoolers and out-compete the “free” public programs.

Unwarranted Assumption #4: Public homeschooling programs are a serious threat to homeschool support groups.

Homeschool support groups, like individuals and families and every organized group involving humans, each have their own personalities. Some are comfortable with a wildly variegated mix of homeschoolers; others find a more homogeneous membership more congenial. Support groups whose members fear government encroachment into homeschooling are not likely to welcome families enrolled in public homeschooling programs warmly; those families will end up looking elsewhere for support and community.

Groups which view public school programs as simply one option among many tend to welcome families who choose such programs. Independent homeschoolers can offer advice for families who eventually decide to seek other alternatives for homeschooling, just as the families in public programs can offer useful advice about the programs they are familiar with.

Unwarranted Assumption #5: Public homeschooling programs are guaranteed survival simply because they are publicly supported.

Many public homeschooling programs face serious challenges within the public education system, especially as they become more successful. Since the average daily attendance (ADA) funds which finance public programs go with the child’s enrollment within the system, these programs are not quite the “cash cows” many assume them to be for the district or other agency which creates them. Even where ADA funds help support such amenities as libraries that can be used by conventional programs as well as by homeschool programs, the overhead for homeschooling programs is so much lower that friction between homeschooling and conventional programs is quite common.

Parents of classroom students often cry foul when they see that public homeschooling students in the same district—sometimes even under the umbrella of the same school—have access to newer and better equipment and a wider variety of books and other materials. District administrators often find themselves torn between conventional classroom-based and successful, growing homeschooling constituencies. Conflicts over financing and other issues have resulted in lawsuits, denial of ADA funds by state auditors, and the demise of once-popular and successful public homeschooling programs.

As the Charter Public Schools Act of 1998 ballot initiative proposed for California’s November general election illustrated, public homeschooling options are perhaps more endangered than independent homeschooling. This initiative, while increasing the number of charter schools allowed under state law, also proposed that all charter school students have daily contact with a charter school teacher, and specified that ADA funding be denied to programs in which more than a third of the students are close relatives (child, grandchild, niece or nephew, legal ward, or foster child) of the teacher.

A Homeschooler Is a Homeschooler Is a Homeschooler, or Unwarranted Assumption #6: Homeschoolers Are Too Passive, Lazy, or Stupid to Defend Against Threats to Their Choices in Education

There’s no question about it: this is the most farfetched, strained, and downright infuriating assumption of the whole argument. In order for the creation and relative success of public homeschooling programs to lead to the demise of independent homeschooling, homeschoolers would have to lie down, roll over, and play dead so completely that one would have to wonder how we ever got the gumption to homeschool in the first place.

I’ve been observing and participating in the politics of homeschooling for close to ten years now, and over that period I’ve seen very little sign of homeschoolers sitting back and letting anyone get away with abridging our right to homeschool. Within California, we’ve seen homeschoolers persuade a district administration which attempted to require independent homeschoolers to enroll in their public homeschooling program back off and apologize within ten days. We’ve seen independent homeschoolers support public program homeschoolers in their fights to save their programs from “bad-faith” (as the judge in the eventual court decision called them) state audits. We’ve seen truancy proceedings involving homeschooling issues become more and more rare (and in those few cases which do arise, we see homeschooling organizations quick to assist the affected families). We see attendance officers and other school district officials referring homeschooling inquiries to independent local and state homeschool organizations.

Homeschoolers are homeschoolers, no matter what legal option they use to pursue their own vision of home education. We don’t need to divide ourselves into yet another Us and Them, Real Homeschoolers and Pretend Homeschoolers. Independent homeschoolers and public program homeschoolers complement each other: However much we independent sorts may dislike the fact, public program homeschoolers give independent homeschoolers credibility—it’s difficult for school officials to promote the idea that homeschooling does not work when the public education system runs homeschooling programs of its own. However much they may distinguish their own programs on the basis of “professionalism” and “accountability,” the general public does not make such nice distinctions.

Public program homeschoolers need independent homeschoolers as well—for the leverage they provide. Independent homeschoolers give them the ability to walk away from a program that ceases to meet their needs. That ability to leave gives them power to keep public school homeschooling programs focused on the families enrolled in them, which is what most of us want from whichever homeschooling options we choose.

So now I’m working up a mini-sermon of my own. It’s probably just as much a fantasy as the one I dislike so much, but it’s a lot more fun (and considerably closer to the world I find myself in):

Homeschooling is more and more popular these days, which is a threat to government schooling. The public schools have responded to this threat by creating their own homeschooling programs, complete with resources, teachers, extracurricular activities, meeting facilities, and cash reimbursement for “approved educational expenses.” Many independent homeschoolers, as well as quite a few families from conventional classroom programs, enroll in these public homeschooling programs. Some stay for years; others choose to try independent homeschooling within only a year or two. Successful, long-existing homeschool support groups carry on much as they have for years, welcoming those interested in their services, as do private homeschooling programs. School administrators and other government officials, unable to avoid recognizing the obvious success of homeschooling, in whichever form it takes, begin to look more closely at the ideas which make homeschooling work so well, and toy with introducing some of those ideas into conventional public school classrooms. (Well, it could happen.) Gradually, all forms of homeschooling-public, private, and independent-become part of a growing array of educational choices.

And the moral to my fable? Real Homeschoolers Use Whichever Program They Think Works Best for Them.

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