The State and the Student, a Home School Dialogue

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As this is being written in late May, in schools across the country, the documentation is flying.  Report cards, test scores, attendance verifications, diplomas, all giving credit where credit is due to the children of the education system.  But this is not the case for all our students.  In the face of a dynamic and often challenging landscape of government run education, greater numbers of parents and children look for answers closer to home.  Literally.  Home school numbers are somewhat mysterious and elusive, but current estimates suggest over 3 Million children nationwide learn from home.  Here in Texas, we are estimated to have over 10% of those students.  What we have very little of, in comparison, is governmental oversight into the manner in which these students are taught, mentored, and guided.  Depending on whose website you are on at any particular moment, this is either the shining pinnacle of educational freedom, or the shadowy landscape of questionable decisions.  So for those of us interested in children’s rights, the question becomes, what does the state owe to home school students?

The Question of Regulation

The nationwide picture of Home school regulation is best summed up by one word, Inconsistent. In a map depicting the nations regulations by state, we see a pastiche of viewpoints and their underlying levels of control.  From some of the strictest regulation like in Pennsylvania where registration, teacher requirements, testing, and curriculum are all reported back to the state, to the Texas Requirements where as long as you don’t forget a civics class you are good to go, our values are diversely represented.  Where our regulations are in place to help protect a student’s right to an education, a lack of regulation is equally as protective of a student’s freedom and privacy in education.  So where does the states responsibilities lie, and is there a great point of balance from which freedom and protection pivot?

The Role of the Teacher

One of the most important questions to me personally is who is the teacher?  I taught middle school in Houston, Texas and was given a first hand view into the vast difference made by good and bad teachers alike.  A good teacher can inform, inspire, challenge, and guide a student to achieve their potential.  A bad teacher can bore, stumble, miss-inform and intimidate a student to the point where school is a burden or source of fear.  If this is common in a place with focuses on specialization, training, certification, and experience, how is this different in a home?  No state currently requires from its teachers anything above a High School education, and often no requirements at all.  In addition to subject matter, Public school teachers are trained on learning styles, mental and social disability recognition and treatment, and pedagogical approaches.  However, Much of this is mitigated in the one-on-one setting of a home school education.  With these concerns in tow I ask, does the state owe the student a teacher?  And if so what does that mean?

Future Preparation

One area where the statistics get blurry is in college admissions and preparation.  Since a significant portion of states do not require registration of home school students, we are unable to tell the percentage that apply to college.  What we do know is that, according to recent Department of Labor statistics, just over 2/3 of high school graduates are attending college.  Some estimates have Home school rates as comparative, but this data is highly questionable.  A recent article by US news and world reports shows a comparatively high statistical success once admitted among home school students however that would suggest that among college attending home schoolers, they have been well prepared.  The other aspect to look into is the stringency of application to various colleges for home school students.  Additional tests, GED requirements and so on are required from Home school students that are not needed from a traditional school setting.  This is not to the fault of the universities, as they are expected to hold their students to a certain standard, however the burden falls to the student.  Does the State owe the student ample preparation for college or the workforce?

Social Adaptation

In a recent publication geared specifically to Home school student issues, The  Journal of College Admissions, found that 34% of respondents indicated home school students had a more difficult time socially coping with life as a first year student.  Home school students typically have less daily peer interaction and fewer opportunities for extra curricular endeavors.  Outside of purely social development, there is a growing current within teacher training that learning in dialogue with other students, group work and cultural adoption of knowledge are some of the most effective paths to education.  This is particularly true for Middle school students whose social brain is at the forefront of its development. Can special programs, and student groups effectively replace the “class” as a means for social education?  Does the State have a roll in ensuring its youngest citizens have ample opportunity for social adaptation and interaction?

Safety Net

Finally, one role in which schools function beyond the classroom is as a safety net for it’s students.  Teachers, staff, and administrators are trained to look for signs of abuse and neglect in students.  There are a variety of authority figures that a child can access in situations of need.  There are different personalities and interests where a child can find a mentor.  These adult roles in a child’s life are difficult to fill by one or two people alone.  The proverbial village is present for public and private school children to protect and guide, and is not easily replaceable.  This of course must be balanced with the host of fears and dangers that go along with village life.  Whether from other students, or the very adults themselves, a school presents numerous issues that are lessened in a home school setting.  Does the State need to provide the home school child access to a broader community of guidance and protection beyond the parent or teacher? What would that look like?

The questions presented are an invitation to dialogue.  Answers and opinions have been stripped away as much as possible to give space for reflection.  So I ask again, this time in hopes of response, what is the student owed?  Education or merely freedom therein? Something specific from the role of a teacher? Preparation for the future? Protection from the present?  And how should the State respond?  There are more question and issues than written here, but the forum is open.  Feel free to respectfully comment.

Read 2 comments

  1. This is an excellent set of questions on an important topic. I applaud the author for taking on an issue that involves an apparent conflict of interest between children and parents. It is fairly easy to be “pro-child” on issues as to which children’s interests appear entirely consistent with those of parents — for example, free lunches at school for children from poor families or procedural protections for youths charged with delinquency. Many people who claim to be advocates for children avoid discussing any issues presenting a conflict between children and parents, or else refuse to acknowledge that a conflict exists, because their understandable sympathy for the parents will not allow them to take a position against the parents. The issue of unregulated private schooling and homeschooling is one of those issues.
    From a child-centered perspective, I think there can be no doubt that states like Texas are acting irresponsibly and immorally by conferring on parents such plenary power over children’s cognitive development. If it is possible for state oversight to ensure that all homeschooled children 1) receive a good secular education and 2) are not subjected to abusive practices, then I would endorse permitting it but only if that oversight exists. If it is not possible, then homeschooling should not be permitted; it would violate children’s rights for the state to confer on their parents such an unregulated monopoly over their lives.

    • I agree with these points. There are nuanced shades of negligence and abuse that can come into play in a home school situation and would be challenging to identify and even more difficult to bring into corrective or legal action. There is a constant tension between a right as a parent to guide and instruct your own child and the right of the child to be given the best our society can offer from an educational and mentorship standpoint. One of the greatest problems we seem to face is how often schools fail at their jobs to serve in that function, which deligitimizes their argument to serve as that pillar in a child’s life.
      The other issue that comes to my mind is the freedom of religious practice aspect. Since religion is by definition a socio-cultural adoption, the primary means for handing down tradition and practice is parent to child. If this is inherent to the definition of religion, it is likewise inherent to its protection. Where this butt’s heads with science, learning, and even in some cases what others would consider neglect and abuse, teasing out a child’s right versus the parents protections of faith practice seems daunting.
      Additionally, I didn’t even discuss areas with registration where a parent is claiming home school to avoid truancy issues with their child, including some cases of having the child work, possibly illegally (i.e. selling drugs, prostitution) to support the parent’s agenda. When I was a teacher, the child interest, parent interest, teacher/school interest balance was one of the most ominous facets of the job. Being child-centered is in my mind the ideal, but without protective legislation, the real-world roadblocks that intervene may continue to derail that process.

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