While Helen sits on the shore with her six-year-old son in her lap reading about pollywogs, her nine-year-old daughter is wading out into the shallows to collect a bucket of river water. Later, the three of them will test the water's pH and inspect for macro-invertebrates. For today, this shore is Helen's children's schoolroom; everyday, Helen is their teacher. In the eyes of those unsympathetic to home-schooling, Helen's a renegade. Without a teaching credential, Helen could actually be a lawbreaker.
This February, Justice H. Walter Croskey of the Second District Court of Appeal in Los Angeles ruled that parents had to be credentialed teachers in order to home-school their own children, or risk prosecution. In his ruling, he called upon a statute of the California Education Code that states, "[A]ll children between the ages of 6 and 18 must attend a public full-time day school unless otherwise exempted."
"I think it's pretty ridiculous," says mother Jelehla Ziemba. She home-schooled her son and daughter until high school; they now attend UC Davis and the University of Puget Sound. "First of all, our children do not belong to the state, so it has no right to dictate how they should be educated," Ziemba says. "The state recognizes this truth, which is why it doesn't try to tell private schools that their teachers must be credentialed. Additionally, the excellent experience of thousands of home-schooled and unschooled children tells us that a credential is not necessary for teaching out of the classroom."
One thing's clear. Judge Croskey stepped into touchy territory as he tried to define the role of education in our society, writing in his judgment, "A primary purpose of the educational system is to train schoolchildren in good citizenship, patriotism and loyalty to the state and the nation as a means of protecting the public welfare."
Who's to say what the primary purposes of education are? How much freedom should families have in determining what their children learn and how? And finally, if private schools may employ teachers without credentials, why can't parents teach their own children without one?
In California, there are an estimated 166,000 children learning in a vast variety of home-school settings, and the number is increasing 7 to 12 percent a year nationally. With such a trend, it's no wonder that Judge Croskey's ruling has launched a debate concerning not only the accountability but also the value of home-schooling in general. Not surprisingly, Sonoma, Napa and Marin counties lead the state in numbers of home-schooled children.
"It is my opinion that noncredentialed teachers are, in many cases, better able to teach than credentialed teachers," says Dawn Martin, coordinator of Christian Home Educators of Rohnert Park. She has home-schooled her four children—now in grades one, four, seven and eight—for the past nine years. "As statistics in California prove, the credentialed teachers in this state have done less than a poor job. I think parents are wonderfully suited to teach their own children, in part because they know them so well. They can choose the teaching style best adapted to their child and move on when the student is ready, and not be held back by 29 others."
The case at the heart of this ruling involves Phillip and Mary Long, who came before the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services on charges of having physically abused two of their eight children. Enrolled in Sunland Christian School, a private religious academy in Sylmar, Los Angeles County, the children were taught at home by their mother, who has no teaching credential. This, the courts ruled, put the family in violation of the law.
As evinced in the Long case, there are laws on the books to protect children from physical or emotional harm, but how can we ensure that they are receiving an adequate education in the absence of some sort of accountability? How can private and public interests be balanced?
"A credential isn't an absolute assurance of caliber, but it's so far the only way of checking the qualifications of a teacher. When a parent is teaching, there's no way of verifying what he or she is teaching or how well," says Grace Larsen, a retired academic dean at College of Holy Names, who served six years on the Western Association of Schools and Colleges accreditation committee.
"Home-schoolers need some sort of oversight, a board of representatives, including parents, educators and others. Just as with the U.S. democracy—which, in my opinion, right now isn't working as well as it might—it's still the best we have: a public majority that helps temper individual interests and allows for transparency."
For some, it's exactly the public majority who's to be feared. They feel that matters within the home should be free from public judgment. There's very little that raises the ire of a parent more than a governmental edict concerning childrearing. Witness the recent maelstrom caused by California's proposed ban on spanking.
"I trust home-school parents more than the state to decide what is important for their kids' education," says Susie Miller, chairperson of Sonoma County Homeschoolers Association. Miller unschools her three children under the auspices of the private institution she established in her home, Three Boys Farm School. "The state is only interested in numbers, and it's failing miserably at reaching its own goals," Miller charges. "It's basically a freedom of speech issue. Democracy. My issues with the state of education are some of the main reasons I home-school my kids—to get out from under the oversight of the state. I am the best judge for my own family."
