LONG BEACH — It's Friday afternoon on a school day and life is abuzz.
At the downtown headquarters of the Long Beach Unified School District, administrators are pushing pencils and chairing meetings. Over at Minnie Gant Elementary School on the east side, children are bent over their workbooks.
But across the street at Whaley Park, an activity of a different sort is taking place. Here the members of Sherrie Sanders' home schoolers support group--both parents and children--are holding their monthly meeting. While most of the city's youngsters fidget in classrooms, these 15 children sit on the grass watching their mothers compare notes.
Mostly fundamentalist Christians, the parents have withdrawn their children from public schools, preferring to go it alone. Their reasons range from objections to what they call the system's "humanistic" and "Godless" approach to teaching, to the sincere belief that they alone are responsible for their children's educations. Equipped with book-strewn kitchen tables and living room blackboards, they hold their classes at home.
School officials from Long Beach to Sacramento consider most of them outlaws. But in their own minds they are simply parents who have found a better way, American citizens exercising an inalienable, Constitutional right to determine what goes into their children's heads.
'We're Not Weirdos'
"We want people to know that we're not weirdos," said Sanders, 29, who estimates that as many as 60 families in Long Beach and perhaps 400 throughout the county have chosen to teach their children at home. "If our children fail, we can't blame (the school)."
But Delbert Royer, a consultant for the Los Angeles County Office of Education who specializes in attendance and administrative services counters: "The bottom line is that they are violating the law."
On one thing both agree: Home schooling is a burgeoning national movement that is challenging some of the basic assumptions on which public education is based.
To understand how, one must know the law. According to the California Compulsory Education Act, Californians are required to attend school full time from age 6 to 16.
A handful of exemptions are provided for those not wishing to attend public schools. Students may be educated at home by personal tutors, provided the tutors have the appropriate teaching credentials. Or they may attend a private school, if the school is legally recognized by the state.
To become legally recognized, a school simply must file an affidavit with the county Office of Education and therein lies the rub. Throughout California and the nation, private schools are springing up that are schools in name only--legal addresses which, for fees averaging $12 to $40 a month, will keep a family's attendance and performance records, thus providing a supposedly legal umbrella under which the parents can continue teaching their children at home.
"All they are doing is encouraging people to violate the law," Royer said. "There is nothing in the state Education Code that allows this."
No Attendance Requirements
Bill Norton, head of Torrance's South Bay Baptist Academy at which a number of Long Beach children are enrolled, sees the matter differently. For $12 per student per month, his organization will keep records, suggest curriculum and offer weekly recreational or craft-related activities. But the academy's 100 students are not required to attend class. Most of their parents do not have teaching credentials. And though the children are periodically tested for academic achievement, Norton says there is no minimum performance standard to which they are held.
"(Our program) allows people to raise their children in knowing the Lord and knowing their faith. The public schools don't have any better answers than anyone else," said Norton, an ordained minister who resigned as pastor of the South Bay Baptist Church in November due, in part, to what he describes as criticisms of his educational endeavors.
Some parents don't even bother enrolling their kids in umbrella-type organizations.
Donna Voetee, who withdrew her 11-year-old daughter from a Long Beach elementary school last October because of what she called the Satanic effect of the school's Halloween decorations, says she eventually plans to file an affidavit naming her own home as a private school. Until she does, she says, she plans to continue personally teaching her daughter and a 5-year-old son without legal sanction, using a variety of materials she considers appropriate.
"We're using God's word and the newspaper and a set of books called the Christian History of the Constitution," said Voetee, who became well-known to the district last year after complaining about a film called "The Headless Cupid" which she considered occultist.