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.

With the best of intentions, the mother ordered workbooks for homeschooling and decided to educate her daughter herself. But she worked at an office while her child stayed alone in their mobile home. The mother would come home and discover that her daughter had watched TV all day. "We finally just gave up, because we knew we were not homeschooling," the mother says.

Three months ago, the mother and daughter moved to a house in a new school district. But by press time, the mother, who'd lost her job and claimed she was getting hassled by her ex-husband, who was recently released from jail, still had not managed to complete all the registration documents for her daughter to attend classes. The girl has missed almost two-thirds of the school year.

Both Judge Forman and Jacksonville district administrator Cunningham say that in recent months the increase in suspicious homeschooling situations has troubled them so much that they've contacted state legislators. They want Austin lawmakers or even the TEA to come up with some standards for homeschooling--as well as put some bite into enforcement.

In New York, homeschooling parents must notify their public school; submit curriculum plans, lists of materials, textbook names, and instruction plans; file quarterly reports documenting the hours of instruction and evaluation for each subject (although school districts are not supposed to judge these); and file annual assessments of their children's progress. Starting in the fourth grade, the kids must submit to standardized tests at a place of the parents' choosing. The children are required to score in at least the 33rd percentile.

Although they believe the need for similar rules exists in Texas, Forman, Cunningham, and others concerned about lax homeschooling laws aren't optimistic that the state will toughen up anytime soon. "It's a mess, this homeschooling, and it's a sacred cow," Forman says.

Homeschool lobbyists want to make sure Texas stays unregulated. Why should public school authorities--who, they argue, are doing such a bad job educating kids--check up on homeschoolers?

When the subject of tougher laws has come up, homeschool supporters have strongly resisted any change. In the 1997 legislative session, state Rep. Senfronia Thompson of Houston proposed a bill that would require school officials to flag the records of children who have been abducted. Under the bill, which eventually became law, parents or guardians would be notified if anyone sought the school records. Thompson initially proposed having homeschoolers' records tracked and flagged in kidnapping cases as well. But when word got out, homeschoolers responded en masse. Tim Lambert, president of the Lubbock-based Texas Home School Coalition, which has 30,000 member families, says 500 of his people contacted Thompson. "Our PAC did not give out much money," Lambert says. "It's with numbers that we do it."

Patrick Johnson, an aide to Thompson, says he recalls getting nearly 1,200 calls. Thompson's office was so inundated, the aide says, that the legislator revised her bill and took out the language on homeschoolers. "They wanted their kids to be kidnapped; we said, 'OK,'" the aide recalls sarcastically.

To support his view that Texas doesn't need any more homeschooling laws, Lambert notes that in the Brian Ray study, homeschooled children in highly regulated states scored no better on tests than their counterparts in Texas or other states where homeschoolers face little red tape.

Lambert doesn't see tougher homeschooling laws as much of a threat in Texas, so these days he concerns himself with other issues, such as getting laws passed to allow homeschoolers to compete in interscholastic sports. He says homeschool kids have begun to shed their image as sheltered, poorly socialized children who don't know how to play with others. With the Internet, homeschooling associations, and all sorts of extracurricular events for children in the decade of the soccer mom, homeschooling families don't have to be isolated.

They do worry, however, about getting colleges to give their kids equal standing in the admissions process. A deputy director of admissions at the University of Texas told the Houston Chronicle that a homeschooled applicant must score at least 1,200 out of a possible 1,600 on his SATs to be considered for admission, whereas a student with school transcripts can get in with lower scores.

At the TEA, the notion of further policing for homeschoolers isn't even close to making the agenda. "If we make our public schools all that they should and could be, then people wouldn't look for alternatives," says TEA board member Judy Strickland.

State board member McLeroy doesn't think tougher laws are necessary either, truancy problems notwithstanding. "I don't want to screw up the whole system for some 30 kids," he says.

Texas has come a long way since 1985, when the TEA did view homeschooling as a threat to public education. Back then, the agency wanted Texas school districts to seek out homeschooling parents and prosecute them for truancy. "Educating a child at home is not the same as private school instruction, and, therefore, not an acceptable substitute," read a TEA policy statement issued that year.

Around that time, Gary and Cheryl Leeper of Arlington were having problems getting their oldest son, Chris, to school. "He had allergies, and he missed a lot," Gary Leeper recalls.

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