Judge Croskey's recent ruling calls more than just home-schoolers' accountability into question; it's opened a discussion about the value of, and reasons for, home-schooling itself. These reasons seem motivated equally by the particular virtues of home-based, personalized education and the growing perception that mainstream public schools are failing our children.
"I wish to spend more time with [my daughter]; childhood is so fleeting!" says Penny Winett, whose daughter divides her time between home and classes at Harmony Blend School, which combines classroom instruction with home-schooling. "I am able to give her my full attention, work with her at her own level, offer her space to 'think out of the box,' nurture her individuality and shelter her a bit from negative influences which are so prevalent in our school systems today."
Tamara, a mother who runs a private school for her two children, ages 11 and four, in her home and prefers her last name not be used, keeps a running list of reasons why the sacrifice is worth it: "Learning at the pace needed to master a subject before moving on; exploring in-depth areas of interest; regular field trips to see subjects firsthand; a smorgasbord of never-ending extracurricular opportunities; not having the pressure of competing with other students clouding their focus; not having to deal daily with the politics of cliques, what who is wearing, who likes whom."
Other parents talk about home-schooling as the best way to meet their children's particular needs. They have withdrawn their children from mainstream programs to celebrate the very differences that in a public school setting would be considered problematic.
"I had two miserable years of experience with public school with my first child," says Madeline Schnapp. "My son was an extremely bright child put in classes with 32 to 34 kids. He was rambunctious and couldn't sit still. The solution that was offered to us was 'drug him.' Home-school allowed us to create an environment in which we could combine academics with lots of movement. My son is now attending a top four-year college and doing well." Schnapp teaches history and economics to her 14-year old daughter, who is enrolled at Orchard View, an independent home-study program, and who takes additional courses through the Santa Rosa Junior College, at a local theater and with private tutors.
A similar desire motivated Hilary Avalon, whose child now is also enrolled at Orchard View. "Our son is a 'square peg' and had trouble fitting in at school," she explains. "He is very advanced in some areas and lags behind his grade in others—typical 'uneven' development you will probably find in lots of home-schooled kids. The home school situation fits his needs much better."
With its increased focus on testing and stringent curricular emphasis on mathematics and English to the near exclusion of all other subjects, the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) has driven many parents out of the schools. Teacher Lisë Lopez says that among her colleagues in the Oakland public schools, it's familiarly called "No Child Left Standing." Lopez might have included teachers in that saying, as these new curricula are, in her words, "completely soul-sucking" for teachers. Lopez says that her former principal wanted his teachers to follow the set lesson plans so strictly that he could walk out of one fourth-grade class midsentence and have the sentence finished in the fourth-grade class next door.
"The federal government is too large and bureaucratic to effectively set rules for all 50 states and more than 100 million students," charges Madeline Schnapp. "Education should be the purview of each individual state. If an individual state fails to provide decent education for kids, the market will solve the problem and parents will seek educational opportunities elsewhere. The one-size-fits-all approach means that teachers now teach to a standard test and mediocrity rules."
Another way parents believe that schools are failing is that they are being increasingly run as corporations, with private interests dictating what is taught and how.
"I truly believe [this policy] is bankrupting the state of education financially, intellectually and morally," says the Sonoma County Homeschoolers Association's Miller. "It's a tragedy that lobbyists, politicians and large publishing companies control what our kids have to learn in school."
Contrast this with the concept at the foundation of unschooling, or student-led education, where there is no set curriculum. A child pursues her own interests, facilitated by parents and other teachers who recognize and encourage her, opening and relating each subject to others, following a more organic model.
"When we unschooled, we spent every waking moment learning." Jelehla Ziemba says, a sentiment repeated by other home-school parents. "My children learned to cook, sew, do laundry, make change, draw, paint, sculpt, sing, play music, skate, do gymnastics and dance. Oh, and along the way, they learned to read and write and do math, [as well as learn] about history, vampires, agriculture, iron-working, government, health, etcetera."
