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A View From Home

by Cyndy Rodgers

he phone rings. . . I answer. The voice on the other end says, "Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to find 2000 mind-provoking words to capture the interest of homeschooling families across the nation". Have I just accepted mission impossible?

Column after column I have attempted to inform you on the latest threats to legally homeschooling in your state. I have researched and asked the questions. I have spent hours logged on to web sites for state legislatures, advocacy groups, and other media sources. Iíve searched high and low looking for the pressing issues threatening our rights to homeschool. Well, folks there donít appear to be any.

Yes, there is a sprinkling of states with legislation pending to expand the age spread over which they have control of a childís education. But other than compulsory age issues, most state governments support homeschooling. Homeschooling has gained a mostly positive reputation.

In fact, according to government statistics, homeschooling is growing in popularity to the tune of an estimated 1.5 million families making it their choice. And yet, maybe, therein lies the threat . . . This influx of new families, coupled with outside factors like a negative economy and the controls set by the 2001 "No Child Left Behind Act", are changing the definition of homeschooling.

Before I explain, letís look back at how homeschooling got its start. Modern day homeschooling, which began back in the 1970ís, had as its foundation, parents who were inspired by education advocates like John Holt, Dr. Raymond and Dorothy Moore and John Taylor Gatto.

There was a rethinking of the institution that was public education. Their goal was to break away from the government model and its military format. Public schools were designed to produce workers for Americaís manufacturing businesses. Families who chose a home education in these early years wanted to provide an education that met the needs and desires of their children.

The predominate reason families are opting to homeschool today is no longer about enriching the academic environment. According to The National Center for Educational Statistics, security issues top the list. Their research shows nearly two-thirds of homeschooled students have parents who say that their primary reason for homeschooling is safety. Those surveyed placed an enriched academic environment second. It fact, it tied. Respondents were equally-divided between academics and religious convictions.

Homeschooling has always had a core of families who desired integrating their faith with education, but the 1999 Columbine shootings, September 11, and the recent terrorist take-over of a school in Russia has frightened parents.

This is totally understandable; however, if we as parents operate only from a position of fear, then we are really just doing school-at-home as opposed to homeschooling.

The father of Humanistic Psychology, Abraham Maslow best explains why we must work out our fears in his Theory of Hierarchy. He argues that humans have a tiered system of needs that must be satisfied before we can move on to the next quest.

Before we can reach the top level of self-actualization, basic physiological needs like sleeping, and eating must be met. After our bodies receive sleep and food, our mind focuses on settling security issues. Once we feel safe we can go into a state of growth that includes understanding and knowledge. This quest for understanding would include an analysis of the education process; subjects, methods and why we implement them. This is a key part of the effectiveness of a home education.

Over the last two decades this rethinking of how to best educate a child has produced the various philosophies we have today. Whether it be Classical education, Charlotte Mason, Thomas Jefferson or Unschooling, these ideologies and dozens of other homeschooling philosophies may differ from one another but they hold one principle in common . . . The studentís family is in charge.

From the very beginning, homeschooling had as its catalyst a belief that as parents we possess the power to guide our childrenís education. We take a leadership role in deciding what our student will learn and how s/he will learn it. Decisions about testing, curriculum and schedules are made by us in the best interest of our student.

With this responsibility, we are committed to honoring our studentís learning style, interests, and aptitudes so s/he may achieve his/her vision of himself. If and when something isnít working, we make changes to the curriculum or the method of delivery. Never is our student seen as deficient nor measured against other students -- real or fictitious.

But times are changing. The recent economic downturn has many school districts scrambling to balance their budgets. The practice of enrolling home study students is good business. Each student brings the same federal money as a student who requires a desk, six hours of paid instruction and all the other services public education involves. A homeschool student requires only books -- and those are borrowed. Most of the income generated from a home study student stays with the school district.

In years past, the alliance between home-educating families and school districts was advantageous for both parties. For the families, they got the curriculum they desired; the school received the state and federal money it needed to educate its other students. Many times home- study income has allowed for an art, music or science program for the whole school.

In states where homeschooling laws push families to align with Independent Study Programs (ISPs) this kind of relationship was commonplace. Recently, however, schools that previously had provided curriculum requested by the family are now saying "Take what we give you or itís nothing." A key enabler of this trend is the recent supply of new families who are willing to abide by those rules.

