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Playing Politics with Homeschooling

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Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum has suggested that America’s students would be better off with less federal involvement in their learning, and more families taking the hands-on approach to their children’s education. He’s even pledged that his own children would be home-schooled from the White House.

(Slate’s Dana Goldstein argues that home schooling actually undermine the civic spirit of a community. The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf has a pithy rejoinder, asking whether society doesn’t benefits more when its citizens are products of diverse educational models.)

Clearly, home schooling is not a realistic option for the majority of American families, but Santorum is hardly alone in thinking he –  and other parents –  might be able to do a better job than the public education system. While Congress wrestles with the updating federal education law to either reauthorize or replace No Child Left Behind, parent groups are becoming increasingly active, demanding more control over reform efforts at the local, district and state level—or opting out of the public system altogether.

But teaching a child at home typically requires significant resources, including daily adult supervision and access to instructional materials. Some of that burden has become easier in recent years, thanks to the popularity of online learning programs and virtual charter schools. But for many families, having a parent or extended family member stay home to teach just isn’t a viable option.

An estimated 2 million children were home-schooled students in the United States in 2010, and the numbers are growing, according to the National Home Education Research Institute.

Brian Ray, NHERI’s founder and president, said there’s plenty of evidence that home-schooled students thrive academically and socially. Ray suggested that it would be hard to find a “greater symbol of liberty” than homeschooling.

“One of the best things about living in a free country is the actual, practical choice in how we educate our children,” Ray said. “Home schooling allows children to grow up more under the guidance and influence of their families, rather than the heavy guidance and influence of the state in its schools.”

Stereotypes of home schooling enthusiasts as religious fanatics or anti-establishment isolationists are shortsighted. However, it is true that many home-schoolers are growing up in conservative, and often deeply religious, families. In a 2007 survey by the National Center on Education Statistics, the top reason families gave for opting for homeschooling was a desire to provide moral or religious instruction (36 percent) followed by concerns about the local school environment (21 percent) and dissatisfaction with the academic instruction (17 percent).

“Public schools The sad thing is that public schools “haven’t been able to keep up with meeting increasing demands” for educational alternatives, said William Estrada, director of federal relations for the Home School Legal Defense Association, a nonprofit Christian organization that provides support to families regardless of their religious beliefs. “One size doesn’t fit all, and every child is different.”

Estrada said the association is “certainly not anti-public school.” However, “there is a lot of frustration out there, and Sen. Santorum’s comments reflect what many parents are feeling. What we have now is not working.”

While the number of home-schoolers is growing, they remain a small percentage of the nation’s K-12 students. It’s estimated that 50 million students of them are in public schools, while another 15 million are in private school.

In some school districts, home-schooled students are allowed to petition to participate in certain extracurricular activities at their local campuses, such as the fine arts or athletics. State legislation pending in Virginia would make it easier for home-schooled students to get similar accommodations. The legislation is nicknamed the “Tebow Bill,” for Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, who was home-schooled but played for his local high school team.

Preston Wiliams, a sports reporter for the Washington Post, ruffled some feathers when he suggestedthat the proposed bill was a mistake. Williams said the feedback he’s received from readers is fairly evenly divided between the families of public school students who agree with him, and homeschool families who support the bill.

Williams said he certainly can certainly see advantages to allowing home-schooled students to participate in extracurricular activities. A few years ago, Williams wrote a feature story about a football team that was made up of both home-schoolers and students who were dissatisfied with the sports programs at their local public schools.from a diversionary program for youth with behavioral issues. Both groups benefited from working together, Williams said. Additionally, for a small district, allowing home-schoolers to play sports might mean a school has enough participants to field a better team.

But when space is at a premium, priority should be given to the students who have made a full commitment to their school at every level, Williams said.

“What I’m trying to get across is that a school community is its own place – to be part of it, you have to be part of all of it,” Williams said. “I just can’t imagine some kid pulling out of the parking lot who has just lost his space on the team, and some kid pulling into the parking lot and that’s the only time he’ll be at school all day.”