Felicia Malone, 14, agrees. "You can go at your own pace, instead of being hustled along with the majority. For example, math was one of my weaker subjects, and in school I was falling behind at a very fast rate. Once I started home-schooling, I was able to focus on where I needed help and on my interests. I love creative writing, and I have the opportunity to write much more. My passion is musical theater, which involves voice, dance and acting. I take classes in each of these subjects, which I would never have time to do if I were in high school."
Parents are also dismayed by the exaggerated importance given to standardized testing. Used for calculating each school's Academic Performance Index and for determining whether elementary and middle schools are making Adequate Yearly Progress, they are directly linked to monetary and incentive awards. People object not only to the time it takes to administer these tests, but to the notion of "teaching to the test," which has less concern for context or the applicability of concepts than it does student test performance.
"Standardized testing shows more of what a child doesn't know than what he does know," Miller says. "Many children have expertise and ability in many subject areas that they cannot demonstrate on a test because of language barriers, reading ability, fine motor control or other factors. In addition, the way people are now teaching to the test and the rewards they are given when their kids do well or better is immoral and further invalidates the results."
Carol Rogers co-directs the home-study program at Orchard View in Sebastopol. Because the school is a public charter school accredited and funded by the state of California, it must be NCLB-compliant. "Administrators and teachers spend an enormous amount of time administering STAR tests, yet there is value in seeing students' strengths and weaknesses," Rogers says. "I think that the tests are more an indicator of the school's success than the students'. Unfortunately, we all have to take tests in life, so it is a chance for students to have exposure to this process. But I would like to see tests either be made shorter or administered less often."
But what about home-schooled students who are not enrolled in such an umbrella group? Without a school's testing or structured methods of evaluating either a teacher's effectiveness or a student's progress, is another form of oversight necessary to ensure a home-schooled student gets a solid education?
"The only supervision/oversight that is important to me is God's," says Dawn Martin. "I feel that if I am following what God dictates for us—which is to submit to the laws of the country and respect its leaders—and if the kids are learning and growing as members of society, we are doing well."
Home-school students score higher on standardized tests overall than the state average. The most recent U.S. Department of Education study reports that "the average SAT score for home-schoolers in 2000 was 1100, compared with 1019 for the general population." And for many, home-schooling spells success. Danville home-schooler Evan O'Dorney was the 2007 champion of the Scripps National Spelling Bee. This year's third runner-up and 12 percent of all contestants are home-schooled. It may be a chicken-and-egg situation, though: it's unclear whether home-schooling helps students excel or whether higher achievers are opting to home-school, causing a kind of brain drain along with the drain of funds from public schools. But that's another story.
In response to the outcry from parents and educators, the California Court of Appeals granted a motion to rehear the case either this month or in July, which has temporarily rendered the ruling nonbinding. Attorney General Jerry Brown and Gov. Schwarzenegger have filed amicus curiae briefs in support of the appeal. They've been joined by several other groups, including the ACLU, American Center for Law and Justice, the Western Center for Law and Policy, the California Homeschool Network, the Christian Home Educators Association of California and the HomeSchool Association of California. The decision should be delivered by the end of the summer, just as many are returning to school. Of course, for the 166,000-plus California home-schoolers, school never lets out.
"My opinion is a parent has the absolute right to be the one to raise their children, period," says Tamara, the mother who created her own school for her two kids. "There may be some circumstances that parents' rights need to be infringed upon if they are being abusive to their children but beyond those truly rare exceptions, parents need to be able to examine their goals for their family and look at what is best for their children in alignment with their values and what they want their children to experience.
"The right to educate one's child in the way they see best should be a core right of any parent."
Pathway Charter School, 607 Bobelaine Drive, Santa Rosa.
707.573.6117. [ http://www.pathways.schoolengine.com ]www.pathways.schoolengine.com.
Orchard View School, 700 Water Trough Road, Sebastopol.
California Homeschool Network,
Sonoma County Homeschool Association,
Marin Homeschool Families,
MindExplorers in Napa,
Christian Home Educators of Rohnert Park, 707.591.0421.
Napa Valley Home Educators, Sandy Bailey. 707.252.0272.—A.Y.