Home-schoolers say 'the public education system has failed us'

By Vin Suprynowicz
web posted September 1998

A dozen years ago, most folks would have dismissed home schooling -- if they'd heard of it at all -- as a fringe activity practiced by a few extremists either of the libertarian left (public schools teach kids herd-like obedience to arbitrary government authority, marching them around to the sound of bells and indoctrinating them to turn in their own parents for marijuana use) or of the religious right (public schools have "evicted God" and prayer, school nurses hand out condoms to the kids, and -- yes -- it's all a plot to breed support for the Godless welfare state.)

They would have been largely correct.

In the 1984-85 school year, only 43 students were registered with the Clark County School District for the home-school exemption from mandatory attendance. By 1986-87, although that number had doubled, it was still an insignificant 90.

And Marge Comeau -- who has since 1989 been the sole person accepting those "Notifications of Intent to Provide Home Instruction" in her tiny office amidst the jumble of institutional yellow portable classrooms which forms the county's "Alternative Education" nerve center on East St. Louis Avenue -- agrees. "When I first started, it was mostly for religious reasons."

No more. The number of home-schooled students in Clark County surged from 671 to 1,040 in the autumn of 1993, and to 1,466 in the fall of 1995. Today, Clark County parents home-school more than 1,700 students -- nearly half of the officially registered 4,000 home-school students in Nevada.

And today, "It's mostly because of the violence," Comeau reports. "They come in and say the schools are so violent, the gangs, my kids are afraid. That and -- with the gifted students -- they say their kids are just not being challenged."

The boom in Nevada home-schooling only tracks a national trend. Although other sources estimate the number of American kids being home schooled at 500,000 to 750,000, the National Home Education Research Institute, headed by Ed. Dr. Brian D. Ray in Salem, Oregon, from 1994 to 1996 conducted a massive survey of more than 5,000 home school students -- and their major curriculum distributors -- and concluded 1.2 million American students are now schooled at home -- more students than attend public schools in Hawaii, Montana, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Alaska, North Dakota, Delaware, Vermont and Wyoming ... combined.

And those numbers are beginning to translate into political power. In 1996, when a proposal surfaced in Congress to require homeschool parents to obtain teaching certificates, homeschoolers swamped Capitol Hill switchboards. The measure failed, 424-to-1.

Testing requirement dropped

What is homeschooling? The U.S. Department of Education, speaking plain English for once, defines the practice as "education of school-aged children at home rather than at school." The modern movement is generally traced to the research of professional educators Raymond and Dorothy Moore, who in their 1980s books "Home Grown Kids" and "Home-Spun Schools" attributed such development problems as hyperactivity, nearsightedness, and dyslexia to prematurely taxing a child's nervous system and mind with continuous academic tasks, like reading and writing. Their research convinced the Moores that formal schooling should be delayed until age 8 or 10 ... or even as late as 12.

In its 1997 report, "Strengths of Their Own: Home Schoolers Across America," Dr. Ray's NHERI ranked Nevada as one of the 14 most highly-regulated states when it comes to state supervision of home-school parents, defined as states that "require parents to send notification of achievement test scores and/or professional evaluation, plus other requirements, (e.g. curriculum approval by the state. ...)" By comparison, the eight "low regulation" states -- including Idaho, Texas, Illinois and
Michigan -- have "no state requirement for parents to initiate any contact with the state."

Nevada's ranking may well have to be changed, however, after the state Board of Education voted last fall to eliminate all testing requirements for home-schooled children.

Carri Benson, president of Southern Nevada's Home School Advisory Council, says such a step only made sense, since the NHERI research shows that home-schoolers in "low-regulation" states score, on average, in the 86th percentile on nationally standardized academic achievement tests,
while in those states with the strictest regulation, home-school students score ... in the 86th percentile.

"So the state supervision makes no difference at all."

(Given the overwhelming majority of schoolkids still attending government-run schools, the average test performance of students there falls, obviously, right at the 50th percentile.)

"We were seen as an agency that was supposed to monitor home schooling, and the fact is that we weren't and we can't," says state school board member Bill Hanlon, who also runs the Clark County School District's Math and Science Institute.

"My personal feeling is they ought to be held to the same standard; if we're going to test some we should test them all," says Hanlon, who ended up voting with the 6-4 majority to drop the testing requirement. "But the home schoolers didn't feel that should be the case. So we asked (Deputy
Attorney General) Melanie Meehan-Crossley for an AG's opinion, and basically she said that we can't enforce the testing. The law said 'options for showing improvement,' but it did not stipulate it had to be done through testing. So if we're ... not going to get into the business of overseeing home schools, let's not have a farce."

