Homeschooling: America's Hidden Breeding Ground for Conservative Ideology

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.

Athens County is peaceful and the public schools are hardly the dens of iniquity evoked in the media. Nevertheless, the myth of playground depravity flourishes and has convinced hundreds of Christian families every year to remove their children from "the government's schools" with their "unstable environment" contaminated by "state ideology". About 100 pupils are taught by their parents in three of the county's five districts, against 3,700 pupils in state schools. That represents just less than 3 percent of children -- not a tidal wave, but not a number to ignore. The number of families overall who have removed their children from school (or refused to put them there) has tripled from 850,000 in 1999 to more than two million in 2006.For the past 10 years, John Colvins, 15, has studied in a five-family cooperative arrangement run by his devoted mother. He has never set foot in a school, but that does not prevent him from having pronounced views on it. "When you think that Mao and the Nazis used state schools to spread their propaganda, I think homeschooling is a good alternative," he said. For his younger brother Ben, homeschooling has the advantage of letting you "plan your own schedule and have a religious education". But their mother insists that religion was not the only reason. "We don't want the state to influence our children's ideology," was how Sharon Colvins summed it up. A former student from the University of Berkeley in California, turned libertarian, she wants to abolish the US department of education.

According to a 2006 survey by the department of education, 31 percent of parents who kept their children out of the school system, did so out of concern for the "the environment of other schools, such as safety, drugs or negative peer pressure". The second reason, for 30 percent of parents, was a desire to "provide their children with religious or moral instruction", while the third, for 16.5 percent of parents, was dissatisfaction with "the academic instruction available". Children with special needs (7 percent) or with physical or mental health problems (7 percent) were also mentioned.

Schools under fire

Schools were widely challenged at the end of the 1960s. In their 1975 book Better Late Than Early , the educationalists Raymond and Dorothy Moore, both rightwing Christians, summed up their research: schooling starts too early, it is detrimental for children physically, morally and intellectually, and bad for their socialisation. Children should not start school until they are between eight and 10, or even possibly 12.

At the same time, the left accused the educational system of propagating social inequality. Equal opportunity for accessing school and going through it was a sham as was the professed neutrality of schools. The movement denounced the arbitrary nature of the curriculum's cultural content and traditional teaching methods, querying the teacher-pupil relationship and its correlation with knowledge. Criticism of schooling became a condemnation of the principle of schools, their purpose and means, and ultimately their existence.

Ivan Illich (1926-2002), author of Deschooling Society, promoted similar ideas. He viewed school as a detention centre, to be replaced by educational possibilities in fluid, exchangeable "webs". Mandatory, extended schooling and the race for diplomas were false progress, which produced docile pupils, ready to consume programmes prepared by the authorities and to obey institutions.

In the US, these themes were taken up by the author and educationalist John Holt (1923-85), who in 1977 launched a bimonthly newsletter, Growing Without Schooling, to exchange educational practices among a few homeschoolers. Holt was one of the leftwing proponents of "unschooling".

No Child Left Behind

In the city of Athens, homeschoolers meet three or four times a month in the municipal library to give collective classes to their children. The youth services coordinator is Amy King, who removed her own daughter from public school in 2001. That was the year George Bush's No Child Left Behind act (NCLB) was passed with an overwhelming majority by both Democrats and Republicans. The law put schools in competition with each other, made access to private schools easier and instituted an education "market"fed by school vouchers. King believes that the standardised programmes that resulted from this "disastrous" law "made school more rigid and increased inequalities between pupils", establishing speed of learning as "the only educational criterion."

At the back of the library, Scott Grandy, 33, a musician, vegetable farmer and full-time dad, sat doing his accounts, while his daughters Jorah and Sorell did their stint as voluntary librarians. "Schools are cruel to force children to remain seated six hours a day. I want my daughters to live in an environment that leaves them free to learn what they want at the age they want," explained Scott, whose total annual revenue is barely $20,000. "At home there are always books on the table and we try to do either maths or writing, plus reading, music and artistic education every day. We also learn how to make bread and build miniature houses and have lessons in critical thinking."

