Hal’s about It: So you’re homeschooling?…Wait, don’t answer yet.

1 Jan 2005

by Hal Young

Have you ever noticed that the highway and the road are not the same thing? In the center of my hometown, you could sit at the stoplight and simultaneously occupy parts of Highways 601, 521 and 97. If you turned right, you stayed on 601, but now you joined U.S. 1 and Highway 34 and left the other two. At that intersection, you had two roadways, but five different highways. And standing on the corner of Broad and DeKalb, someone watching from outside couldn’t really guess which highway you were following.

Homeschooling is one of many routes to educating our children. When my family started homeschooling eleven years ago, there was no question about which highway we were on—the public and the private schools were on totally separate roadways, and the homeschool path had only been paved for a little while.

Now there are many places where the roads converge. Homeschoolers have more classroom opportunities, and students in traditional schools are finding ways to study at home. More and more students can be found at their kitchen table "doing school," yet not all of them are following the homeschooling route.

Public school districts are even borrowing the terminology, calling a student’s closest campus his “home-school” or appointing a “home-school coordinator” to be a liaison between the “home” and the “school”—nothing to do with parents teaching their own kids.   We get some very confused phone calls from parents in these districts.

Taken all together, it’s not always obvious what “homeschool” means these days.

So what?

If you think of “homeschooling” in terms of the cultural movement, it’s easy to get defensive about what’s really homeschooling and what’s not. The homeschool pioneers blazed a trail that the rest of us travel in comfort—they weren’t confused about the route they chose or the sacrifices they had to make. It’s important to keep that heritage and pioneering spirit alive.

If "homeschooling" is a description of an educational option, why would anybody even care how to define it? NCHE doesn’t own the trademark, nor does anyone else. Why would anybody even want a strict definition? As long as a family’s educational choice works for them, does it matter what anyone calls it?

Well, yes and no. Expanding educational options is a good thing for everyone, and we ought to defend each other’s right to make those choices as free citizens. There’s nothing wrong with mixing and matching alternatives—traditional curriculum, eclectic and unschooling, school-in-a-box, co-ops, tutors, apprenticeships and correspondence courses. A family needs to find the method or combination of methods that works best for them.

Sometimes though, the distinction becomes important. The law is an example. In North Carolina, a “home school” means one, or at the most, two families at a time studying together. Two means two. Co-op classes might be an option, but if a group is meeting five days a week, just like a regular school, then it may well be considered as such, and different sections of the law apply. The host family or the building owner can actually be subjected to more stringent building inspections and higher insurance rates, since building and safety codes are stricter for schoolhouses than private homes. The liability is likely to be higher. And since an underground private school is not operating legally, they don’t satisfy the compulsory attendance law, and families involved aren’t protected by the homeschooling statute.

Sometimes you have to make a distinction to protect the mission of your support group. It’s a given that there will always be more participants than volunteers, but we all know that if we want some kind of program or activity, nine times out of ten we’ll end up building it ourselves—homeschool band, homeschool swim team, homeschool debate competition. While some parents volunteer to benefit the whole community—as a 4-H leader, a scoutmaster or a little league coach—for most of us, our support group is a mutual assistance organization. We help each other out, sharing the burdens that we all carry. I’ve never found a support group yet that wanted to be a free after-school program for kids getting off school buses, especially since many of our activities were organized precisely because the traditional schools made their activities unavailable. If you, as support group leaders, aren’t clear about whom you’re serving, you may find that resources, time and effort are consumed before the intended recipients ever benefit.

We also keep hearing of opportunities for homeschoolers to dabble in institutional school programs. This may be a resource, but there’s a hook in that worm. Some of the online programs charge a fee for the first two classes a homeschooler enrolls in, but the third class, taken in the same semester, magically makes it all free. Why is that? In public school a student has to be present only half a day to be counted as a full-time pupil. The school can then receive state funds for that student, and that student is now accountable to the Department of Public Instruction rather than the Division of Non-Public Education. That third class made the student a public school student, and that might be a turn in the road that they did not intend to take.


On the road again

One day we all made a decision to step away from the traditional classroom experience and declare ourselves “homeschoolers.” It was a definite decision. For some of us it was a point of crisis, for others it was more an organic growing process. When you sent DNPE your Notice of Intent, or when you made that first purchase of books and materials that you used to get free from the public school, then you knew you were on “the road less traveled.”

The key distinction is that the parents are in the driver's seat. Your road might be paved, gravel or covered in grass. It might be forever under construction (the “I-40” model of homeschooling). You might be piloting an SUV, a quarter horse, a Segway or a Lexus. But as long as you keep to your highway, you’ll stay on course. Just ask at each intersection—why am I doing this? What is the goal for my children? Will this pathway reach the destination I intend? Will this new opportunity add to our freedoms and advance our mission, or will we have to trade some of them away?

Your child may not be riding the school bus, but you might be. Make sure you know who's driving. Because ultimately, whatever your pathway, if the parents are not in charge, if taxpayers funded it or someone else determined when your child would graduate, then you may not be homeschooling. You are simply at home. And if someone else is unexpectedly making those decisions, you need to ask whether you planned to delegate that responsibility after all.

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