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.

When the Texas Supreme Court ruled to permit homeschooling in 1994, it did allow that a truant officer who suspects a problem may inquire whether parents have in place a curriculum that includes "math, reading, spelling, grammar, and good citizenship" and whether they are teaching it in a "bona fide manner." But the court specifically stated that the officer cannot require the parents or children to undergo any further assessments such as standardized testing. Despite the vow of Gov. George W. Bush that "no child shall fall between the cracks," the bottom line of Texas homeschooling laws is that compulsory education no longer exists in this state.

Parents' motivations for homeschooling vary. Recent surveys by the Home School Legal Defense Association, a national advocacy group, indicate that about 60 percent of parents educating at home are Baptists, independent charismatics, or fundamentalist Christians. Those homeschoolers are often leery of the sex education and evolutionary science taught in the public schools.

For a number of parents, however, Christian and otherwise, the motive isn't primarily religious or philosophical. It's a question of quality. These parents believe they can teach their children better themselves. They often subscribe to the theories of writers such as Raymond and Dorothy Moore and John Holt. The Moores, who wrote Home Grown Kids: A Practical Handbook for Teaching Your Children at Home (1981) and a follow-up, Home-spun Schools (1982), appeal to conservative Christians. Holt, who in 1977 founded Growing Without Schooling, a bimonthly magazine, has a following among alternative-lifestyle libertarians. Both authors began raising concerns in the 1970s about the ill effects of educating children in institutions. The Moores, for instance, studied children who entered regular schools later and found that they suffered less often from dyslexia, nearsightedness, and hyperactivity.

The theory goes that Mom and Dad are the ones who cultivate genius--not some disinterested first-grade teacher. Woodrow Wilson, author Pearl Buck, and inventor Thomas Edison were all schooled at home. If it was good enough for them, homeschool advocates say, why not our kids?

Chana and her husband, Richard Ruderman, are strictly observant Orthodox Jews who are familiar with the writings of the Moores and Holt. But Chana Ruderman says she doesn't teach at home simply because of her religion or even to accelerate her children's academic performance. She keeps her children at home so she can "enjoy teaching to and learning with them." She also wants to shelter her kids from the "false sophistication" of the outside world. "Forget about the violence and drugs and stuff like that. There is just a sense that serious things don't matter" in today's society, Ruderman says.

Harriet Jones is a 37-year-old Balch Springs resident with an eighth-grade education. (Jones asked that the Dallas Observer identify her family members by their middle names and a fictional last name.) She had neither religious motivations nor lofty ambitions about improving her kids' academic performance when she opted to homeschool. Jones did, like the Rudermans, hope that homeschooling would enable her to keep closer tabs on her two teenagers in a scary world.

"I don't even like them to go down the street unless they tell me first, and then I ask them to call if they are planning on going anywhere else," Jones says of her children, Michelle, 13, and Darnelle, 14.

Last fall, however, after several on-again, off-again homeschooling attempts over a three-year period, Jones gratefully returned her children to public schools. In hindsight, she regards the homeschooling experience as an unqualified disaster. Her daughter is now one grade behind in school. Her son, two. "I had trouble getting them to do their work," she says.

Michelle Jones, a sweet-faced, ponytailed teen, sits with her knees pulled up to her chest and sucks on a lollipop during an hourlong interview at her family's home earlier this month. "Way boring," she says, when asked to describe her homeschooling. Her brother Darnelle, who's had discipline problems since he returned to school, refuses to discuss homeschooling with a reporter.

For the Jones parents, it was easy--and perfectly legal--to pluck their children from public elementary schools in Richardson, where they were living at the time, and install them in an improbable environment for studying even the vaguely defined curriculum required of a Texas home school by the state Supreme Court.

Harriet Jones and her husband are long-haul independent truckers, and money weighed heavily in their decision to begin homeschooling their kids in 1996. The Joneses calculated that if they took their kids on the road, they could earn twice as much income by having both adults share the driving and delivery chores. Around February of that year, they pulled the children out of school. "We said we were homeschooling, and no one asked any more questions," Harriet says.

On the road, Michelle and Darnelle supposedly studied in the back of the truck, using workbooks their mother had bought at educational stores. Sometimes, the highway presented the day's lesson. "Sit in the front and look at the road," Michelle remembers her mom would tell her. Harriet says she thought her kids could learn something--she doesn't specify what--from the scenery on cross-country trips. "But they're kids. It's all the same to them," she says she later realized.

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