Commentary | Education

Lessons—Augmenting a Home-School Education

These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.


Augmenting a Home-School Education

By Richard Rothstein

HELENA, Mont. — About 2 percent of American students are now taught at home. Educators are confused about how this growing practice should be regulated, and also wonder whether children who are not fully enrolled in school should nonetheless get some public services. The issue shows how blurred the line between public and private education can become, even when that private education is delivered at home.

Probably about half the parents who teach at home are religiously motivated and use lessons by mail (or Internet) from church schools. Perhaps an additional fourth have philosophical doubts about public education, think schools are unsafe or feel that their children have special needs that regular schools don’t meet. In some cases, parents home- school to evade compulsory education; they do minimal teaching while having older children care for siblings or work in home businesses.

Although children often learn well at home, weak regulations in most states mean that officials rarely challenge or monitor parents who say they are home-schooling. With growing frequency, however, public schools offer services to the home-schooled. Districts may permit them to enroll part time, for instance; educators fear that otherwise these children could later return full time with serious academic weaknesses, and in any case some districts wanting to qualify for state aid can benefit from part-timers filling empty seats.

Here in Helena, Mary Brown has taught her 12 children at home while manufacturing clothing there in her nonteaching hours. Mrs. Brown says her motive is to give more training in basics (like phonics) than public schools offer. Most of her curriculum is from a church school, with tests returned by mail.

Two years ago her seventh child, Andrea, wanting to join regular athletic programs, enrolled at Capital High School. Andrea soon changed her mind and resumed home study. But she had liked gym and chorus, so Mrs. Brown asked that she be allowed to continue in them while taking other courses at home.

The school board then voted to permit home- and private-school students to attend public school part time. About a dozen do so. Andrea, now a junior, is taking chorus and pottery; others take French, English, chemistry or math courses that parents don’t feel able to teach or that private schools don’t offer.

Some board members feared an exodus in which a flood of regular students would take only some classes and claim to be studying the rest at home. The worry turned out to be unfounded.

Bruce Messinger, Helena’s superintendent of schools, said he had supported Mrs. Brown’s request, partly to get more state aid but also to unite the community, keeping the 5 percent of Helena students in private- school or home settings from being seen as a separate camp.

Julie Mitchell, the board’s chairwoman, noted that the policy let the district expand its efforts to serve the needs of individual students. For instance, Helena, like many districts, already had dropouts gaining diplomas through independent study. Other students attend an alternative school with mental health services and fewer students per teacher.

The Helena experience is one of the varied accommodations made to home schooling nationwide. Montana asks home-schooling parents to register but regulates no further. Nebraska requires them to be qualified teachers. Maryland home-schoolers must file study plans, which districts evaluate to ensure nominal conformity with public school standards.

Iowa requires parents teaching at home to give standardized exams or hire a regular teacher to test proficiency; parents of children who fall in the bottom 30 percent must file a remediation plan or seek help from a public school. In Des Moines, teachers will visit home-schooled students every two weeks to offer advice if parents request it; each teacher serves about 45 students, and the district gets state aid for the program.

Every state now recognizes a right to teach at home. To bind the community together, as Dr. Messinger said, it seems wise to let home-schooled children come to public schools for chorus or chemistry lab.

But where should lines be drawn?

In California, home-schoolers organized into a charter school to get state funds.

And Andrea Brown is now taking a home biology course in which the teaching of evolution is optional. Should Helena be rounding out the home program of students like Andrea with attractive in-school electives, giving them an incentive to remain at home and evade standard curriculums, whether for religious reasons or out of simple neglect?

There are many controversies – about charter schools, vouchers, federal aid, private contractors or home schooling – where lines between public and private education have become fuzzy. The reason is that there is no consensus about how private education, whether in institutions or in homes, should be regulated. While accountability in public education grows, so do quasi-private options – like home schooling – with little accountability. That contradiction has yet to be addressed.

Return to the Education Column Archive

See related work on Education

See more work by Richard Rothstein