Is There an Educator In the House?

Nevada was the first state to allow homeschooling. Looks like it’s here to stay.

T.R. Witcher

Zoe Hardge's daughter Corinna was in eighth grade when she got a sexually suggestive note from another young student. "My daughter is very well protected," says Hardge. "I did not like that she was getting these messages. I really freaked out." Corinna was also having a hard time getting books for her classes. "My husband and I went to the school, and they said, 'We don't have books for the kids to take home.' It just didn't compute."

So Hardge decided to take her daughter out of school in 2001 and teach her at home. "I don't want them to go to this public school where they're not learning," she says. "They're socializing."

But Hardge didn't know how to proceed. Through a friend she got in touch with Gina Anderson, a homeschool consultant. Anderson laid out her options—there are dozens of curriculums and methods of instructions. Hardge chose a program where a teacher came to her home once a week to assign homework to Corinna and look over the previous week's work. Hardge herself would provide the instruction.

Corinna didn't want to leave school, but after a year, once her parents gave her the option of returning to regular classes, she didn't want to go. Up to that point she hadn't taken school seriously. But at home she discovered a new focus on learning. "I learn a lot more than I would in a public school." She plans to attend UNLV next year and study psychology, history and music.

She does her work on computer, and stops by school once a week to meet with her teachers. "I just log online and do my homework. I have a week to do it. It's just a lot easier." She can sleep in, focus on her schoolwork during the day, and enjoy time with her friends afterward.

Hardge has two sons whom she is also homeschooling. They usually start in the afternoon, working through lessons on the computer. Maybe English today. Or math. Or social studies. The kids will also go on field trips. They work for at least five hours a day. "It's a learning process throughout the day."

And it's a growing phenomenon.

As the Clark County School District gears up for a new school year, the usual spate of news stories are making the rounds about the state of our local education. According to district records, 66 percent of CCSD schools failed to make "Adequate Yearly (Academic) Progress" under the No Child Left Behind Act for the 2004-2005 school year. As of last week, the district had a shortage of almost 300 teachers, just as the school year is beginning. Replacements from as far away as the Philippines have been recruited to plug the gap.

While homeschooling will never replace public education, it is on the rise. According to a U.S. Department of Education study in 2004, about 1.1 million kids aged 5 to 17 were homeschooled in the United States in 2003, which is an increase from the 850,000 kids homeschooled in 1999. The most prevalent reason given by parents (31 percent of them) was concern about the environment of other schools. Another 30 percent of parents said providing moral or religious instruction was their main motivating factor.

In Nevada only 1 percent of kids are homeschooled, compared with 2.2 percent nationwide, but the numbers are growing here, as well. Statewide, 670 students were officially registered as homeschoolers in 1988, the first year records were kept in Nevada, although the number may be higher. Last year 4,306 were homeschooled, an increase of 640 percent.

In Clark County, the number of homeschoolers has held pretty steady in the last few years. In 2001 there were 2,782 homeschool exemptions filed with the school district. In 2003 the number dropped to 1,760, but last year the number had risen to 3,062. (More than 290,000 kids are enrolled in the Clark County School District this year.)

The county offers a variety of alternative education options, including independent study and work exemption programs. But the heart of homeschooling is for parents to not be bound by the school district's—the state's—curriculum at all. And in Nevada that's becoming easier than ever. Parents need only fill out an application and check a box seeking a homeschool exemption, and that's it. There are as many styles and approaches to homeschooling as there are students, and given the quality of schools in Nevada and the state's independent streak, homeschooling is likely to become more popular and more accepted in years to come. But what has come under dispute is how much regulation homeschooled children should be subjected to. The surprise is that the battle has been waged from within the homeschool community itself.

"I don't think educational neglect is part of parental freedom," says Gina Anderson. "I think that's a violation of the child."

• • •

In 1925, the Supreme Court ruled that private schools had a right to exist and that parents had a right to direct the education of their children. This was one of the first national pieces of law about homeschooling, although home education in some form or another has certainly been around much longer than the U.S. public school system. Still, the ascendancy of public education in the 20th century nearly made homeschooling extinct. By the 1970s there were only about 12,000 to 15,000 kids being homeschooled—and these were unusual cases, like shut-ins, or the children of ambassadors and entertainers.