The 9th graders return

Clark County residents wishing to home school still have to fill out a "Notification of Intent" and submit it to Ms. Comeau's office. The 15-page application asks whether an "approved correspondence" program will be used (20 are listed, including mail-order curricula offered by the Department of Independent Study of Brigham Young University, and the Continuing Education Division of the University of Nevada, Reno.) Parents must also list each student's "educational goals" for the year, the textbooks to be used, and a proposed "school calendar" totaling at least 180 days.

The age of students being home-schooled in Clark County forms a nearly perfect bell curve. While only 75 first-graders are home-schooled, that number climbs to 151 in third grade, and 160 in the fifth. The numbers peak at more than 200 students each in the sixth, seventh, and eighth grades --
the middle school years where even professional educators acknowledge students may encounter gangs and violence for the first time.

But then the number drop again, sharply, to 145 10th graders, 118 high school juniors, and only 17 high school seniors.

The low number for 12th-year students is in part because home school students are allowed to take GED exams -- and earn the equivalent of a high school diploma -- at age 17. By the time they turn 18, most home schoolers are either in the work force, or pursuing post-secondary education.

But the sharp drop in home-schooling at the 9th grade level has at least three other explanations.

First, many students by that age are anxious to participate in team sports, choir and band, or other extracurricular activities which are harder to duplicate outside a large school system. Science students may also have trouble gaining access to the kind of chemistry labs available in the public schools.

The second most frequently-stated reason why more than 50 percent of 9th grade home-schoolers return to the public schools is that parents may feel "out of their depth" when it comes to teaching their own children calculus, or chemistry and physics -- though the home-school support groups do
provide a network for locating tutors or specialized video materials.

But finally, there is the fact that a home school student who does not return by 9th grade cannot possibly earn the 22 credits required to receive a Nevada public high school diploma. That means home-schoolers seeking college admission must depend on either the GED and a personalized
portfolio of their work, or an alternative diploma from one of the approved correspondence courses -- courses that can cost $400 to $1,200 per year.

"As a worst case example," Hanlon of the state school board recalls, "we had a young lady who as home-schooled through 10th grade, so she came into the 11th and 12 grade at, I think, Clark High School. ... For the next two years she was a straight A student, but she could not graduate high school; she didn't have enough credits. And because of that she couldn't be named valedictorian and so forth. And that's a damned shame. She couldn't qualify for the valedictorian scholarship, the Top 10 scholarship, etc. They need those 22 credits. In my opinion that was a real sad case."

Eliminating racial, income disparities

In general, as the government schools demand more and more tax money but can offer only an endless list of excuses for their collapsing academic and social results, homeschooling seems to be a trend whose time has come. In a Jan. 7 policy paper for the Washington-based Cato Institute, Isabel Lyman -- a longtime home-schooling parent and co-director of the Harkness Road High School of Amherst, Mass. -- concludes homeschooling has "snowballed into a grassroots revolution" now growing at a rate of 15 to 40 percent per year.

The victory of homeschooled 13-year-old Rebecca Sealfon in the 1997 National Spelling Bee brought national attention to a movement which has also produced 15-year-old country singer LeAnn Rimes, Army Specialist Michael New (the decorated U.S. Army medic who was recently court-martialed for refusing to don a United Nations uniform as a matter of principle), and Barnaby Marsh, who after being homeschooled in the Alaskan wilderness went on the graduate Cornell University and become one of the 32 Rhodes Scholars selected in 1996.

The Orlando Sentinel was prompted to run a major feature on home-schooling this winter when home-schooled Orlando 17-year-old Erin Toelcke scored a perfect 1600 on her SATs. Florida home-schoolers have grown by 83 percent in the past five years, to 25,900.

Dr. Ray's research indicates that home-schooling produces test scores averaging in the 80th to 90th percentiles regardless of factors which can affect performance in the public schools. While math achievement of public school students falls from the 63rd percentile for the children of college
graduates, to the 40th percentile for the children of high school graduates, to the miserable 28th percentile for the children of parents who never completed high school, that slippage is reduced, among home-schoolers, to a mere five points: Home-schoolers whose parents completed college score in the 88th percentile, while those whose parents never finished high school still score in the 83rd percentile.

