Column: If home-schooling counts, make it accountable

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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While other kids sat in their classrooms this fall, Roger’s 13-year-old granddaughter was roaming around the West Coast with her mother, staying up late and following their favorite band on tour.

“I think they’re still somewhere around California,” he told me a few days ago. “I think they got as far as Phoenix. But they ran out of money and spent a day or two in the car until someone could get some more money sent to her.”

Why is a 13-year-old girl playing groupie on the road, when she should be at a desk somewhere learning algebra?

Because in the eyes of the Texas Education Agency, she’s being home-schooled. And that means the state has no authority to check on her.

It’s impossible to know how many Texas kids are being “schooled” as Roger’s granddaughter is – which is to say, not at all. But they’re out there.

“There’s supposed to be a law that all kids will be educated, but nobody can go check on her and make sure it’s happening,” Roger told me. (That’s not his real name. He doesn’t want to get in trouble with his daughter-in-law.)

To the legitimate home-schoolers out there, the ones who work hard to give their kids the one-on-one attention they can’t get in a classroom: Hold your e-mail fire. This isn’t about you.

It’s about people abusing the system, both schools and parents. And it’s about a state education bureaucracy that, under law, can’t do a thing about it.

Under Texas law, home-schooling is essentially unregulated. Once a parent tells a school district a child will be home-schooled, the district’s jurisdiction ends.

State regulations say that parents should teach basic literacy, math and citizenship – but that’s it.

And state officials don’t even have the authority to check whether those minimal requirements are being met. As one home-schooling Web site puts it: “If you live in Texas, you are in the BEST state in the union for home-schooling! … The best part is that you are not required to prove that you are doing any of [the state requirements]!”

I know this happens, from first-hand experience. Growing up in Louisiana, a good friend of mine wasn’t doing well in high school. He’d been held back a couple times and wasn’t likely to graduate.

But his father – rather than have his son drop out – instead announced he was going to home-school him.

At least that’s what the school heard. The reality was that my friend started working alongside his father on construction jobs.

There was little, if any, instruction in anything beyond proper operation of a circular saw. My friend ended up with a diploma bought from some mail-order outfit.

How common is this sort of fake home-schooling? Work with me through a little math.

The state requires public high schools to track what happens to all the students who leave them – whether that’s for a good reason (the family moves, for instance) or a bad one (the kid drops out).

In 2003-04, 10,894 kids in grades seven to 12 left public schools to be home-schooled. That’s quite a few more than the number who left to switch to a private school – only 6,114.

That 10,894 number seems awfully high to me. Here’s my reasoning.

There are a lot more kids in private schools than in home schools. According to the most recent federal estimates, there are about 5.3 million kids enrolled in America’s private schools – almost five times more than the 1.1 million who are home-schooled.

So for there to be twice as many Texas kids going in to home schools as privates seems high.

Then consider that we’re talking about older kids – almost all of them high school. But home-schooling is by far most popular with younger kids. A lot of parents feel confident teaching their kids how to do basic math. But fewer think they’re ready to teach, say, trigonometry and physics. As a result, high school is the traditional time when a lot of home-schooled kids enter public school, not leave it.

So I have a tough time imagining large numbers of parents thinking public school is fine until sophomore year and suddenly dedicating themselves to home-schooling when their kid hits 15.

I can’t say how many. But some of those 10,894 kids are using home-schooling as a way to cloak being a dropout – like Roger’s granddaughter and my high school friend.

And I’m sure some Texas schools are happy to go along with the charade. After all, a fake home-schooler doesn’t count against the high school when it comes time to calculate its dropout rate. With one signature from a mom, it can chisel its dropout rate a little closer to zero.

(Schools have gotten miscounting dropouts down to a science. Dallas ISD, for instance, claims it had only 780 dropouts in 2003-04 – a mere 1.8 percent of its high school students. That’s despite the fact it had 14,485 freshmen that year against only 6,935 seniors.)

Legitimate home-schoolers know these fakers are hurting their cause. On its Web site, the Home School Legal Defense Association complains about “the disturbing trend in a number of states that treat home-schooling as a ‘dumping ground’ for problem children” – primarily states that, like Texas, punish schools for high dropout rates.

“Creative school officials have learned to evade these accountability systems by turning their problem cases into ‘home-schoolers,’ ” the association writes. “Instead of allowing a child to drop out, they hand him or her home-school paperwork.”

But those same legitimate home-schoolers have resisted the kinds of laws that might help weed out the bad apples. In 2003, state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos proposed a bill requiring new Texas home-school parents to pledge, in writing, their commitment to “adequately teaching the child based on a curriculum designed to meet basic education goals.”

The Home School Legal Defense Association fought back, flooding his office with calls and e-mails, because the association felt it opened the door to potential further regulation. The bill died.

Roger initially called me because he wanted to know if there was some way for the state to check on his granddaughter. He’s considered calling Child Protective Services, but he’s not sure he wants to get them involved.

“She’s just 13, and she says she’ll get a diploma from some company,” he told me. “They’re just out playing and running around, doing what they want to do. You can’t say ‘Go to school’ when it’s like they’re on vacation all the time. She doesn’t comprehend what she’s missing.”