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.

The couple wasn't happy with the public schools for other reasons. Their son had trouble in math, for instance, and the teachers seemed incapable of helping him.

So in 1985, the Leepers removed Chris from the third grade and started homeschooling the boy and his brother Brandon, who is two years younger. "Once we got the boys out of the cesspool known as the public schools, [the allergies] weren't that bad," Leeper says.

The Leepers didn't wait for the Arlington school district to prosecute them for truancy. Instead, the couple and their lawyers--some of whom were homeschoolers themselves--filed a class-action suit that included as named plaintiffs the Leepers and seven other families.

It took until June 1994, after the Leeper boys had completed their schooling, for the suit to wind its way through the state Supreme Court. In an opinion written by Justice Nathan Hecht, the court upheld the Leepers' right to educate their sons. "If the parents used some sort of curriculum consisting of books, workbooks and other written materials and they met 'basic education goals' by teaching reading, spelling, grammar, mathematics and good citizenship," Hecht wrote, then they could not be prosecuted for truancy. The court made it clear that the TEA had erred in assuming that home schools were not a form of private school. It also specifically stated that homeschooling parents are not required to give standardized tests, but that the school districts could ask to review them if they do.

Within a year of that ruling, the TEA completely reversed its policy, stating that homeschooling parents must only cooperate with "any reasonable inquiry from an attendance officer." The TEA commissioner said the parents should provide a written letter ensuring that their home curriculum met the requirements. "If the district has reasonable cause of some evidence to believe that the assurance is not true," the policy stated vaguely, "action on the part of the district in regard to further investigation may occur."

Gary Leeper, a corporate tax accountant, and his wife, a former homemaker who now works at a bookstore, are out of the homeschooling loop these days. Their boys, now 24 and 22, have opted to work rather than attend college. "I'm still trying to convince them to go," Gary Leeper says. He's proud of his sons, who each run independent contracting businesses. "Both of these boys are self-starters. They may not have received the best homeschooling, but they are out there doing it."

He doubts that any significant number of parents are using homeschooling as a cover for truancy. "You are going to the worst possible sources--truant officers," he says. "I wouldn't get too upset about it. They just don't like that kids are leaving their schools because of the money," he adds, referring to the state system of allotting funds on the basis of school-district head counts.

For Leeper, the prospect of government interference in the home seems much worse than suffering a few truants. He doesn't trust public-education officials to check up on homeschoolers. "It's not that I agree with truancy," he says. "I think all kids should have to be schooled. But it's like having the inmates police the guards."

In the Meador family's living room, the decorating scheme is formal and feminine. The couch is upholstered in floral stripes, with two matching chairs in dusty blue. More than a dozen delicate figurines of angels and ladies in fancy dress adorn the mantel.

Dana Meador's two strapping boys, Robby, 12, and Sean, 11, each sit on the edge of a chair. Their mother relaxes on the couch. Each boy holds a red pencil for checking and a copy of a composition Mom has written and intentionally riddled with grammar, spelling, and punctuation mistakes. Line by line, mother and sons scour the essay for errors.

"Sean, you're up," Mom says, calling on her younger son.
"The T-O-O needs to be T-W-O," he says.
"Robby," Mom asks the older boy next, "What is the preposition in the following sentence?"

As the lesson goes on for 45 minutes, the boys get a little fidgety, but they persevere through the grammar and punctuation exercise before tackling a Robert Frost poem, "I Am One Acquainted With the Night."

"Is there a particular pattern to Frost's rhyming scheme?" Mom asks Robby.
"Uh, no."
"Oh, come on, Robby," she says, sounding like any other slightly frustrated English teacher. She counts off the syllables of the first few lines of verse.

Dana Meador, who is married to a CPA, started teaching her boys at home 14 months ago. She knew it would require tremendous effort, and she has since scaled back her work as a consultant, spent significant sums of money on books, software, and educational travel, and committed four hours a day to teaching her children. She doesn't plan on taking her boys all the way through 12th grade; she wants them to attend high school so they can receive instruction from specialized teachers and date.

Unlike some other homeschoolers, she doesn't have a problem with authorities checking up on her. In fact, she'd welcome it. "I'd love to have them come in and see what I'm doing," she says.

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