(This result is doubly amazing, given that in the government schools, students of all backgrounds presumably share the same degreed, professional teacher, while in home schooling, the high school dropout in question generally is the teacher.)

Similarly, white and minority home-schoolers score in the same 87th percentile in reading, while in the public schools minority students are allowed to slip to the 49th percentile, while white students' average performance places them in the 61st percentile.

With one exception, the biggest differences Dr. Ray's study could find between public-schooled and home-schooled children (other than those test results) lie in the areas of computer use -- 83 percent of home-schooled students use a computer at home, as opposed to only 26 percent of all
American families -- and television viewing.

While the most common remaining criticism of home-schooling is a failure to "socialize" children, only 6 percent of home-schooled children watch television or videotapes three or more hours a day. By comparison, among public school students, Dr. Ray found a whopping 62 percent watch
television or videotapes more that three hours a day -- despite the fact they're supposedly so much better "socialized" to group and team activities.

The single largest difference between home-schooling and public schooling? The public schools turn out an average 50th percentile student at an average cost of $5,325 per student per year, excluding the capital costs of bonding and building the schools themselves, according to U.S. Department of Education statistics for the 1993-94 school year. Average annual cost to produce an average 85th percentile home-schooled student? $546 ... plus the sacrifice of a potential second income, of course, by a family which is still taxed to support government schools it does not use.

'Values' education

"Usually the biggest beef is their social skills, which is a joke," says Carri Benson of the Home School Advisory Council, who homeschools her own children -- Jeremy, 15; Logan, 14; and Candice, 12 -- in a modest white house set amidst the horse properties off Elkhorn Road, in the far north of the Vegas Valley. "These kids are very much into scouting, church, gymnastics, they have home-schooling friends. There's nothing socially inept about them.

"In our home school group, we'd get together every week, and it was very interesting to watch our older kids interacting with the 5- and 6-year-olds and the 8-year-olds. There was no age gap. The age gap is created in the schools, not outside. You've got brothers and sisters who can't associate because one is in 5th grade and one is in 3rd grade. Does that make sense? When you go to work, you don't work with all 20-year-olds, or all 60-year-olds.

"If you can get along at home with your own family, you can get away with anyone in the world. ... If my boys fail, I'm going to have my kids living with me in my golden years. So it's going to behoove me to see that they achieve. Nobody is going to care more for my children than I am. And if I fail it's not only going to reflect on me, but I will pay the price. If the public school fails my child, my child doesn't go to live with that teacher who failed him."

The Bensons' children (Carri's husband is a director of purchasing for a local home-builder) had completed kindergarten, second and third grades, respectively, when she pulled them out of the Nevada public schools seven years ago, after spending a year researching the home-schooling movement.

Benson read John Holt's book "How Children Fail" and remembers thinking, "No, that can't be happening with the curriculum in my school. But I went down and made an appointment with the principal and she showed me the curriculum and it was all there. They keep a journal, which is unconstitutional. Any journal has to be private, they can't be made to read out of it to the class. But every day the teacher would ask a question about their home life, and then they'd write their feelings in their journal. 'How did you feel the last time you were punished?' Well, I don't know any kids who felt ecstatic the last time they were punished. But I did not send my kids to school to have my parenting skills questioned.

"Go into the schools today. You won't see individual desks, they're all in groups. So if there's one who's achieving they all ride on his coattails, and they all look better. Well, I want my kids to be

"The biggest complaint today is this values teaching, 'How do you feel?' Stuff other than the three R's," agrees Bill Hanlon of the state school board. "She's in her 20s now, but my daughter came home from the third or fourth grade and said if I spanked her that was child abuse and she'd call
the police. I laugh now, but I'll tell you, I didn't think it was funny at the time. I was pretty well irked."

Carri Benson remembers testifying before a state senate committee in Carson City, "and this state senator said home schooling should be illegal, that's like living in a cave, the kids don't get any socialization. I said show me the cave, I'll move in, because I'd like to cut my kids' socialization about in half.

"I drive Jeremy (15) to the seminary in the afternoon, right through the milling throng of kids getting out of school. What you see is all black clothing, purple hair standing up at all angles, earrings, nose rings, every other thing pierced. The other day I said, 'Jeremy, do you want to go back? I'd be glad to send you back.' He said 'No thanks, mom'."

For his doctoral dissertation at the University of Florida in 1992, Larry Shyers videotaped 8- to 10-year-old children at play, and then had their behavior observed by trained counselors who did not know which children went to regular schools and which were home schooled.

