How schools create homeschool connections

District leaders reach out to unenrolled students to expand programs and maximize state funding
By: | Issue: July, 2015
June 24, 2015

On the walls of Tim Cline’s office hang samples of outstanding work completed by students in Interior Distance Education of Alaska (IDEA), the public school program he runs.

Visiting parents are often impressed. Nothing unusual about thatÑexcept that IDEA’s students are homeschoolers who may never enter a public school classroom, and those impressed parents are also their teachers. When they see what other IDEA families are accomplishing, the parents sometimes realize they need to work harder. “They’re just learning from each other,” Cline says.

Thirty years ago, the relationships between homeschooling families and local school administrators were often hostile. Principals and superintendents felt attacked. Parents on both the political left and the Christian right criticized the schools for inculcating what they saw as false values.

But as the number of homeschooled students has risen dramaticallyÑto 1.8 million nationwide, according to the most recent federal dataÑthat antagonism has abated.

Driven by a commitment to serve all students, or by a desire to maximize state funding, some districts are offering families that educate their children at home everything fromfree computers to curricular guidance.

“Districts have become increasingly attentive to their homeschool population,” says Robert Kunzman, an Indiana University education professor who heads the International Center for Home Education Research. “They’re paying attention in terms of how we can draw them in or collaborate with parents or provide different services.”

New ways to reach out

District outreach to homeschoolers takes varied forms, from in-school enrichment programs to part-time course enrollment to long-distance academic support. Some states also allow homeschoolers to participate in extracurricular activities, including sports, under so-called “Tim Tebow laws,” named for the once homeschool student-turned-NFL quarterback.

History of the homeschooled student

No one is quite sure how many American children are educated at home. The most recent figures from the National Center for Education Statistics, dating to 2011-12, put the total at 1.8 million. Using different data collection methods, Brian Ray, who heads the National Home Education Research Institute, puts the figure at 2.2 million.

But by any measure, the ranks of homeschoolers have grown exponentially since the 1970s, when the number was estimated at 15,000, Ray says.

Back then, most homeschooled students were second-generation flower children whose parents disdained what they saw as the excessive regimentation of public schools. By the 1980s, the hippies had been joined by homeschooling parents from the opposite end of the political spectrum: evangelical Christians who saw the public schools as hotbeds of secularism and permissiveness.

The politically well-organized evangelicals took the lead in prodding state legislatures to rewrite laws that initially made it unclear whether parents could legally teach their children at home, says Milton Gaither, an education professor at Pennsylvania’s Messiah College and author of the 2008 book Homeschool: An American History.

“It was just such a show of force, they got whatever they wanted, typically,” Gaither says. “By 1993, homeschooling was clearly legal and pretty easy to do all over the country.”

As such education became easier, people who lacked the counter-cultural or religious motivations of the pioneers began joining the ranks. “When something becomes a little more popular, there’s less cultural antagonism,” Ray says. “Along with popularity comes less adult peer pressure against it, and so more people are interested in trying it.”

And as the practice spread, once-hostile school administrators mellowed in their attitudesÑor retired. They were replaced by younger colleagues less invested in opposing homeschooling.

Children educated at home won spelling bees and were accepted to college, while educational hiccups that opponents had once predicted seldom materialized.

But the impact of homeschooling on student achievement remains unclear, some academics say.

Although advocates sometimes claim that homeschoolers outperform typical public school students, the research they cite draws on unrepresentative samples of students from families that are more stable and affluent than the norm, says the International Center for Home Education Research (ICHER), based at Indiana University.

“Homeschooler achievement runs the gamut, much in the way that public school student achievement does,” says Robert Kunzman, the Indiana University education professor who heads ICHER.

“There are some really great homeschool environments, and then there are ones that say they’re homeschooling and they’re not doing anything. And you could certainly say the same about public schools.”

And depending on the state, homeschool outreach programs may come with a measure of oversight: required learning plans, regular consultations with certified teachers or mandatory testing.

In Washington’s 6,500-student Snoqualmie Valley School District, 48 homeschooled elementary and middle school students spend two half-days each week attending the Parent Partnership Program. Students study art, science, technology and language arts. Their parents get a certified teacher’s help devising the state-mandated annual learning plan, which in turn, also benefits districts with state money.

Similarly, CASA Vida, or Community Assisted Schooling Alternatives Vida, in Arizona’s 18,000-student Kyrene School District, offers a full-day, once-a-week enrichment program for 75 K6 students.

Parents “were looking for experiences that their kids wouldn’t necessarily have in the homeschool environment,” says Kelly Alexander, Kyrene’s director of community education. That meant some adjustments to the curriculum, such as eliminating instruction on the use of the school library. Although such instruction is part of Kyrene’s regular curriculum, CASA Vida families felt they could get it elsewhere in the community, Alexander says.

In Virginia, districts may choose to enroll students educated at home part-time, and more than half permit the practice in some form, says Parrish Mort, executive director of The Organization of Virginia Homeschoolers. Erin Scherger’s homeschooled son and daughter take advantage of the option to study Spanish and lab science at their local public high school in Virginia’s Fairfax County Public Schools.

“We look at the public schools as another resource for our kids,” Scherger says. “So if the school system has what the kids are interested in, great. If they don’t, we’ll find it somewhere else.”

