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A Course for Home Schools

October 24, 2002

Home schoolers, rest assured: The state Education Department is looking to fix your problem, despite the lack of evidence that you have one. The department recently created a statewide furor with its memo saying that unless parents had a teaching credential or were affiliated with a public school, they were "outside the law" in teaching their kids at home.

The department ostensibly is acting to save children from inept parent teachers. It doesn't know of any troubled home schools, you understand. But even if it did, there are better ways to go about this.

Home schooling is spreading beyond the hippies who revived the age-old tradition, and the religious fundamentalists who repopularized it, to moms and dads who are simply unhappy with public schools and cannot afford or don't want a private school.

Perhaps they move every couple of years; teaching at home provides continuity. They might have bright, creative children who were bored by the plodding pace at public schools, which focus more on bringing up the underachievers than on challenging the gifted. Their offspring might be social outcasts in the conformist world of campus cliques. Whatever the reasons, a 1999 report by the National Center for Education Statistics estimated the number of home-schooled children at 850,000.

What's the California Education Department's problem with this? Officials say they're simply reminding people about the compulsory-education law: From ages 6 to 18, children must get a public education unless they attend private school or have a credentialed tutor -- thus the credential requirement for parents. The natural reaction to this demand is a snigger. Isn't this the state where one in seven public school teachers lacks a full credential?

For decades, home schoolers in California have registered as private schools, which don't need credentialed teachers, can have any number of students and can teach by almost any method. The Education Department does nothing to stop the home schools but insists they're illegal. Its argument: There's no law specifically allowing a home school to be considered a private school. True enough. There's also no law forbidding it.

The edict comes off as harsh and arbitrary. Officials admit they have no reason to think parents do a worse job of teaching than the many nine- or 12-student private schools across the state. They probably do better in many cases, given that parents, as a rule, care more about their own children than do the most caring strangers.

State schools chief Delaine Eastin decries their lack of supervision. But home schoolers seek out more help than ever before. In addition to the 85,000 who affiliate with public or charter schools, thousands more attend national conferences, join support groups and consult the Internet.

The state is right about one thing: Though home-school wunderkind stories abound, the public is less likely to hear about the child who sits home watching "Springer." Home schooling is sorely in need of objective, scholarly study.

Pennsylvania takes care of the compulsory-education issue by requiring occasional testing for home-schooled children and annual portfolios of their work. Texas, on the other hand, lets such schools operate with virtually no oversight. A middle way might work for California. Parents could file a portfolio or an education plan with an independent commission. That makes more sense than turning them into outlaws.

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