Saturday, July 18, 2015


To homeschool in the state of Tennessee, you have to enroll with the school board and are subject to the requirements of the school system or you have to enroll with an umbrella school and are subject to the requirements of the umbrella school. I think, legally speaking, this is a fine arrangement to have. Parents can escape supervision of the state while the state delegates its due diligence to another party. That's the theory anyway.

In reality, the most popular umbrella school in the state imposes only the most basic requirements. You must enroll, declare your subjects and books, and at the end of the semester, report attendance and grades. You can declare the library as all of your books without specifying a single particular. Nobody checks on you. Nobody asks questions. Your entire interaction with the umbrella school can be limited to completing online forms. It is all based on the honor system which assumes you do what you said you would do.

This bothers me, but I have found, speaking to homeschoolers I know, I am almost alone in my concerns. Every time I have spoken about this concern, the general response is two-fold. First, nobody would bother homeschooling if they were not interested in trying to do the best they can for their children. Second, the only people they hurt if they lie about it is their children. My response to the first answer is that is probably generally true, but is not absolute. My response to the second answer is, um, yes, exactly.

I believe that parents have the right to educate their own children, but I also believe that children have the right to be educated. I think that if a parent with atrocious grammar wants to attempt to teach grammar, the right exists. I think that if a parent with the barest understanding of arithmetic wants to pretend to be teaching algebra, the right exists. Cringe, but you should legally be allowed to do it. But I think the child has the right for someone to be looking after his education. Most of the time when homeschooling that person will be the parent, but what about when it is not.

Evil exists in the world and begetting a child does not exempt you from being capable of evil. If we could count on parents to work for and protect their children one hundred percent of the time without exception, child abuse would not be a thing and laws punishing it would not exist. But it does exist. This is the hard reality.

Again, legally, I think the design of the law works fairly well in balancing the interests of both the state and the parents. I am only questioning the judgment of an umbrella school where anything goes. I do not think massive oversight is needed. I only feel like there should be a little more concern for those who might fall through the cracks. 

I think it would be wise for the umbrella school to touch base, either yearly or each semester, with each registered family to see how things are going. A simple fifteen minute phone call is all it would likely take. Experienced homeschoolers know what kind of answers to expect from the open ended "How's it going?" It would not be unusual for a first or second year family to answer with uncertainty and with lots of 'I don't know's as the family figured out what works for them. You would expect to find fewer and fewer of those kinds of answers the longer a family homeschools. 

These phone calls should not have the tone of authority and suspicion but of collaboration and cooperation. A real human interaction which would give the parent an opportunity to ask for help, if necessary, and the school the opportunity to offer help, if necessary. If everything is going well, that's great. But the umbrella school might have the opportunity to help a child out of a bad situation if the phone call yields that gut feeling that something just isn't right here. And, of course, the parent could lie through the phone call with no one the wiser, but it would at least be one more layer of protection.

This idea seems reasonable to me, but when I have mentioned it to a homeschooler I know, her response was that she would find another umbrella school rather than have someone call her house to ask a few questions. She was offended that anyone would suggest that parents need recourse to any oversight at all. She firmly believes that the parents are completely responsible for their children, any educational failings just have to be endured by the child, and any questioning or interference is an unjust usurpation of parental rights. 

Yes. But no.

So help me understand why my concerns are irrational and seem to only be had by me. Why doesn't the umbrella school have the moral obligation to verify that some semblance of what they certify to the state as happening is actually happening? Why should the only interaction between the umbrella school and the parents be the equivalent of ordering a book from Amazon?

NB: Because I am a paternalistic hypocrite, I am using this same umbrella school for exactly the reasons that make me uneasy. I can do what I want, when I want, and nobody is going to make it harder than it needs to be. But you can trust me, right?


Anonymous said...

We regularly see parents pull their children from school to "homeschool" which in many cases is just a way to avoid questions of truancy and child welfare. These are parents who made little to no effort to make sure their children were receiving any education WITHIN the school system, and there is little hope that they will receive any more outside the school system. These are the children I worry most about slipping through the homeschool cracks in Tennessee. Not so much the actual homeschoolers.


Jenny said...


Those children are exactly my concern, but people I have talked to within the umbrella school don't seem to acknowledge that it is even possible. I know it happens. I've *seen* it happen. It bothers me that nobody with any capacity to intervene seems concerned. They act like I am being a busybody and need to mind my own business. Well I will, but I still feel like there is a hole that doesn't have to exist except for the willful blindness of people who have perhaps made an idol of homeschooling.