More far-reaching is Alaska’s IDEA correspondence program, which was established in 1997 after homeschooling parents successfully lobbied the state legislature to allow some affiliation with the public school districts that relied on their tax money.

Although it is run by the tiny Galena City School District, with a local K12 enrollment of 84, IDEA enrolls 3,800 students from across Alaska. Each IDEA family gets a per-child allotment of $1,800 to $2,400 in state money to buy curricula that is not religious and lease a computer.

In return, parents must submit learning plans, progress reports and work samples; make monthly contact with one of IDEA’s certified teachers; and give their children the state-mandated test. Parents can also stop by one of IDEA’s five statewide resource centers, which offer workshops for parents on instructional methods and clubs for students who want to pursue extracurricular activities like robotics, debate and chess.

As IDEA has expanded offeringsÑparents can now choose among 300 curricula vetted by the district for alignment with state standards. It has “opened up the dialogue between schools and families on trying to find as many options as possible for each kid,” says Galena Superintendent Chris Reitan. “It’s positively stretched our district, and it’s positively stretched the expertise of our staff members.”

Money and market share

School districts with homeschool outreach programs insist they are motivated primarily by a desire to serve their communities. “They’re our kids,” says Snoqualmie Valley Superintendent Joel Aune. “Whether the student is officially enrolled in our school or not, as educators our core value is that we have an obligation to do whatever we can to help parents school their children.”

Although Washington state provides public money for homeschool outreach programs, the district did not establish its Parent Partnership Program to recoup that cash, Aune says, and profits are being plowed back into the program.

“The goal was to make it revenue-neutral,” Aune says. “We never looked at it as a moneymaker.”

Nevertheless, some observers suspect that state funding formulas that give districts aid for the homeschooled students they serveÑstudents who would otherwise bring in no revenueÑmay provide an additional incentive. Public schools are “trying to accommodate and protect their quote-unquote ‘market share,’ ” says Kunzman of Indiana University.

The amounts involved vary. Virginia districts get a quarter of the state’s per-pupil aid allocation for homeschooled students who enroll in a single class, and half the aid allocation for students who enroll in two classes.

In Arizona, the Kyrene district gets a quarter of the per-pupil amount, more than $1,100 per student, for its one-day-a-week homeschool enrichment program.

For the IDEA correspondence program, Galena schools receives more than $5,200 in state money, which is 90 percent of Alaska’s basic aid amount, for each enrolled homeschool student.

Once the family’s allotment for instructional expenses is deducted, the district keeps the rest of that money. The business model is successful enough that Galena’s program, once a groundbreaking pioneer in homeschooling, now has 13 competitors across the state.

Customer service

For district leaders, reaching out to homeschoolers may be as simple as opting in to a state’s part-time enrollment lawÑin Virginia, districts may choose whether to let students educated at home enroll part-time and may restrict the courses they can takeÑor it may be as complex as building an enrichment program from scratch. But the most important prerequisite for success, district administrators say, is embracing a fundamentally different view of the parent-school relationship.

“It’s a little unnerving at first when you realize it’s all about customer service and honoring the parents as the primary instructor of their children,” says Cline, the director of Alaska’s IDEA program. “That’s really what we try to teach our teachers.”

So when last year’s test scores suggested that homeschooling parents were struggling to teach math, IDEA staff couldn’t simply order up a new approach: Instead, Cline says, the program offered prizes to students who spent 400 minutes a month working through IDEA’s preferred math curriculumÑ400 minutes certified not with monitoring but on the honor system.

And if an IDEA teacher becomes concerned about what kind of education a family is providing their child, “our first inclination isn’t to kick them out; our first inclination is to try and help them,” Cline says. “You’re helping parents stay in compliance, and when you see something that tells you there’s a problem, that’s grounds for more [teacher] questions.”

Trojan Horse?

While district officials sing the praises of their outreach efforts, such programs remain controversial among homeschooling parents. Those who chose homeschooling for its flexibility and autonomy dislike the rules, paperwork and standardized testing that come with government money. They worry that such regulations will eventually be extended to all students educated at home, even those who steer clear of district programs.

“For those who are philosophically very strong advocates of homeschooling, they really don’t want the public school systems getting involved,” says Brian Ray, who heads the National Home Education Research Institute.

For a subset of homeschoolers, this suspicion of government or district entanglement has a religious dimension. “The more hard-core conservatives, especially those who remember the bad old days, to see any collusion with the enemy as the Trojan Horse,” says Milton Gaither, an education professor at Pennsylvania’s Messiah College, who wrote the 2008 book Home School: An American History. “The Trojan Horse is secularization. If you want the free computer, you also have to take the not-Christian curriculum.”

Such tensions suggest the way the spread of homeschooling is further blurring the definition of public education in a landscape that includes not only traditional neighborhood schools but also cyberschools, charters, public boarding schools, magnet programs and dual-enrollment systems.

“We do live in an atmosphere where school choice is accepted,” says home schooling graduate Rachel Coleman, co-founder of the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, which advocates for greater state oversight of the practice. “Homeschooling is seen more just as another educational option, rather than an act of political protest.”

The 19th century vision of the common school educating all children for democratic citizenship is slowly receding, Gaither adds. “This ideal is dying in our time,” he says, “as more and more families secede from the notion of civic responsibilityÑthat there’s a common culture that we all need to be a part of, or a common good.”

Deborah Yaffe is a freelance writer based in New Jersey.