"The study found no big difference between the two groups of children in self-concept or assertiveness," reports Isabel Lyman in her Cato Institute report. "But the videotapes showed that youngsters who were taught at home by their parents had consistently fewer behavior problems."

Successes and failures

The home school success stories are plentiful. Lyman cites the example of Joyce Swann of Anthony, N.M., who "armed only with a high school diploma, decided to homeschool her five-year-old daughter Alexandra, by using the Calvert School's elementary school correspondence program."

At age 16, Alexandra had earned her master's degree from California State University. At age 18 she was teaching U.S. history at El Paso Community College. Today, seven of Alexandra's nine homeschooled siblings also hold master's degrees.

The Colfax family of Boonville, California, famously saw three of their four homeschooled sons accepted by Harvard. Christopher Shea in the Feb. 2, 1996 edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education actually reported a boom in homeschooled students winning admission to selective colleges.

Bill Hanlon presents the other side of the equation.

"As home schooling grows, initially most home schooling parents were extremely hard working people, and I'm sure they still are. But you might have 5 percent of those people using the kids as baby sitters.

"Since my office at the Math Institute is just a stone's throw from Marge (Comeau's) Homeschool office, sometimes Marge will send someone who she thinks is out to lunch, down to talk to me about their math program. One guy whose daughter was probably at the seventh grade level told Marge the kid was already through algebra. Well, I asked the young lady a couple of questions on algebra and she didn't have a clue, so I went down to basic math and she didn't have a clue.

"So I asked the young lady 'What is your typical day like?' She said she got up about 10, watched TV, spent time with her friends when they got out of school, did some schoolwork from 5 to 7 p.m., and then watched TV and went to bed. So I told the dad, you're screwing it up for people who are trying to do a good job.

"So you do have those examples where they're screwing it up. I wouldn't want to see many middle school kids left to their own discretion, but this guy was off working from 7 to 3, and those are the things that really bother me. By not interfering or knowing what's going on, I think that's child abuse and neglect. That particular man made me so damned mad, he was believing what his daughter was telling him. She was telling him she was all the way through algebra, and he was just accepting it at face value."

But wouldn't that argue in favor of just the kind of mandatory testing that the state school board just eliminated, I asked Hanlon.

"We're talking single digits, those who are abusing the system," he replied. "And I don't want to be in the job of trying to catch them. The attorney general ruled against the testing. But they do have to present their curriculum every year, and they do have to show some level of performance ... so if we have to get involved, (that gives us) an ability to check and see.

"But my perception is, by and large the people who are doing home schooling are doing a damned good job. ... If you're a mom or dad alone in the room with the kid you've got their attention. When you've got that ratio of one-to-one or 2 or 3, it sure as heck has got to beat 1-to-20, or 30, or 40. You can see whether they're working or not, whether they understand or not. When you have 30 it's very easy for a kid to pretend, and you find out later they're drawing pictures."

Ken Young, a home-schooling Metro police lieutenant who also sits on the board of directors of the parent support group Home Schools United - Vegas Valley, agrees there will always be "parents who don't do their parental duties as well as what they should. I think with home schooling, there is a potential for that to happen. ...

"Conversely, though, in the public school system we have kids graduating from high school and they have to be basically retrained by private corporations to bring them up to a functional reading and math level.

"So the public education system has also failed us, kids who can't read or write are not only being promoted through the different grades, but are receiving high school diplomas with minimal abilities and skills.

"I think for the most part you have a lot of dedicated people in the public schools who are trying to do the right job, but especially in Las Vegas they're under such extreme pressures because of the growth, and the influx of Spanish-speaking children ...

"At the most recent advisory committee meeting some parents brought up the point, and I as a law enforcement officer made the same statement, that one of the reasons we pulled our kids out of public high school was the apathy on the part of the teachers. Because they're so overloaded, they
basically teach to the lowest common denominator, and the kids just do not have a chance to excel.

"And then you have the violence level. You have my son's first day at Eldorado High School, this was four or five years ago, where two young men were arguing over a girl, and one ended up pulling out a gun and shooting the other in the head and killing him. This was in the lunchroom, in front of all the other kids."

Vin Suprynowicz is the assistant editorial page editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Readers may contact him via e-mail at vin@lvrj.com. The web site for the Suprynowicz column is at http://www.nguworld.com/vindex/. The column is syndicated in the United States and Canada via Mountain Media Syndications, P.O. Box 4422, Las Vegas Nev. 89127.

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