“The very nature, language and essence of homeschooling are being challenged and even co-opted by a vast array of emerging educational programs which may be based in the home, but are funded by government dollars, bringing inevitable government controls.”—www.westandforhomeschooling.org, part of the “We Stand for Homeschooling” Statement and Resolution urging that anyone enrolled in a corporate or government-sponsored home study program not be referred to as a homeschooler.
All right—just to make things perfectly clear at the start, I’ve been an independent homeschooling parent throughout my children’s entire educational lives. We’ve never used a public school homeschooling program, nor a charter school, nor a cyberschool. We’ve never used a packaged curriculum, nor hired the services of an advisory teacher or an umbrella school. I’ve never seen any such program that appealed to me in the slightest detail, and have often been appalled by many. When I’m asked—whether by acquaintances in my local area or by perfect strangers at conferences where I speak—I encourage families to go the independent route. I also encourage families who have continuing difficulties with programs they’ve enrolled in to forgo the interminable frustrations and go the independent route.
So why not sign this “We Stand for Homeschooling” statement? If I see government- or corporate-sponsored programs as close to worthless, what’s the problem? Why shouldn’t I object to them being called homeschool programs or those enrolled in them being called homeschoolers?
My first objection is that, to be perfectly truthful, I’ve never been a homeschooling parent myself, and my children have never been homeschoolers.
You see, I live in California. According to the California Education Code, there are no such people as homeschoolers. There are students enrolled in public schools. There are students enrolled in private schools. And there are students who are tutored privately by credentialed teachers.
So who in California can we legitimately call a homeschooler? Clearly, students who attend large conventional schools are not homeschoolers. And the kids who go every day to a local parochial school or to the nearest Waldorf school are not homeschoolers. But those of us who consider ourselves independent homeschoolers in fact also run private schools, just as the local diocese runs its schools. In the sixteen years I’ve followed the homeschooling movement, I’ve never had anyone argue that I was not a homeschooling parent, despite the fact that my daughters actually attended a very small, very exclusive, very local private school.
I’ve also known many so-called independent homeschoolers who were in fact enrolled in private schools with enrollments of 600 or 700 or more, where the parents directed their kids’ education and the private school simply kept what records the parents provided. And I’ve known families enrolled in less relaxed private schools, whose homeschooling programs had more stringent requirements than many public charter schools.
So where should we draw the line? How big does a private school have to be for its students to cease being homeschoolers? Or does it have more to do with the content and style of the program than mere size? If the school mandates curriculum, is it then not a homeschooling program? If the school is a franchise operation that purchases its curriculum from a national corporation, is it then not a homeschooling program? What if it’s a stand-alone, independent home-based program designed for homeschooling families that buys materials from several different multinational corporations? Where should we draw that line?
And what about that private school’s funding? If I run an umbrella school for my own kids and two other homeschooling families, are we still homeschoolers? What if we’re twenty-five families? What if I charge enough to cover my expenses and a little extra for my time? If I make even a tiny profit, are we then no longer homeschoolers? Would it make a difference whether I had three kids enrolled or 75? What if I more than cover my expenses but am incorporated as a non-profit?
And then there are the public programs. In California, there have been public school programs used by homeschoolers for at least a couple of decades, long before charter schools started popping up all over the place. Mostly they were in rural counties, places where bad roads or ornery back-to-the-landers made enforcing school attendance difficult, and several school districts worked more or less amicably with families to develop ways for the families to learn at home while still satisfying the state’s compulsory attendance requirements. Many never gave a thought to whether they were homeschoolers or not, but some of those ornery back-to-the-landers ended up working with other families to develop homeschool support groups, and became heavily involved with the homeschooling movement. Maybe we shouldn’t have been calling them homeschoolers all these years.
And what about the mixed families? They’re not all that uncommon—the family with one kid in a conventional public school, one in a public homeschooling charter, two homeschooling independently (in an exceedingly exclusive 2-student private school), and one in a private cyberschool designed for homeschoolers. Is this a homeschooling family? If their mix of options changes over the years as their needs and wishes change, does their homeschooling status change as well?
Now every state has its own statutory peculiarities, and none is exactly like California. But every state has a variety of programs which involve families teaching their children at home, and the task of distinguishing among them is more complicated that it seems at first glance.
Drawing the line between who should be called homeschoolers and who should not can be complicated enough, but there’s an even more difficult problem to deal with: Who gets to draw the line? Who gets to decide on the standards for distinguishing real homeschoolers from faux homeschoolers? While there’s no way I’d want to have to draw that line myself, I can’t think of anyone else I’d be willing to let do it, either.
But even if there was someone I’d trust to label homeschoolers real and faux, I wouldn’t want it done. I know too many families who’ve struggled with conventional public and private schools and just happened to hear of a public independent study program that might better suit their kids. I’m not about to tell those families who are suddenly thrilled to discover more flexible options for their kids that they can’t call themselves homeschoolers. From their own perspective, they are making decisions for themselves and taking control of their kids’ education. Just because they’re starting on the path and haven’t yet come as far as we think they should is no good reason for us to look askance at their choice.
Mostly, I think, the homeschooling movement is suffering from fear of its own success. Thirty years ago, we worked to make homeschooling recognized as a legal option in every state. Twenty years ago we worked to make homeschooling recognized as an effective educational choice. More recently, we’ve worked to encourage the public to think of homeschooling as a normal—even mainstream—educational choice. We’ve seen cover stories on homeschooling in national newsmagazines, we’ve heard overwrought pundits discuss homeschooling on cable news shows, and we’ve seen school districts and educational publishers and former secretaries of education fall all over themselves to get in on all the homeschooling action.
But with all the growth in numbers and attention, the homeschooling movement is changing, and we’re not entirely comfortable with that change. Homeschooling is taking many new forms, some of which we never expected. We miss, perhaps, the days when the homeschooling community was a small pond, when those of us who were active in state groups found each other online, when it seemed like everybody knew everybody else. We’re having a hard time coping with the fact that businesses see homeschooling as a venue for making money and that schools see homeschooling as encroaching on their territory. We see lots of new people coming to homeschooling—or to what they think homeschooling must be—and we wonder at their failure to understand what homeschooling really is, when it’s only that what they find in homeschooling is different from what we once imagined it would be.
So what do we do when we dislike so much of what we see in this new homeschooling juggernaut we’ve created? How do we make sure that the essence of what we see as homeschooling—the independence, the self-reliance, the creativity, the trust in ourselves and our children—survives all the political shenanigans and the corporate interlopers? What can we do to defend what we value most in homeschooling?
What we don’t do is draw lines. We don’t exclude anybody who wants to homeschool. We don’t point our fingers and say, “Those are not homeschoolers. Those we don’t want on our playground.”
What we do is what we’ve done for years. We keep talking about learning, about what we’ve learned about learning, and about trusting ourselves and our children. We learn to extend that trust to all those new homeschoolers—any who consider themselves homeschoolers—and trust that eventually they too will move beyond the glitzy packages and the flashy programs to discover the freedom that makes homeschooling worth defending. We demonstrate by our experience and our example (and of course, by the examples of our children) that homeschooling is neither the location nor the content—homeschooling is the process, and the process never ends.
You didn’t think it would be easy, did you?