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Homeschooling: America's Hidden Breeding Ground for Conservative Ideology

Two million American families have opted out of state and private school systems to teach their children at home, often without qualifications.

I've never let my school interfere with my education. -- Mark Twain

The heart of middle America beats in Ohio, the state that won the 2004 US presidential election for George Bush. You might think that middle America, badly hit by the recession, would be fertile ground for leftwing ideas -- but no. Conservative ideology is flourishing.

The Tomkins family live in the Hocking River Valley, a former mining area. It resonates with birdsong and their house has a fountain and a pet tortoise. It also has a surprising living room that has been transformed into a documentary resource centre. Although there is no blackboard among the book-covered walls, this room is a private classroom, one of thousands across the United States in which parents teach their own children. Welcome to homeschooling.

Two computers with broadband internet access stand on desks beside the bookshelves. "One of the principles of homeschooling is that when you don't know much about something you can be sure someone else out there does. There will always be a web user, another parent from the cooperative, or a text book author," explained Jane Tompkins, a former art history professor at the University of Athens, Georgia. She teaches Will, 12, and Becky, 15, every morning, replacing the oath of allegiance to the US constitution with a prayer and a reading from the Bible.

There is nothing revolutionary about this. The children sit during class, listen to the teacher and do their homework. The only visible difference from conventional education is that Will, Becky and two other students, children of a Catholic neighbour, do not get marks, they work at their own rhythm and may interrupt the lesson at any time. Their course is largely based on the traditional curriculum and has been put together to suit the mother's competence and the children's desires, which include piano lessons, history, science, maths and writing.

Champions of homeschooling, whether to the left or the right (both exist), argue that the main advantage is the decompartmentalisation of teaching and learning. Education is everywhere at all times, morning to night, weekends and on holiday. Homeschoolers are proliferating, armed with books bought via the internet or by correspondence, federated into self-governed cooperatives of families with similar ideals, registered on blogs, websites or reflection groups. They are found not only in the US but also in the UK, France, New Zealand, Australia and Canada.

Jane Tomkins is a middle-class Christian who decided to remove her children from the state school because of its "bad influence". That argument is at the core of the movement. Schools, even private schools, are deemed to be harmful because of the poor values they transmit: their "progressive dogma", social diversity, lack of discipline, sex education and pro-abortion stances threaten the balanced development of Christians.

Hostage-taking and shootings in high schools and on university campuses have reinforced this vision of school as dangerous. Parents prefer to take over everything themselves for fear of losing their grip on their children. Leftwing homeschoolers, whom Jane Tompkins calls hippies, have different concerns. They fear that schools will transmit patriotic and bureaucratic principles to docile young minds and inculcate them with consumer values.

In 1994, a year after homeschooling was legalised in all 50 US states, the eldest Tompkins child returned shocked from school and told her mother about the swearwords she had heard in the playground. A few days earlier Jane Tompkins had heard a weekly broadcast by a well-known evangelist, Dr James Dobson, from Focus on the Family. "At the time I thought only hippies did homeschooling," she said, "but he explained that, with the help of text books and manuals and family cooperatives, it was quite possible to take over children's schooling." She decided to follow his advice and removed her daughter from the state school.

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