The question surprised both of us. “Do you like being homeschooled?” a woman asked my 8-year-old daughter Alina at our gym in Wexford. She was out of school sick that day.
I didn’t think homeschool was the most obvious reason to figure a child wouldn’t be in school. But, as Alina tried to decipher what “homeschooling” meant, I remembered that some of my friends have chosen to homeschool and recalled the kids I’ve been noticing during the daytime at grocery stores, how they practice spelling ingredients on the packages or calculating the bill at the register. While some of them could be enrolled in cyber schools, it made me wonder if homeschooling is becoming more mainstream — at least in my suburban world.
In fact, homeschooling has been on the rise in Pennsylvania since the 2011-12 school year when there were about 20,900 homeschooled students in the state. In 2015-16, the state Department of Education recorded nearly 23,900 homeschoolers, which likely underestimates its prevalence because students homeschooled for religious reasons are exempt from the registration requirement. Still, homeschooled students represent only about 1.38 percent of K-12 students in Pennsylvania.
Nationally, homeschoolers tend to be white (59 percent) and concentrated in the suburbs (39 percent), according to the National Center for Education Statistics [NCES]. The 2015-2016 state data showed 2,638 homeschooled students in the seven-county Pittsburgh metropolitan area, 40 percent of whom were living in Allegheny County.
Homeschooling also seems to be getting more acceptance on a federal level. U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has been called a "friend" of homeschoolers by the Homeschool Legal Defense Association [HSLDA], a homeschooling advocacy group. A proponent of school choice, she supports measures that would assist families who choose not to enroll their children in public schools, such as a tax credit plan or government-issued school vouchers.
So homeschooling families must love her, right?
Not universally. According to HSLDA, monetary benefits from the government would be a potential threat to a system that has so far stayed clear of strict regulation. HSLDA, a Christian group, has been a leading voice in opposing federal money for homeschooling.
According to the Washington Post, the new tax law signed into law in December includes financial incentives for families to send their children to private school, a move supported by DeVos. While HSLDA has opposed government money for homeschooling, the group supported a proposal within the tax bill to expand the 529 tax-advantaged savings plan to apply to homeschooling expenses. The distinction cited by the group is that money in a 529 plan is “your own money, not government money.” Lawmakers, however, cut the provision from the bill in last-minute negotiations.
Armed with the basics on homeschooling, I began to wonder: Why would families choose to homeschool when several options like public, private, cyber and parochial schools are available? Who ensures homeschooling curriculum and evaluation are at par with the state education requirements? Do homeschooled children acquire necessary social skills?
These were the questions I set out to answer while confronting my own dilemma. Am I failing as a parent by sending my daughter off to be one of 24 children in her second-grade homeroom? Perhaps she would excel with a more relaxed routine and nuanced education. The morning and evening rush, struggles with the new curriculum standards and the stress of standardized tests — this could all be cast off in a flash if our family were to decide to homeschool.
The answers, as I discovered, are not so clear.
Why families choose to keep kids at home
Homeschooling was legalized in Pennsylvania in 1988 and in all 50 states by 1993.
According to the NCES, the homeschooling movement peaked in 2012 when the number of school-age children educated at home rose to 3.4 percent from 1.7 percent in 1999.
In 2012, the top reasons for parents to homeschool were concerns about safety, drugs and negative peer pressure in the school environment. The concerns persist in 2016 with parents also mentioning dissatisfaction with academic instruction and a desire to provide religious instruction.
Lisa Smith is the founder of the Homeschooling Co-op of Pittsburgh. She started the co-op in 2014 as a support group and avenue for homeschooling families to share their skills. “We had a certified Mandarin teacher, she just moved out of state, she taught Mandarin to our kids for two years,” Smith said. “Another one is a certified German teacher, we have a botanist, we have all kinds of talent in the group.”
The co-op used to meet twice a month, but recently increased it to once a week at its new location at the Pittsburgh New Church School [PNCS].
Smith has homeschooled the older five of her six children for the past six years. They range in age from 4 to 11. She said most parents she knows homeschool to provide a better school environment, free of bullying and drug activity.
“It was difficult for my generation, but I think that has become a much bigger problem in the next generation,” she said. “Families my age and parents my age don’t want to see this trend continue with our children.”
For Smith, it was the one-size-fits-all approach of the traditional school that helped her make up her mind about whether or not to homeschool. Smith said her oldest child had a difficult time in her preschool program because she was so shy.
“She had a hard time socializing with other kids,” she said. “For kindergarten, we tried cyber school, still trying to figure out where we fit into this whole scheme.” Her daughter didn’t like cyber school. “Because she was expected to be on the computer for hours a day. It was a lot of busy work, and she was bored really quickly.”
The desire to provide individualized support, especially during a child’s formative years of elementary school is also what motivated my friend Rabia Khan of Mount Lebanon to homeschool her daughter, one of her three children.
Tahira Sarwar of Chartiers Valley homeschools three of her four children. Sarwar’s oldest daughter attended kindergarten at the local school district but, like Smith’s daughter, did not seem to thrive socially. She said she chose to homeschool because she is able to incorporate Islamic religious education into the curriculum and homeschoolers do not have to follow the PA Core.
Homeschooling standards and oversight
Since March 1, 2014, public school districts across Pennsylvania have been required to incorporate PA Core standards into their curricula to ensure a common academic standard. Student progress is evaluated through standardized tests like Keystone Exams and the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSAs).