According to a 1998 Cato Institute policy paper written by Isabel Lyman, the modern homeschooling movement began in 1969 when educator Raymond Moore began researching how children fared in institutionalized education settings. Moore found, Lyman wrote, that formal schooling "should be delayed until at least age 8 or 10, or even as late as 12."

At the same time, alternative schoolteacher John Holt was writing about his own dissatisfaction with traditional schools, which he viewed as places that produce "obedient but bland citizens. He saw the child's daily grind of attending school as preparation for the future adult grind of paying confiscatory taxes and subservience to authority figures."

At the end of an era when people were questioning authority in most every facet of their lives, writers and thinkers began speaking about free schools, and open schools, and schools without walls. "There was a sense that something was not going well with institutional education," says Brian Ray, who runs the National Home Education Research Institute in Oregon.

Moore had been a Christian missionary, and Holt was a humanist, popular with the counterculture, but both men helped push homeschooling into the mainstream. In the '70s most of the handful of homeschooling families came from Holt's side of the aisle. By the '80s, Lyman says, "the religious right would change the nature of homeschooling from a crusade against 'the establishment' to a crusade against the secular forces of modern-day society.'"

Today, homeschoolers are eager to point out that they represent a wide variety of viewpoints and positions. They are, they seem at pains to point out, just like you and me. "The only value here that really is common amongst all homeschoolers is that the family are the ones to have the freedom, liberty, responsibility, discretion over the education of a child or young person," says Ray. "That's a value that cuts across all homeschoolers."

And it's different from what Ray calls the Platonic view that most American parents hold when it comes to education, which is that "the state owns the child and the state has ultimate authority over education and training and indoctrination of its future citizens."

What certainly seems more clear is that homeschooled children perform every bit as effectively as school-educated students. A NHERI study of 5,402 students concluded that homeschooled kids scored better on standardized achievement tests than children enrolled in regular schools.

• • •

A sign on the window of Gina Anderson's North Las Vegas home announces the presence of a pit bull on the premises. "I make it to the fence in 2.8 seconds. Can you?" You know you're dealing with an iconoclast, since Anderson's home is the only one on the entire block that is painted green. "Some people are homeschooling for religious reasons, others for safety issues, or busing," she says. "There's a lot of difference."

Anderson began homeschooling full-time 13 years ago. One of her daughters was in fourth grade and having problems with a teacher who wouldn't give her a copy of a schoolbook after the child had lost her own copy. It took Anderson three weeks to get an appointment to see the school's principal, who told her that if she thought she could do better, she should. Anderson figured she could do better.

"Academics are important," Anderson says, "but integrity is more important."

Although her attitude about homeschooling was to take each year as it came, she liked it so much that she began homeschooling her two sons, Kyle and Bryce, and became a homeschooling consultant for other parents in the city.

The problem for Anderson has been the politics. "There are a number of groups that advocate for homeschooling," she says. "We don't all agree." No kidding. Anderson finds herself on the losing end of a recent battle in the homeschooling world in Nevada. The issue is regulation. "You would think based on our social climes, we'd have the most freedom-based type of all the states," says Frank Schnorbus, an officer with the Nevada Homeschool Network, an organization that has a different point of view from Anderson's Nevada Homeschools Inc. (Which is also known as Homeschools United.) "We don't, although we've come a long way."

Befitting it's heritage of rugged individualism, Nevada was the first state to pass laws permitting homeschooling, in 1956. But the laws were restrictive. Until recently, the state had more stringent requirements for parents who homeschooled their children. Homeschoolers were required to be certified as teachers. Parents had to submit pictures of the children they were homeschooling.

"It takes a tremendous amount of responsibility on the parent to say I will homeschool my child," says Dr. Orval Nutting, the private schools developer for the State of Nevada. "The people I work with really take it very seriously. You can't willy-nilly be a homeschooler."

These rules suited parents like Anderson fine—it conferred a legitimacy on what they were doing and made it more difficult for unscrupulous parents to neglect the education of their kids. But Schnorbus and others have taken just the opposite approach, arguing that the rules compromise the whole reason parents homeschool their children in the first place.

Over the last few years Schnorbus and others have led a successful effort to have the state Legislature adopt less stringent rules. "They were requiring annual testing," he say. "There was a lot of paperwork you had to fill out. A lot of this has been shown to have been illegal. We've shown that the annual testing is not necessary and is an unfair burden on children," he says.

