A couple of weeks ago, I got a request from Melissa, a long time reader. Melissa had published an article in her homeschool newsletter about a homeschooling trend that she has noticed. She feels passionately about the issue and wanted to get her thoughts out to a wider audience. Melissa doesn’t have a blog (though if she did, I’d read it) so she asked if I would publish her article here. Here you go, Melissa: Frantically Simple’s first ever community opinion piece.
Melissa is a 40-something stay-at-home wife and mom that homeschools her 9-year-old son. Her husband’s job includes a lot of extended travel which enriches their homeschooling lifestyle. Melissa pops right out of bed around 4am ready to take on the day (usually) and (usually) looks at the world via Pollyanna-inspired glasses. It’s a sweet life.
All opinions expressed and text written are Melissa’s.
A Homeschooling Trend
My family travels a lot. We live in Rhode Island but my husband’s job takes us to many states for anywhere from 1-8 months at a time. The longest time we have been in one state, thus far, was Oregon in 2008 when we were there for most of the year. We made some lifelong friends in Oregon and enjoyed the local homeschooling community. I found that homeschooling in Oregon was very much like what we had been experiencing back home in Rhode Island. Sure, some things were different. The biggest differences between homeschooling in Rhode Island and Oregon is that in Oregon you only have to send in a Letter of Intent once, then you are done forever whereas in Rhode Island we have to send in a yearly Letter of Intent along with an end of year attendance report. Oregon also requires state testing every 3 years starting in 3rd grade.
We did homeschool in New York in 2010 for much of the year but I sort of don’t count that because we were only 3 hours from home and traveling back and forth from our apartment in New York to Rhode Island almost weekly so we didn’t end up involved in New York homeschool groups at all. I think everyone has heard how difficult it is to homeschool in New York. Lots of regulations, including detailed quarterly reporting and time-on-task and evaluation. Eeeek!
So here we are currently living in California for a long while. We have found the homeschoolers to be very welcoming and fun and it’s been a very positive experience. But there are differences here that are making it very interesting to learn about the homeschooling communities.
Every homeschooling family in California has to register as a “private school”. Up until the last 5 years, that is what most people (other than those staying under the radar) were doing. But recently that has changed, dramatically. It’s a world of charter schools now. As one mom explained to me, if someone belonged to a charter school 5 years ago, they would have been looked down upon from the homeschooling community and not considered to be homeschoolers. Now, from what I have seen, it is the norm to belong to a charter. The questions homeschoolers ask each other when they meet isn’t if they are in a charter but rather which charter they are in. It’s that prevalent. Why? Money.
What Does Charter School Mean To You?
When most of the country hears “charter school” we think of a brick and mortar school, owned and run by some sort of independent organization (whether it is non-profit or a business). In most of the country, if your child gets into a charter via a lottery and you drive them to the school building and drop them off each day, then you would not ever think of calling yourself a homeschooler. Of course not. You don’t pay for school (so it’s not private). Your child’s school is mainly funded by the government. Your child is public schooled but at a charter. In simple terms.
Now go ahead and say charter school in California. It’s a whole different scene. Yes, there are traditional site-based instruction charters but there is also what is called independent study charter schools. These independent study charters are the ones that homeschoolers are using. Independent study means that there is no building that you go to, that the teachers will come to you, monthly for the most part, to check in on you. So, public schooling at home. One popular charter even mentions on their main page (as if it’s a selling point) that their teachers are trained to support the “No Child Left Behind” program.
Let’s get back to the money behind all this. Most independent study charter schools give a yearly spending amount per child. One charter, for example, last year gave each child $1,600. This money is to spend on curriculum and classes. There is a huge list of approved vendors that you can use this money to pay. Vendors range from Oak Meadow for curriculum to local tutors to the neighborhood dance studio. I counted 542 approved service vendors on one of the charter schools. And that’s just the service vendors (classes, tutors, field trips), I didn’t take the time to also count all the approved product vendors. In Sacramento County, according to two resources, there are 8 or 9 charters to choose from.
A large industry has grown out of the popularity of these charter schools. All those students…with all that money to spend. That part is nice actually. The part where you can easily find science classes, art, language and P.E. classes to sign up for. Lots of museums offering homeschool days. Homeschool resource stores!