Anonymous said...

Just want to add that I was specifically referring to parents pulling kids from school for purposes other than wanting to educate at home. I love that there are many alternate paths and choices (and may take that path myself one day!). It's just that this is the example we see that seems to pose the most risk to children who are already at risk.


bearing said...

Jenny said: I think that if a parent with atrocious grammar wants to attempt to teach grammar, the right exists. I think that if a parent with the barest understanding of arithmetic wants to pretend to be teaching algebra, the right exists. Cringe, but you should legally be allowed to do it.

If we're positing a parent who has atrocious grammar and the barest understanding of arithmetic, but a sincere desire to do right by his own child and make sure that the child gets a better chance than he had -- you don't need to cringe, Jenny.

People tend to know their own academic limitations. When a conscientious parent knows he or she is not able to generate lessons on his own, he looks to a published curriculum to provide the lessons. It is surprising how well simply letting the curriculum do the work, with the one-on-one attention that schools can never provide, and access to a teacher's manual, can perform.

Or look at it another way. How did this parent manage to arrive at adulthood with atrocious grammar and the barest grasp of arithmetic? Could his or her experience in public schools have had something to do with this outcome? If so, why would he or she want to subject her child to the same environment?

I realize that you're imagining a parent who doesn't care about his/her kids' education. But I think you're unfairly confounding "parents who don't care" with "parents who did not receive a complete education." The two are not the same set.

bearing said...

(more because I got cut off)

I've said it before and I'll say it again, it does not matter how many degrees I have and in what subjects: the only qualification I need to school my children adequately is my drive to see them succeed. By that I am motivated to assess my own academic limitations and strengths. By that I am motivated to seek out resources to fill in necessary gaps. By that I am motivated to arrange my homeschool to play to our family's strengths and to minimize problems caused by our family's weaknesses.

The philosophical problem with creeping oversight of homeschooling by the government is that it assumes that parents are dangerous to their own children unless they prove themselves to be safe. We do not accept this level of interference when it comes to our children's physical safety (yet); child abuse is a terrible thing, and yet society still seems to prefer it if the police don't come knocking on everybody's door once a year to find out if we have safety hazards or evidence of neglect in our homes and to give us the OK if all seems well.

Umbrella schools perform a valuable service for homeschoolers who desire them, and personally I think your state's requirement of only very basic interaction with such a school is an appropriate balance, since parents have a First Amendment right to direct their children's education as they see fit. By requiring parents to make a connection with an organization that offers services to homeschoolers, they ensure that every child's parents have immediate access to whatever services they decide that they need. I think this is a reasonable intervention because, I believe, otherwise many homeschooling parents would be aware of the resources and services that are available, and so it is tantamount to -- for the good of the child in the interests of the state -- requiring parents who direct their children's education to have a certain level of awareness and access. Presumably if a parent is in over her head and doesn't want her child's education to suffer, she can call up the umbrella school and ask for help.

Beyond that, I'm unwilling to say that the state's interests outweigh the parents' First Amendment rights.

Concerns about physical abuse of children are an entirely different matter, and they need to be dealt with legislatively outside the state's education laws. I think some officials are nervous because non-institutionally schooled children do not usually come into contact with mandatory reporters as often as do institutionally schooled children, and so opportunities to detect physical abuse are fewer. Whether Something Needs To Be Done About This depends heavily on whether you consider "numbers of opportunities to detect physical abuse" as a bonus feature of institutional schooling or as a harmful bug of non-institutional schooling.

Jenny said...

I am not confounding the two groups at all. I am making a distinction between them. There are parents who poorly educate their children. I am not so sanguine about all parents compensating for their own educational deficiencies. I know someone who, in the past, taught GED classes whose students largely consisted of former homeschoolers who believed they had been well educated at home except they hadn't been. They struggled badly and were dreadfully undereducated. This is why many public school teachers are opposed to homeschooling since they mostly see the Grade A disasters dropped into their laps. Even so, the public schools are not a panacea for this problem. There are holes and gaps in every education and parents do have the right to direct their own children's education. So while I will cringe when I see it happening, in the same way I cringe when I see young earth creationism masquerading as science, I do not think the state needs to step in and legally act to stop it. I think the legal setup in Tennessee is a good balance between rights and responsibilities.