Though none of these requirements apply to homeschooling, Pennsylvania is considered to be one of the three states, alongside New York and Washington, with “more robust oversight,” according to the Education Commission of the States, an independent education policy think tank. Take Michigan, where parents are not required to register their homeschooled child; Pennsylvania requires guardians to formally notify the home school district of the decision to homeschool. Pennsylvania also mandates the homeschool instructor to have at least a high school diploma or equivalent, which is not the case nationally.
While students in public schools are taking standardized tests each year from grades 3 to 8, homeschooled students are only required to take standardized tests in grades 3, 5 and 8. But homeschool students do go through an annual evaluation.
Though most evaluators review portfolios maintained by homeschooled students, changes made to homeschool law in 2014 mean school districts do not track the completion of mandatory coursework by homeschooled students. The portfolios generally can include record of all academic and non-academic activities, from worksheets and test scores to pictures and stubs from field trips. In addition, the evaluator also interviews the child to assess knowledge and understanding of subjects.
Prior to 2014, school districts were required to conduct evaluations for homeschoolers residing within their boundaries. In 2014, the rules were relaxed. Today — in addition to state-certified teachers and non-public school teachers and administrators — school superintendents can give special permission to people of varied qualifications to conduct evaluations.
The evaluators with special permission can include experienced homeschooling parents. State law prohibits parents from evaluating portfolios of their own children, but according to the Pennsylvania homeschool law (Act 196 of 2014), homeschooling parents can issue high school diplomas to their own children.
While Sarwar likes the ability to choose the coursework and the evaluator, her children still take grade-appropriate standardized tests to assess their academic progress. Sarwar administers tests like the IOWA and the Stanford Achievement Test, which are provided to families by Bob Jones University. Families mail it back to the university for scoring and evaluation. In third grade, Sarwar’s daughter took PSSAs at the local school district; they plan to take the Stanford test online this year.
The freedom homeschooling allows its proponents is not without its critics. Those sounding the alarm include lawyers Sarah Hunt and Carmen Green, co-founders of the Center of Home Education Policy. Hunt and Green say they were homeschooled in ways that made them feel controlled and isolated. Today, they litigate for clients who have experienced some of the worst homeschooling scenarios, from “educational neglect to physical and sexual abuse, to debilitating social alienation,” according to a Washington Post story.
While Hunt and Green have been trying to make the case for more monitoring of homeschooling, DeVos has been pushing the school choice agenda through vouchers.
School vouchers are issued by the state to parents who choose not to send their children to public school. The amount of the voucher is based on the cost of educating a child in public school.
Parents can use school vouchers to send their kids to a school they choose, including private or parochial schools. Vouchers cannot be used for homeschooling. While it was proposed to allow vouchers to apply to homeschooling, it was not included in the tax bill approved by Congress.
Despite DeVos’ efforts to make it sound like a “win-win” situation, neither homeschoolers nor advocates for traditional public schools are convinced about the efficacy of vouchers. HSLDA suspects federal dollars will not come without strings attached and will provide government a right to intervene in the system. At the same time, traditional schools and teachers’ unions are concerned that voucher money will be diverted from local educational agencies with high percentages of low-income students.
Khan said she would not be in favor of any program that siphons funds from public schools. She homeschools her youngest daughter, while her two older children attend public school.
“We need to have good public schools,” she said. “What if I am not able to provide her with the best education? What if she wants more than I can give her? Public schools will always be there to take it up. I will always have the option to send her there.”
Developing “sandbox” social skills
Stuck at home with no one to play with or try new things with? It’s not ideal. That’s why Khan and Sarwar say some homeschooling families don’t mind paying school district taxes.
PA Act 67 of the homeschool law grants children enrolled in a home education program the right to participate in activities like clubs and sports teams in their local school district. At least one private school provides opportunities for homeschoolers to mingle and learn with others.
Lisa Smith’s five children attend “Homeschool Wednesdays” at the Pittsburgh New Church School [PNCS]. In 2016, PNCS started its homeschooling enrichment program, where families can send their children once a week for a hands-on classes on science, art, literature and music.
“We had a number of families in our church congregation who homeschooled for a variety of reasons, and it was a way of including their children in our school,” Lamar Odhner, office manager and marketing assistant at PNCS, wrote in an email.
Other Pittsburgh institutions like the Pittsburgh Zoo, the Carnegie museums and libraries and the Carnegie Science Center offer resources for homeschoolers.
Katie Bruneczk, the Carnegie Science Center’s program manager for summer camp classes and sleepovers, said the science center provides classes, including computer programming and robotics, for homeschooled children in two age groups, 6 to 8 and 9 to 12. With an ongoing expansion, she said they hope to soon accommodate high school-aged homeschoolers. While designing classes for homeschoolers, Bruneczk especially builds an opportunity for interaction between kids.
Though Smith, Khan and Sarwar all talk about the great resources available in Pittsburgh to help nurture the social skills of their homeschoolers, many of my questions about homeschooling remain unanswered.
I don’t know if the limited peer time that homeschoolers get is enough for my child to develop meaningful relationships with others later in life. Yes, we can certainly finish up third-grade coursework in second grade and model the curriculum to align with our preferences, but I would like to hear more from those who were homeschooled and have now stepped into the adult world.
Homeschooling may be the best academic strategy, but would it qualify as a holistic educational experience? While parents like me in American suburbs continue their quest for the perfect educational choice for their children, I’m still uncertain if keeping kids away from school is fair to children themselves.
Saima Sitwat is a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh. She can be reached at email@example.com.