For The Sunday Gazette


Babette Hankin likes to show off her home-schooling program. Not only do her seven children stay occupied all day, but the five of school age seem to thrive in her regimented rotation covering earth science, reading, math, and even piano practice. Yet despite pride in the program, Mrs. Hankin is suing the Bristol Township School District [in Pennsylvania] for requiring a yearly review. At dispute is the age-old but not yet settled question of who owns the children, and who therefore should oversee their education—the parents, the state, or God?

"We have a religious obligation to not have anything to do with the ungodly public school system," says Hankin… "These children are not Caesar's. They belong to God ... My husband is the one God put in charge of these children, and for him to have to surrender that authority is wrong."


                                                                         "Christian Science Monitor," August 30, 2004


I can’t help but wonder what Mrs. Hankin is teaching her children in those earth science sessions.  I was out of town on the evening of the earth-shattering February 28 debate between Carl Strock and Jay Wile at SCCC and probably would not have gotten in anyway. How would I, in my decrepitude, have been able to push past the hordes of home-schooled children who are apparently being taught, as Wile believes, that the Earth is only 10,000 years old?

Reports of the infamous debate have shocked me to the core. Not the debate itself, but rather the composition of the audience. I have certainly been aware that there is such a thing as home schooling, and that there are many fundamentalists who, though adherents of the moral precepts of the New Testament, choose to believe in the literal translation of the Old. But it had never dawned on me that the two practices were so highly correlated.

My vague impressions of home-schooled children had been that they were champion achievers when tested, especially during spelling bees, and that they were being taught by parents at least one of whom had the luxury of being able to stay home during the daytime. Also, my conception of such parents was that they felt that their net acquisition of knowledge and their prowess as teachers exceeded that of the many people to whom they would otherwise have to entrust their children over eight to twelve years of traditional school. (Up to thirteen if they started by cultivating ein garten für der kinders.)

Indeed, I found stats on the Web that indicate that what I just described was the primary reason parents elected to home-school their children. When interviewed for a study conducted by the U.S. Department of Education, fully 49% said that their primary motivation was “to give my children a better education at home” and only 38% said that they home-schooled for religious reasons. Percentages for some of the other factors, which do not add to 100% because respondents were allowed to cite multiple reasons, were: poor learning environment at school, 26%; fostering morality and character, 15%; objections to what schools teach, 12%; and student behavioral problems, 9%. Because of the way that last factor was expressed, I cannot tell whether more parents were concerned about the behavior of their own children or those with whom they would otherwise have to associate, but I suspect the latter view.

The survey responses suggest that the urchins who used their wiles to gain access to Wile were not an unbiased sample of children from families whose motivations to home-school ranged over all those cited above. More typical, I hope, was the story about the family associated with the Saratoga chapter of Loving Education At Home (LEAH) as told by Ann Hauprich in her Gazette opinion piece of March 5. But the thrust of that article was pending state legislation that would provide tax credits for home-schooling, not reasons to opt for home-schooling in the first place.

Less than two percent of American children are home-schooled, but the number is growing. And 85% of home-schooling parents either belong to a Home School association like LEAH or plan to join one. Because of the ambiguities associated with the question of who “owns” children (as reflected in the opening quote), home schooling is legal in every one of our fifty states. But the standards both for accrediting parents who wish to do so and for testing the home-schooled pupils vary widely. Citing those of New York State would take an essay comparable to the length of this one to explicate.

One thing that comes to mind in contemplating the merits of home schooling is the social adjustment of the children. Do not children greatly benefit from gamboling with peers other than their siblings? Is it not wrong to spare them from having to cope with at least a few slings and arrows of outrageous fortune—nonviolent, of course—before ejecting them into the cold cruel world to try for fame, fortune, and survival without the requisite sociological body armor?

The ardent home schoolers say that “this is not a problem,” or that exposing their children to the iniquities and inequities of the public school system would corrupt their morals to the point where they would need a neural chiropractor to adjust their backbones and their brains.


One point they make regarding socialization that I do find beguiling is the claim that in no environment after formal schooling do people find themselves operating in a reasonably large group of persons all of the same age, within a half-year or so. And, it could be added, workforce and community groups are likely to be much more diverse in other respects, too, than are those that march in temporal lockstep through traditional school grades so that no child is left behind. Perhaps, instead, we should turn our schools into commercial offices and build two million one-room schoolhouses to accommodate the displaced children. Perhaps not.

However pupils are housed and taught, the testing of their progress and achievement is another matter, and a very important one. At the 2001 Washington Correspondents Dinner of 2001, President Bush, who does not believe in either syntax or evolution, said
"Rarely is the question asked, is our children learning?" Rarely, indeed.


Edwin D. Reilly, Jr. lives in Niskayuna and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Gazette opinion pages.