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Teacher in a Strange Land: What about Homeschooling?

Families who choose to homeschool their children have never been on my negative/activist radar, as a veteran public school educator. I have had both positive and not-so-positive experiences with students who were homeschooled–from a pair of shy, well-behaved sisters who fit seamlessly into the middle school music program due to years of independent music lessons, to a sweet boy who had never really learned to read in the 7th grade and tended to wander aimlessly around the music room, once his mother finally decided to send him to school at age 12.

My ambivalence about homeschooling is likely because I became a teacher in a time when homeschoolers were often young hippie parents who worried that schools would suppress their children’s natural gifts in favor of compliance and standardization.

This was the era of Paulo Freire and Summerhilland—perhaps my favorite book about education— “Teaching as a Subversive Activity,” by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner. The subtitle is worth mentioning:  A No-Holds-Barred Assault on Outdated Teaching Methods-with Dramatic and Practical Proposals on How Education Can Be Made Relevant to Today’s World. (1971)

Today, homeschoolers are often escaping what they see as Godless classroom chaos, or a curriculum that acknowledges certain truths about our diversity and honest national history. The pandemic and its aftermath pushed parents on both sides of the masking question into involuntary home academics, and left people frustrated.

So much for drama and relevance, letting children direct their own learning, at their pace and honoring their interests. Instead, as David Labaree and Deborah Malizia note:

Schooling moved from a shared learning and cultural experience that generated a sense of community and common purpose to an individual competition for the grades, credits, extra-curricular achievements and degrees that determine students’ future life chances.

Once college enrollments surged in the mid-20th century, the struggle became a contest to gain admission into the most selective college possible. Rising levels of income inequality have only intensified the competition. One result is the devastating increase in student stress and social disconnection, in a setting where every student becomes a potential adversary in the race for extrinsic achievement, and the relentless pressure hurts students at all levels. 

This is not how schools were supposed to evolve—they were supposed to be sites for building citizenship, democratic equality and opportunity. But here we are.

Still. If Mama wants to educate her little ones at home, I’m OK with that, as long as my tax dollars are not paying for skiing lessons or $500 LEGO sets, part of a misguided voucher scheme.

We are likely to see those kiddos at some point, in the public system, perhaps middle school or high school when the home-school teacher’s curricular expertise across the board founders. Or when one of the kids wants to play in the band, join the chess club or the public school basketball team.

Just as public schools have tried to adapt to their surroundings and unplanned events, like a global pandemic, families have tried to custom-tailor their children’s education. I’m not saying that I think all of those pull-your-kids-out choices were good ones –thinking here about that 12-yr old non-reader, or kids whose parents reject the idea of getting along with people who are very different from you, in a pluralistic society.

But–a strong public school system, built on quality teaching and rich curriculum, still can serve multiple perspectives in a healthy  community, including the desire to educate one’s children at home.

Where I get off the homeschooling train is when homeschoolers refuse to follow community-driven policies. Vaccinations, for example. If you want a free, high-quality public education, or the opportunity to use public schools, at any point, as a springboard for your children’s ultimate goals, you may have to follow a few rules.

The Michigan Legislature is currently considering a registry of all school-age children. Homeschoolers would have to, by law, notify the state that they were homeschooling their children. Beyond that—things like curriculum and testing, which are largely controlled by legislation, for example—there is a great deal of freedom for homeschoolers.

This feels like common sense to me, much like a census or licensing vehicles. Where are the kids being homeschooled—are there are large number in a particular district? Why? Can we expect to see them return to the public school and prepare for that? Where are the kids who are not being schooled at all, home or otherwise—and are they safe? Why do homeschoolers find a simple registry threatening?

It’s interesting how many homeschoolers see this as government interference. Given the increases in homeschooling, this seems like critical data to haveMichigan is home to roughly 1.7 million school-age children, and 1.36 million are in public schools, while 182,000 are in private schools, according to 2022 Census data. That would leave about 150,000 students who are either homeschooled or have dropped out.

That’s a lot of kids. I’d be willing to bet that not all of them are being lovingly homeschooled by teachers with the skills to help them move forward academically.


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Nancy Flanagan

Nancy Flanagan is a retired teacher, with 31 years as a K-12 Music specialist in the Hartland, Michigan schools. She was named Michigan Teacher of the Year in 199...