No place like home

Thousands of Texans say they can do a better job teaching their children at home. But some local truant officers claim parents are using a massive loophole in Texas law to skip school altogether.

"What is a suffete?" Chava Ruderman asks. The 8-year-old has come across the curious word in an ancient book she now lugs from the desk in her bedroom to a sewing room next door, where her mother plucks stray pins from the floor.

Chava's mom, Chana Ruderman, an English teacher with a doctoral degree from the University of Chicago, has her hands full today. This weekday morning, she puts her infant to sleep in one room of her Far North Dallas home then prods her 2-year-old to recite the alphabet in the kitchen using flash cards. All the while, she supervises the homeschooling of Chava and younger sister Avigail, age 6, who are studying in their bedroom.

"I don't know what that word means," Chana Ruderman tells her oldest daughter. "Look it up in the dictionary."

A serious, soft-spoken girl in wire-rimmed glasses, Chava is the family perfectionist, her mother says. She always checks to make sure she understands everything in her studies, even "suffete," a nearly obsolete word for a supreme executive magistrate in ancient Carthage in the 100-year-old book The Young Carthaginian, which Chava plows through slowly this morning as part of her antiquities lesson. Her younger sister Avigail, by comparison, is an imp. She has a head of brown curls, a comic sense of urgency in her voice, and a tendency, her mother says, to make "silly mistakes" on her arithmetic.

But both girls get their schooling at home for three and a half hours a morning, six days a week, between mom's laundry loads, baby feedings, and part-time afternoon teaching job at a Jewish private school. Judged on academic performance, the Rudermans make a crackerjack case for the advantages of homeschooling--a fast-growing phenomenon in the state of Texas.

Chana Ruderman sticks to a strict learning regimen, one that nonetheless requires quite a bit of initiative from her girls. At 7:30 a.m. year-round, they wake up and hit the books, adhering to a weekly study plan their mother sets each Sunday night. Chava's densely written text on the Carthaginians reflects the accelerated pace at which the two sisters perform. The Ruderman girls have both tested at better than two grade levels above their age group in English and math. Chava can now handle beginning algebra problems. Avigail, although not always as fastidious about her calculations, has mastered three-digit long division at an age when most public school children still struggle with basic addition and subtraction.

To homeschooling supporters, the Rudermans would represent the best homeschooling has to offer: Children thriving in an accelerated learning environment at home among their siblings, with the added benefits of Mom and Dad's patient instruction, sound moral guidance, and loving discipline. Other homeschooling practitioners take a more political view. They don't want the government interfering in how they raise their children, and they refuse to involve their kids in the amoral atmosphere of public schools.

Yet the Rudermans' story stands in stark contrast to the disturbing tales that truant officers in North Texas are beginning to tell.

In school districts throughout the region, such as Arlington and Jacksonville, near Tyler, truant officers believe that homeschooling now serves as an effective dodge for a small but growing number of parents who simply can't or won't get their kids to school. Since Texas is one of 16 states with virtually no regulations covering homeschooling, these children can escape unnoticed.

In response to the truant officers' claims, homeschooling advocates, who want to keep Texas free of regulation, point to recent national studies sponsored by the movement itself that show their students perform as well as or better than their peers in the public schools.

But in Texas, homeschooling has grown so fast, and its proponents--as well as their allies in the Christian right--have been so steadfast in their objections to government intrusion, no one has even dared to count precisely how many parents educate children in their homes, much less how many of them do so consistently or effectively.

In the absence of laws to guide or assess the education of homeschooled children, a few parents have shown that they can and will get away with just about anything.

The number of children educated at home in Texas has exploded in the last dozen years. Researchers don't have an exact count, but they suspect that at least 100,000 children--compared to about 20,000 in 1987--study under their parents' direction rather than an outside teacher's, ranking the state's homeschooling population the largest in the nation. Some 1.23 million children nationwide now school at home, three times the number 10 years ago, researchers estimate.

In the Arlington Independent School District, which has 56,000 students, 181 have left the system just since September, with their parents informing administrators they intended to homeschool.

Even a member of the state board of education, the agency that oversees the public education system, schools his children at home. And board member Don McLeroy, who doesn't, still supports Texas' unfettered environment for homeschoolers. Any more regulation "would be opening up a big can of worms," he says. "Not everything is perfect, but I still favor letting the family do it."

Texas laws are so loose that if Mom decides to homeschool, she can simply decline to bring Johnny back to school in the fall. She doesn't have to register as a homeschooler, provide the school system with any substantive written plan for the child's curriculum or study regimen, or submit to any home visits by authorities. If a parent withdraws a child from school mid-year to teach him at home, most districts, following the state education board's guidelines, require that the parents provide the school a letter stating that they plan to homeschool.

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