Sorell, aged seven, explained how free she felt being taught by her parents. "I like being educated at home because I can learn what I want when I want. If I were at school I would have to stick to the curriculum and couldn't learn what I wanted to if it was scheduled two or three years later. And anyway I've got lots of friends who get taught at home like me, so I'm happy." Her parents have joined a group that meets up once a week. Religious believers call these cooperatives, non-believers call them groups. Their purpose is the same, to pool parents' knowledge and organise group lessons. Eight families belong to Scott Grandy's group, and he believes that "age is not a determining factor in social relations. Throughout life we learn as much from the young as from the old. In our group, the pupils are rather free and lack discipline. That recently led to one of the families withdrawing from the group because they found it too loose for their children. That is one of the problems we need to address. There is certainly a middle way between sitting and being silent all day and doing what you want, when you want. But questioning authority is a good thing."

Opponents of homeschooling stress the risks of under-socialisation of the children, and query the value of what is taught, since most homeschooler parents have never been trained in their subjects. Despite that, several studies have shown that the pupils are well prepared for the university system and rank their performance as above average. In 1998 University of Maryland professor Lawrence Rudner carried out a knowledge test on 20,760 home-educated children. He found the scores to be "exceptionally high" but these results should be seen in context. Homeschooling is a true vocation and parents devote all the means necessary to it, even if it means tightening their belts. State schools have been financially sacrificed for decades in the US, especially under Republican administrations.

Administrative procedures for parents wishing to teach their children are simple. In Ohio, they need only to have completed secondary education. Parents must notify the authorities at the beginning of the year, provide their intended curriculum and undertake to give their children at least 900 hours of classes during the school year. In Ohio, mandatory subjects include reading, pronunciation, writing, geography (of the US and the state of Ohio), civics, maths, science, health and fire prevention.

The civil servants from the department of education do not judge the content of the curriculum but will check one year later that it was actually taught. However, in the absence of any testing there is no obstacle to claiming that a subject was taught even if was not. According to the critical headmaster of a high school, "In theory, people could keep their children away from school quite legally, pretend to teach them at home and do nothing all year."

Homeschooling was legalised in the US in 1993 after intense lobbying by the Home Schooling Legal Defence Association, an evangelical organisation of 80,000 families. Regulations vary between states and while they are very free in Florida and Texas, where parents don't even need to declare their intent to the authorities, they are more stringent in North Dakota, Pennsylvania and California. On 8 May this year, a California court of appeal ruling clamped down on parents without teaching credentials; 166,000 homeschoolers became illegal and parents liable for criminal prosecution.

Mike Smith, president of the Home School Legal Defence Association, immediately took up the defence of the "fundamental right to educate one's kids" in California. "In the 49 other US states, parents may function as private schools. The obligation to be trained teachers is not laid down in the constitution." He referred to a poll by Ellison Research in Phoenix, which showed that 50 percent of respondents considered homeschooling to be as efficient as state schooling, "because children educated by their parents often get better results in admission exams to American universities."

Fears over long-term effects

George Wood, the principal of the Federal Hocking High School in Stewart, Ohio, and convener of the Forum for Democracy and Education, was the co-editor of a book called Many Children Left Behind. Wood is far more concerned by the lack of resources for his own and other high schools than by the rise of homeschooling, but he does fear the long-term effects."

The influences to which these future citizens are subjected, by remaining solely in their family environment, do not open them up to thought and the diversity of opinions implied in a democratic society. If children's interaction with people of different races, different economic situations or different intellectual levels are restricted by their parents, when their time comes to take part in the democratic process they will tend to reject any opinions that differ from their own."

The teachers' unions agree. The National Education Association (NEA), labelled "a terrorist group" in 2004 by Rod Paige, architect of NCLB, has many anti-homeschooling members. "Whatever their faults, state schools play a vital training role in culture and knowledge of society," said NEA member Jen Thomson, who teaches in a primary school in Aimesville. "The children learn about life there, they encounter different opinions, and just because parents fear `bad influences' does not mean they have a right to keep their children away."

Aimee Howley, a researcher in education science at the University of Athens, believes that homeschooling will reach its own limits. "Teaching your children requires too much energy on the part of parents, and notably the mother. Few people are ready to make the intellectual sacrifices of a full-time educator,' she said. "Homeschooling has grown, but it remains marginal. Traditional schooling still has a good future ahead of it, since the majority of parents continue to send their children there without worrying too much about what they will learn. After all, the public school is the principal babysitter for American children."

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