Another reason why schools are forcing the limited curriculum is in part due to the economy. Purchasing one math text in bulk is cheaper than 200 different ones. However, the biggest component to this phenomenon is the impact of the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). It has restructured how states receive their federal dollars. Money that was previously guaranteed is now contingent on a test score. (To read NCLB go to www.ed.gov/policy/elsec/leg/esea02/107-110.pdf )

Here is how NCLB works: By the end of this next school year 2005-06, all states must develop and implement their tests. Once in place, schools and districts will be required to show "adequate yearly progress" [A.Y.P.] toward their statewide objectives -- that is, they must demonstrate (through their test scores) that they are on course to reach 100 percent proficiency for all groups of students within 12 years. The states themselves decide what is proficient and what is an adequate rate of progress for each group

This bill originally set goals for grades 3 thru 8, but in January of this year President Bush pledged to expand the testing goals in NCLB to grades 9-12. Any home study program, which is aligned with a public and sometimes private school, receiving Title I money must adhere to these goals. One of the problems NCLB poses for home educators is that NCLB mandates that states create a list of acceptable textbooks. Section 3, part 5, item D of the Act says, " . . . The State educational agency will assist local educational agencies in developing or identifying high-quality effective curricula aligned with State academic achievement standardsÖ"

What this means for you and me is that we could see cases where children donít get credit for a subject, when applying for college, because they didnít use the right book. The bigger threat to us is removing curriculum choice from parents. The state sets the standards and chooses the curriculum to pass the test so that schools can get their federal dollars. The parent is removed from the education process.

NCLB sets aside $400 million for businesses to develop testing materials. Textbook manufacturers are happy to oblige. Prior to this legislation, there was only a handful of businesses creating tests -- I believe, two. Now that number is close to a dozen. Most of the firms now receiving the money to develop tests were previously only in the textbook business. So, if passing the test is how you get your funds, and the testís creator publishes books too, what text is your child likely to be assigned?

The pressure is building every year. NCLBís ultimate goal is "By the year 2014, 100 percent of students in every state must score "proficient" on state tests."

Today schools must have 95% of their student body tested and must have one-third of them score 100 percent. Under this formula, annual targets begin low but rise quickly to the unrealistic level of one hundred percent. For instance, last yearís target was 32 percent of the students scoring proficient in reading, climbing to 56 percent in 2006, to 79 percent in 2010, and finally to the magical 100 percent in 2014. Schools who donít score well lose federal dollars. This is why many home study programs have contracts with their families insisting that the student be tested.

The No Child Left Behind Act applies to all government-funded schools. Even private schools, if they receive any federal money, must also comply. It is often termed "Title I" because the provisions outlining testing requirements and funds distribution is under Title I of the No Child Left Behind Act. For many the only way to avoid "Title I requirements" is to homeschool on your own. For many across the country this is not an option. There is a web site that is establishing a petition to change the NCLB testing obsession -- www.fairtest.org.

This coming year, 2005-06, the full effects of the Act are taking effect because this is the deadline for states to establish all of their goals. Students will be required to show marked improvement over the next six years. Schools that donít receive optimal scores can receive additional funds; $1,000 per student for tutoring and further assessments. (So watch for preparation for the test to infiltrate your homeschooling schedule.)

Title I money targeted at tutoring to bring test scores up provides another opportunity for schools to bring homeschooling students into a classroom environment. If the previous yearís test score is deemed low, charters and ISPís can ask parents to bring students to tutoring centers. They will be tested more often so as to get a better score next time around. Now, your child is not with you at home.

If the loss of parental control wasnít enough of a reason for homeschoolers to navigate away from NCLBís control thereís another component that has captured my interest: Recently, it has been brought to my attention that NCLB has a provision (P.L. No. 107-110) that mandates schools receiving Title I money to provide information on high school students to the military.

It states, "Örequires local educational agencies (LEAs) receiving assistance (Title I money) to provide studentsí names, addresses, and telephone listings to military recruiters, when requested."

There is an opt-out clause, however it is filled with many loopholes. It relies on school administration offices to notify you. It also provides a variety of options for them. It really does not provide any real guarantee of privacy. Although you may have chosen to home educate your child, school administrators and politicians are dictating the what, how, and when of your childís education. For many there may be no choice. Only a handful of states have no restrictions on homeschooling.

So, for states that do not possess liberal homeschooling laws, the bottom line is: The economy, a flood of new homeschoolers, and more importantly, NCLB, is taking parents out of the homeschooling driverís seat.

So, now here is your mission should you choose to accept it . . . ask yourself why you choose to homeschool and remember: A successful home education is one where home is the core, and you are the leader. -- C.R.