Schnorbus has been homeschooling his seven kids for 15 years. At first he and his wife were looking for an alternative to the "bureaucratic runaround" of public schools. But over time, he says, "We found the academic freedom and the time homeschooling gives to the family as a whole is way more important than people realize." His kids could learn a curriculum tailored to their interests and needs. "It's been very liberating. It's so much easier than it used to be."

That depends on who you talk to.

"I can ask to see a birth certificate but I cannot ask to see a parent's drivers' license," says Anita Wilbur, who oversees Clark County's individualized school programs, which homeschooling falls under.

"Flower children from the '60s, they don't like accountability," says homeschooling parent Suzanne Nounna. "They just want to smoke dope and smell flowers. "They're at the forefront of this, pushing less regulation."

Many homeschoolers the Weekly spoke with were critical of the Virginia-based Homeschool Legal Defense Association, a Christian nonprofit group that many see as being behind efforts to reduce regulations concerning homeschooling. HSLDA, says Hardge, is a "bunch of lawyers from Virginia going from state to state trying to take over homeschooling."

But Schnorbus doesn't buy the Defense Association as the bad guys. "That's just about as far from the truth as you can get. They are without shame, a Christian organization," he says. "Certainly a lot of people with Christian backgrounds will go to HSLDA." But the organization claims it does not discriminate.

He says the Nevada Homeschool Network has not received any financial support from HSLDA, but it provided the network crucial support in 2003 when Schnorbus and others were rewriting legislation that cut homeschool curriculums free from being tied to state curriculums. "During that time it was very difficult to understand," says Schnorbus. "It was a mess." So an HSLDA attorney flew in from Virginia to help sort things out.

Last year more restrictions were lifted. Children no longer need be taught by a licensed teacher. Parents no longer need to consult with educators on their curriculum. "The majority of home-schoolers agree less regulation is best," Schnorbus says. He adds that a minority of homeschoolers (like Anderson) feel that more regulation is needed. "They can be pretty vocal."

Anderson and her husband, Kent, ran the Southern Nevada Homeschool Advisory Council, one of two informal groups advising the state's education department (Schnorbus ran a counterpart council representing Northern Nevada), but both Andersons wound up resigning their posts as pressure mounted to support less-restrictive regulations. "I went into homeschooling to spend more time with my children," Anderson says. "I lost focus of that in the quagmire of mud they created. I can't keep up with them."

Wilbur, with Clark County School District, notes that there is accountability and testing within the Clark County schools every year. "Those are appropriate measures for public school education," she says. "Why shouldn't they be appropriate measures for homeschool?"

• • •

Homeschooling is likely here to stay. Advocates are trying to combat its last remaining misconceptions. For one, there is some stigma that moving kids out of public schools takes money out of public schools and undermines the system. While an increase in homeschooling may create the perception that public schools in general are failing kids, evidence in Nevada suggests that homeschooling students has no negative effects on school district bottom lines.

Schools are funded locally, by county sales and property taxes; statewide, by a complicated formula that takes into account a county's total population and a head count of enrolled students; and some federal funds. According to a recent study, nearly 15,000 students are enrolled in private schools or at home, versus 290,000 public-school students. Though the students cost the district $57 million in funds that would normally go to the district, since the cost to educate a child in the district is higher than the per capita costs provided by the state, the district nets a $30 million savings.

"There's a tremendous perception that the Clark County School District loses money," says Suzanne Nounna. "There is a perception that all of these students the school district is not getting money for. Why would an overcrowded classroom fight to get more students?"

Schnorbus says homeschoolers would like to take the counties out of the equation altogether, by requiring homeschoolers to file their minimal paperwork straight to the department of education.

Finally, the biggest misconception is that homeschooled kids are just, you know, a little weird, poorly socialized. But Anderson's and Hardge's kids all seem completely well-adjusted.

Perhaps it's just a question of standards. Suzanne Nounna's daughter, Ariella, who is 9, already has a sizable vocabulary and is whizzing through algebra. One of the things Nounna likes is that she has more control over the friends Ariella makes. "The biggest thing I liked is that we got to pick her friends. If we made a bad choice we could unpick them." Ariella said she likes learning from home because there's more freedom. Her best friend lives next door. "I don't really want to play with anybody else. One friend is enough for me."

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