Parents have more choices than ever about how to educate their kids. Yet despite the growth in options ranging from vouchers to charter schools, more parents are opting to do it themselves. Here’s a look at the expansion in numbers – and philosophy – of homeschooling.
Thea Shoemake finds it kind of amusing when people ask her why she decided to homeschool her kids.
“My joke, the first thing I like to say when people are a bit skeptical is, ‘socialization,’ Shoemake said. “Because that’s usually the argument against it. ‘Oh well, you know what about socialization?’ You know I’d be lying to you if I said that wasn’t one of the main reasons they’re home schooled because I have no problem picking their peer group when they’re 5, 6, 7.”
Shoemake directs the Cincinnati campus of Classical Conversations, a Christian homeschooling group.
They meet once a week with both students and parents for a full day of classes. Shoemake says their goal is to teach parents how to educate their children, not what to teach them.
“It does provide a lot of structure, we call it the skeleton, but then it also opens up to a lot of creativity dependent on for instance the type of learner you have,” Shoemake said.
Still, fundamentalist Christianity is an integral part of the curriculum at Classical Conversations.
Shoemake explained that “just as some secular approaches come to the material with a mind set, so do we. We have a biblical world view, we have a statement of faith and every family signs it whether they practice that particular faith or not.”
For the Shoemake’s, that world view includes teaching creationism and other Christian values, and exposing kids to things like evolutionary theory later on. They are part of the biggest group of homeschoolers in Ohio and nationally. As of 2007, 83 percent of homeschooling parents said they do it to provide religious or moral instruction.
But increasingly, that’s not the only reason people are opting to educate their kids at home. And in that, homeschooling may be coming full circle. Stanford University professor Rob Reich said that in the 60’s and 70’s, homeschooling was biggest among the leftist Berkeley unschoolers, “where the point was the let the blossoming child unfold itself without any adult institutional corruptions.”
Then, in the 80’s and 90’s, it gained popularity among the Christian right “where the purpose of homeschooling was to shield the child from exposure to anything toxic in the secular environment.”
But these days, he said computers have made curricula and school materials so easy to get that homeschooling has really taken off. Between 1999 and 2007, the National Center for Education Statistics estimates that homeschooling increased 74 percent.
According to Reich, all that access to information makes it harder to stereotype the “typical” homeschooler these days.
“The kinds of homeschoolers that get up and running are unschoolers, the Christian right, folks that think they have a genius on their hand and want to stimulate the kid at home as much as possible, people with odd tastes in the curricular packages they want to deliver their kids,” he said. “Homeschooling is a pretty diverse enterprise at this point.”
Concerns about school environments, things like bullying or gang problems, and a general dissatisfaction with other school choices are now common motivations for homeschooling.
Take for example Bailey DuBois. Her mom figured she could do a better job of teaching her kids than the public schools in Virginia Beach where they used to live, because “she liked the idea of personalizing the curriculum so the curriculum fit one child rather than fitting the child to the curriculum.”
All three kids in the DuBois family are homeschooled, and religion is most definitely not part of the curriculum. DuBois will be a freshman at Wittenberg University this fall. She hopes to double major in Chinese and geography to become an urban planner in China.
She loved home schooling, partly because “the days varied so much. It would usually begin with classes in the morning that are self-taught or just out of books, and then we’d have classes with other kids and then we’d go off and do our own programs.”
One of her favorite places to study is the small tree house in the backyard of her home in Northwest Canton.
What she didn’t love was the college application process, and the stereotypes she often faces. She says admissions representatives didn’t know much about homeschooling. Most asked her if she had any friends.
“It was like they had this really quaint idea of homeschooling like I was out on the prairie and spent my time at the wooden table and was milking cows the rest of the day. Like, of course I have friends,” DuBois said.
Stanford University professor Rob Reich said he’s not concerned with the socialization of home-schooled kids since “the purpose of providing school isn’t to make someone maximally social as if, you know, unless you can succeed in the fraternity or sorority down stream, schooling has failed you.”
But he is worried about the idea of students as citizens.
“Ensuring that students get to know people from differing background who will have very different views than the students have, but who are equals from the standpoint of citizenship.”
His other problem with homeschooling is that there is very little oversight. Virtually none nationwide, and it varies from little to none among states and even among school districts.
Ohio homeschooling parents are supposed to register with their local public school district. Then the parents and the local superintendent work together to figure out a way - if any – to keep in touch. The Ohio Department of Education estimates the state has 24,000 students. But beyond that guesswork, the department doesn’t do much to keep tabs on its homeschoolers.
Rob Reich said that’s a problem.
“Total parental authority without any potential check on parental authority is potential tyranny just like total state authority over children is potential tyranny.”
-Stanford University Professor Rob Reich
“That’s the state abdicating its responsibility to defend the independent interests of the child and establishes something close to complete parental authority over children. Which in itself isn’t a bad thing – parental authority is a good thing. But total parental authority without any potential check on parental authority is potential tyranny just like total state authority over children is potential tyranny.”
He points to cases where parents have beaten or starved their children, and where homeschooling was done to escape the scrutiny that could have exposed the abuse.
Of course he is quick to point out there are also good examples: the spelling bee winners and Harvard graduates. Oh, and the future Chinese urban planners.
This story is part two of our two-part look at how Ohio families are deciding to educate their children. For part two, on vouchers, click here.