COMMENTARY: Home schooling becomes a choice, not a cause

c. 1999 Religion News Service

(Dale Hanson Bourke is publisher of RNS.)

UNDATED _ In the beginning, home-schoolers got no respect.

They were labeled reactionaries, extremists, fundamentalists _ and that was mostly by their churchgoing brethren.

The rest of the world simply called them nuts and charged that their children would receive poor education and inadequate socialization.

But over the past 20 years home schooling has grown in legitimacy. It is now legal in every state and has an association and more than one magazine. It has spawned an industry of products and services.

And with the recent spate of public school violence, parents who once criticized home schooling are now jumping on board. In fact, the numbers are growing so rapidly they are creating a crisis in some school districts where the number of student enrollments for the fall is no longer predictable.

But will this new group of home-schoolers be able to live up to the standards of the pioneers of the movement?

The current opportunities for home schooling exist because a group of primarily evangelical Christians fought court battles, legislative red tape and social pressures in order to guarantee the right to educate children at home. For years it was a cause as much as a choice.

As Chris Klicka, senior counsel for the Home School Legal Defense Association, puts it,"They had fire in the belly to fight for the freedom to home-school." Many of those parents were upset because what the schools were teaching their children contradicted their own beliefs. They objected to the teaching of evolution and sex education that assumed sexual activity. Some also felt that the social pressures were unhealthy for their children.

Today when Klicka speaks at conventions or is interviewed on the radio, he finds a growing number of people interested in home schooling do not come from an evangelical background.

Many have begun to consider home schooling because they are disappointed with the education their children receive. A recent study found that the 1.5 million children who are home-schooled each year score an average of one grade level above their counterparts in public and private schools.

Children educated at home have a more flexible daily and annual schedule, allowing families to take vacations at off-peak times and children more opportunity to pursue other interests. Most families can home-school in half the time children spend in a traditional classroom setting.

Klicka, who wrote"The Right Choice"(Noble, 1995) about home schooling, says,"Home schooling is for anybody but not for everybody." In recent months, his organization has had a 20 percent increase in inquiries by people who are exploring the home schooling option.

Laurie Schraml of Silver Spring, Md., educated her son at home for a year when she grew dissatisfied with both the public and private school options in her area. Even though she has been a teacher and has two education degrees, she said it was hard at first."The first three weeks were really tough. My son had to get used to seeing me in a different role. But after that, it was wonderful." He returned to a private school because he missed his peer group, but Schraml says,"I'd do it again in a minute." Schraml says that with the Internet resources, video curricula and home school programs available, most families should be able to design a program to educate a child at home.

But should they?

A debate continues in the Christian community over the role of the Christian in society."What happens if we take all the kids who love the Lord out of the public school?"asks Steve Haas, a Denver parent."Christians are called to be salt and light to the world, not to keep to themselves." And the growing number of Christian schools popping up around the country represents another option for parents who want more control over their children's education. Educators in these schools believe they offer a more consistent education to students than home schooling represents.

My own views of home schooling have changed over the years. Once skeptical, I'm impressed by the test results and convinced that there are ways to socialize kids who aren't in a school environment.

But my children have had the privilege of learning from great teachers, enjoying vast educational resources and developing proficiencies in sports. They also have learned a great deal from going to school with kids who hold very different views from their own. I don't think I could improve on that experience.

Yet many parents aren't as fortunate. So to those who choose to home-school, I offer my respect. And to the many who fought to make home schooling an option, I offer overdue congratulations.

Even those of us who don't choose to home-school are challenged by the example of home schoolers and reminded that a parent's role is critical to a child's education.

Eds: For more information about home schooling, check out the Home School Legal Defense Association at http://www.hslda.org or call (540) 338-5600.

AMB END BOURKE