I tried to think of another way to say selling out without sounding over-the-top negative. But nothing else felt right. When I looked up the definition of selling out, here is what Wikipedia says: “Selling out” is the compromising of (or the perception of compromising) integrity, morality, or principles in exchange for money or “success” (however defined)…. Selling out is often seen as gaining success at the cost of credibility.
So, I guess I have to stick with that term because compromising principles in exchange for money is what I fear is happening. But, perhaps not all of these families are compromising.
I guess it depends partly on what your goals are and what the reasons are that your family is choosing to homeschool. If you simply don’t want your child to sit in a brick building five days a week for 12 years and that the only reason that you homeschool them perhaps this is a viable option and you aren’t compromising your principles. If you don’t mind the idea of public school in general but aren’t comfortable with the local school your child would be attending, then independent charters do sound like a good option. Maybe your child has social anxiety or a serious illness and cannot flourish in the mass education setting. And of course there are the parents would toy with the idea of homeschooling but never find the confidence to actually take that step. Independent study charters could be that safety net they need to get there. There are as many reasons for homeschooling as there are homeschoolers. Not all of us are trying to keep the government’s input out of our child’s education. Not all of us feel the confidence that we can, at least, do a better job at it than the government can. I get that, but at what cost?
When I first heard about this charter school trend my mouth fell open and I just couldn’t get my mind wrapped around it. Homeschoolers letting the government tell them how to educate their child in order to get $1,600 a year. Willing to be public schooled at home (yes, since all charter schools in California are public schools, so I guess legally they are not homeschoolers at all, right?). No longer being in charge (to some degree) of their child’s education. What do I mean by that? Well, along with that nice bunch of money come a whole lot of hoops. The number of hoops varies from charter to charter but basically there are guidelines that must be followed and monthly meetings with your family’s Education Specialist (a California credentialed teacher) to review each child’s progress. Some charters require specific curriculum be used (or at least the list is very limited) and other ones are much more open.
There is an actual school calendar to follow as well as report cards and yearly testing. One, admittedly extreme, story I heard about a charter was that a child turned in a required writing assignment and it was denied because it was “over grade level”. Huh? Why would homeschoolers put up with that sort of thing? It reminds me of a story I heard when I was first researching homeschooling. A little girl, Zoe, had written her name at the top of her paper in public school and she was told she was not allowed to write her name because they had not gotten to Z in their handwriting lessons yet! Oh my aching head.
Independent study charter schools are funded by the government just like brick and mortar schools are. So they are being held to all the same regulations. They are graded for “No Child Left Behind”, testing results and graduation percentages. And I see complaints that things are getting worse each year. The restrictions are growing, the requirements getting more and more constraining. Homeschoolers are jumping from one charter to the other in a grass-is-greener sort of way.
One of the questions that I asked was how do homeschoolers and unschoolers deal with the oversight charters require. The answer I received is that many of the Education Specialists take what homeschoolers do during the course of a month and turn it into “educationese”. The report that the Education Specialist turns in will have the right verbiage to sort of “play the game” that ensures the students are meeting the requirements. Some Education Specialists are more willing to bend the rules, and creatively make real situations fit requirements than others are.
A Back Door into Home Education
I haven’t been among the California homeschoolers long enough yet to have a final opinion about this charter school trend. I do see the positive aspects but my knee-jerk reaction is that the majority of them are willing to deal with the school department’s rules in exchange for chunk of money. Access to my child in exchange for cash. It’s not that I don’t understand why they’re doing it (all that money can be used to help enrich your child’s life) but it scares me that the government is going to find a way through this back door to get into all of our homes, to get into all of our lives, to get into all of our curriculum choices, and to start to define what homeschooling is. I almost feel that it’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing with the money playing the part of the costume.
Why Should You Be Concerned?
I’m sure some people are reading this and wishing that independent charters were available to them as options. I admit there are those who do want, and would benefit from, the support that comes with the oversight, the hoops and the rules. I understand the desire, for some, to have guidelines, and someone to meet with to assure the parents that they are on the right path. I understand that the opportunity to spend that much money on your child for curriculum and classes each year sounds almost decadent.
If my guess is correct, no matter where you are homeschooling, this will be a choice you will be given in the coming years. These charters are businesses. They will expand.
I do want to re-iterate that not all California homeschoolers are in charters. I don’t know the percentages, not at all, but I do see a trend…a trend that could spread like wild fire all the way across the country and that worries me.
I hadn’t heard of this trend before. Have you? What is your opinion?