Commentary

Home Schooling and Histrionics

By Isabel Lyman
May 31, 2000

In a recent speech concluding his two-day “school reform tour,” President Clinton offered his opinions on home schooling, suggesting that, in his mind, even successful private endeavors should not go unencumbered by government impositions. “If you’re going to [operate a home school],” Clinton remarked, “your children have to prove that they’re learning on a regular basis, and if they don’t prove that they’re learning then they have to go into a school — either into a parochial or private school or a public school.”

This is truly a case of government’s attempting to create a remedy for a problem that does not exist. The reason is intuitive: parents who assume the extraordinary burden of home schooling their children are by definition parents uncommonly dedicated to their children’s education. Home-schooled students typically come from families with above average income, high educational achievement, intact marriages and a strong dedication to education.

The reality, verifiable by anecdote and standardized test alike, is that in every academic area home-schooled students are far surpassing students enrolled in government schools. The most reliable data are from a 1998 study by Dr. Lawrence Rudner of the University of Maryland in which over 20,000 home-schooled students took standardized tests and completed other questionnaires. Unlike previous studies, Rudner’s was conducted on a comparatively large sample and included only families who agreed to participate before knowing their children’s test scores. The study concludes that “in every subject and at every grade level of the [tests], home schooled students scored significantly higher than their public and private school counterparts.” Furthermore, the study shows that home-schooled children had average scores that fell between the 82nd and the 92nd percentile in reading and reached the 85th percentile in math. By the eighth grade, the average home-schooled student is performing four grade levels above the national average.

If you measure academic achievement by success in national contests, consider that the 1997 National Spelling Bee was won by Rebecca Sealfon, a 13-year-old home schooler from Brooklyn, New York. In 1999 the National Geography Bee was won by David Beihl of Saluda, South Carolina, another 13-year-old home schooler.

In his speech, Clinton said, “The best thing to do is to get the home schoolers organized.” Of course, Clinton really means, organized by the government. Large non-government home school organizations already exist in every state. Richard G. Medlin, writing in the Home School Researcher, surveyed the attitudes of 1,500 home school students toward support groups and found that a remarkable 85 percent of those surveyed said they belong to such a group or intend to join one.

Those organizations usually offer a wide range of services to home school families, such as newsletters, curriculum suggestions, state home school legal information, e-mail networks and conferences. For example, the Richmond Regional Home Educators of Richmond, Virginia has volunteers who organize a staggering number of activities, including a band, gymnastics classes, a yearbook and a graduation ceremony for high school seniors. My own 14-year-old son participates in the Edmond Home School Cooperative in central Oklahoma. The Co-op, as it is nicknamed, has 200 students and a waiting list of more than 100. Twice a week, students take academic classes, and the Co-op organizers are even hosting a chartered bus trip to Washington, D.C., this summer.

Home-schooled students receive a more varied education than does a child who is conventionally schooled. Let’s not forget that schools, no matter what the National Education Association preaches about the advantages of a racially diverse student body, are rigidly conformist institutions. Young people are subjected to the same predetermined curriculum, grading policies and behavioral guidelines and are expected to arrive and depart at the same time every day. Grade levels are determined primarily by age, regardless of a child’s aptitude. Very often it is a loud bell that informs faculty that study of one topic must end and that of another must begin.

Home schooling, by contrast, is based on the principles of liberty. Families enjoy the freedom to teach what they want, when they want. Parents can advocate a strict creationist view or they can offer evolution, without fear of offending anyone. Home-schooling parents don’t take a dime from taxpayers and don’t impose their educational methods on others; their children certainly are not gunning down other children.

According to conservative estimates, home-schooled students account for only about 1 percent of the school-aged population. Their accomplishments are quite impressive, but some people are nonetheless suspicious and intolerant of this successful private education practice. Home schooling will not, if Clinton gets his way, be spared from the reflexive desire of some to claim the need for government supervision, regardless of whether the object of the endeavor wants, needs, or will be improved by the intrusion.

Isabel Lyman holds a doctoral degree in Social Science and is author of the Cato Policy Analysis, “Homeschooling: Back to the Future?”