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The Home Schooling Option

Lost in the debate over school choice is the rapidly growing home school movement. At last count, an estimated 2 million children, or about 4 percent of the total school-age population, were receiving their education in this setting. The number of children learning at home is expanding by 15 to 20 percent a year, according to the Department of Education.

Home schooling was in the news most recently in February, when a German family was granted asylum in the U.S. because home schooling is illegal in their native land. The Romeikes wanted to teach their five children in a different environment. Although Austria permits home schooling, which would have seemed the logical place for them to move, the family was instead encouraged to come here by the Home School Legal Defense Association.

That's because home schooling is legal in all 50 states, albeit with different requirements. Tennessee, where the Romeikes settled, for example, requires all families to notify educational authorities and administer periodic assessment tests. California, on the other hand, has no law that specifically addresses home schooling. A state appellate court in August 2008 clarified the issue by ruling that parents do not have to possess a teaching credential to legally educate their children.

Parents opt for home schooling for a number of reasons, including dissatisfaction with the curriculum, aversion to competition, and fear of violence and drugs. Concerns that home schooled children don't learn as much as they would in traditional schools are not borne out by their above-average scores on the SAT and ACT. Moreover, learning to socialize seems not to be a problem. A 2003 study by the National Home Education Research Institute found that home schoolers are happier and more engaged in their communities than are their traditionally educated peers.

The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld the right of parents to direct their children's education. Nevertheless, in 1983 only four states had laws that specifically permitted home education. But as disaffection with public schools grew, state legislatures responded accordingly. The movement soon began to be called "unschooling" by some because it rejects the basic foundations of traditional education, including classes, curriculums and textbooks.

Although home schooling is usually associated with white conservatism, it has appeal to black parents as well. According to the National Black Home Educators Resource Association, about 5 percent of the nation's home schooled children are black. In addition, contrary to widespread belief, only a minority of parents who home school their children cited religion as a primary factor in their decision. In fact, nonreligious families now make up more than 40 percent of the movement.

Home schooling is not right for all families by any means. For one thing, parents have to spend far more time in preparing lessons than they anticipated. For another, they have to arrange field trips (including transportation) to museums and other places of educational value on their own if they want to enrich instruction. Finally, they need to take steps to avoid the social isolation that too often is characteristic of home schooling.

The most recent reminder of the effort required appeared in a column in The Guardian on July 1 ("Parents haven't time to run free schools"). Although Susie Steiner was not referring specifically to home schooling but to what resembles charter schools in this country, parent-run schools in England make similar demands. As she put it: "Parents, especially working parents, are about as stretched as it's possible to be. And though they are often devoted and imaginative about their children's education, they rarely know better than the local authority education department."

Despite these caveats, home schooling is worthy of the same support given to other options because parents should be the final judge of the education their children receive. But remember that choice has consequences. This is the view I expressed in my post on June 30 ("A Proposal for School Choice").

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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