However, my concerns are less on the legal level and more on a philosophical level. I am not talking about trying to detect physical abuse, but child neglect in the realm of education. There are parents who really cannot be bothered and when the task of waking up in the morning to put the child on the bus becomes too onerous, they "homeschool." These parents aren't trying at all. What do we do about parents whose decision to direct their children's education means those children get no education at all? Are those kids just out of luck? At what point do the educational rights of the child supersede the rights of the parents to not be bothered?

That gap is what frustrates me about the umbrella school. They do not want to acknowledge that these parents exist or, if they do exist, it isn't their--the umbrella school's--problem. I say it is their problem. If they want to run an organization which certifies to the state that a particular child is being educated, it seems to me they should want to know if that child is being educated. Not because it is legally required, but because it is the right thing to do. To deny the problem exists is the height of naivete or, alternatively, willfulness. The current check-a-box system does not verify anything except that the parent has access to the Internet.

I do not understand why the umbrella school creates conditions in which actual education can be so easily circumvented. They do not have the legal obligation to enroll anyone who does not meet their requirements. They can create any requirement they want, and yet they steadfastly hold to the model of 'Pay us $100 and click a few boxes' and act as if that is sufficient. I understand wanting to make the process as easy as possible, but my idea of the bare minimum is that a little more should be done to verify. Not that it should be legally required, but so that the umbrella school officials can sleep at night.

Do they have any moral obligation at all to children being denied an education under their banner?

bearing said...

I'm curious about the numbers of children that you think might be slipping through the cracks in this way: officially homeschooled, not receiving adequate education.

Jenny said...

I would be hard pressed to put a number on it. I do not think it is large. Let's say under 5 percent. I really don't know.

It isn't that I think it is a widespread problem that needs systematically stamped out. I just think the umbrellas should be a little bit more introspective about acknowledging that it can and does happen. Remember that my proposed solution is a fifteen phone call once a year. I am not expecting an on-site inspection.

For me it is more akin to wearing a seat belt. I do not put on my seat belt every morning expecting to have an accident, but the possibility exists, and I certainly expect the car to have them installed. Going through this process has been a little like everyone exclaiming how great it is that this other kind of car doesn't have seat belts while I think a seat belt is not a terrible idea.

Darwin said...

I guess part of what I'd ask about the 15min phone call idea is: How much would that actually alleviate the problem it's intended to solve?

Would it actually be that easy to identify parents who aren't really giving their children much of an education via a 15min phone call? How many false positives would it yield where the person evaluating the phone call thought the parent didn't have their act together but they parent was actually doing a decent job but just didn't do well on the phone at that point? What kind of follow-up procedures would be instituted to deal with people that didn't do well on the phone call, which would somehow deal with the problem of the people not educating while not massively penalizing people doing a decent job of educating who are mistaken for people who are doing a decent job?

While in concept I get the idea of trying to enforce some kind of standards, I'm not sure how in the real world it could be done without getting right back to a school type environment, or else to the kind of highly arbitrary, high stakes encounters that make people absolutely hate and fear CPS.

Jenny said...

You know I have thought some more about this and I think I have pinpointed exactly what is bothering me. It isn't necessarily that it is wide open. It is the cavalier attitude displayed when I have spoken with the umbrella school people with these questions.

If, when questioned, they acknowledged that the potential for abusing their system exists, but for philosophical reasons XYZ, they believe the benefits for most far outweigh the risks for the few, I wouldn't feel so uneasy about it. I want someone to acknowledge tragic outcomes are possible and they are, in fact, tragic. But that isn't the answer I get.

I actually get some version of, "That doesn't happen and, if it does, so what? MYOB."

Likely my phone call idea does little more than their online boxes. I would just like a little more fear and trembling as they work out their educational policies.

Anonymous said...

I would say that it happens more often than you think, at least in our state. I do hold the school system responsible to a degree, because lack of engagement with the child is a factor in attrition. For children at risk, schools can/should be an oasis.

What we do see are parents with known mental health issues or drug/alcohol addiction who can't get their children to school on time or at all. I know two from a class of 75 who left to homeschool for this reason this year.

Since high ideals are part of what motivates some parents to homeschool, many may not want to believe that other parents would abuse the freedom to educate at home, but they do. Just as some teachers abuse the privilege of teaching others' children in a fair and professional manner. There is just less of a safety net for the former than there is for the latter.