On Home-School Trends: Threat or a Challenge?
The evidence in support of parental involvement in schools is quite overwhelming, and has been cited as a major factor in the success of the independent school movement across Canada. Scriptural evidence and secular research have been abundantly clear: parents must not let the school do the educating but should expect the school to do its work in concert with what occurs in the home.
Now it appears as though home-schooling has taken parental involvement to new heights and is alive and growing in the Reformed community. It appears that more families than ever are considering home-schooling as an alternative to traditional Christian schools. Should these schools, built after years of prayer, fundraising, penny-pinching and sweat, feel threatened by the home-schooling movement? This article will review the homeschool movement and make some conclusions about a suitable reaction to this alternative to Reformed schools.
There are a number of reasons for parents to teach their children exclusively at home: financial, pedagogical (educational) and philosophical. Let's review these reasons briefly.
In some areas, independent, parent-run schools are very expensive. Think of Ontario, or in the United States, where there is no government support for Christian schools. Many parents pay in excess of $700.00 every month for tuition. Or think of the many small schools (say, 25 to 100 students) which are struggling to make budgets. The pressure for some families, especially those on fixed wages, is great, and the small community may be unable to help those in need. That, with the possible addition of transportation and other non-tuition costs, can make home-schooling more attractive. Thus, while families are grateful for the relative success of their small schools and see them as a major blessing of the Lord, the financial burden is great. For some then, home-schooling offers some relief and perhaps less pressure to make ends meet, and thereby a more relaxed home environment in which to teach, learn and grow.
How many families are not happy with the educational vision at their local school? And what can be done? It may be easy for some to assert that change should be approached in a Christian, patient manner, which means it is wrong to simply pull their children out at the first sign of disagreement. However, let us be fair and realize that altering the philosophical vision of a school is extremely difficult. In fact, vision is an accumulation of many factors over a substantial period of time.
The leadership of the school (board and administration) is not likely to call for the changes that a few parents would like to see, especially in a larger school association where diversity is already extensive! The point is that while some families will try (and have tried, no doubt) to express their concerns about the way things are done at their school, others, unfortunately, are unable or unwilling to do so. Home-schooling offers parents a way to ensure that their vision is conveyed to their children.
Good home-schools achieve more
Perhaps the most legitimate reason for home-schooling is pedagogical, where the parents have decided that their children would gain more knowledge and learn more quickly, effectively and more relevantly, if they were taught at home. One cannot overlook the significant research showing that good home-schooling is remarkably successful in both academic and practical arenas.1
Clearly, effective home-schooling requires great dedication and skill on the part of the parent. All potential home-schooling parents cannot simply say their children will learn more at home; it is not automatic. The parent(s) must be knowledgeable, dedicated, organized and determined to stay in it for the long haul. But the benefits of home-schooling for the qualified parent can be significant: a more relaxed learning environment, a more effective use of time, that is, more learning potential in a given day, and an education that can more easily be tied to individual needs. (This may be why some parents have chosen to home-school one or some of their children, and not all; a particular child may have a special need.)
The social effects of schooling
A word here should be mentioned about the social effect of schools versus home-schools. It is not legitimate to assert that children need the school interaction to become “socialized” and that home-schooling denies the opportunity to be a social person. In fact, there is significant evidence to suggest that the socializing aspect favours home-schooling because of the numerous negative effects (such as party spirit, drugs, peer pressure, clothing) in some schools, in contrast to the broad range of home-schooling interaction possibilities. In larger schools, there is an unfortunate tendency to have less contact with non-peers (for one example, note the inclination for students in some schools to socialize solely within their age or grade.)
This does not mean, however, that all home-schooling families have used this reason legitimately. It seems that children who struggle socially at school may be better off at home, but they still need to learn ways to be more social.
To look at some home-schooled children and see their extreme shyness does not mean that we must send our children to school for social reasons. Young people should be encouraged to interact with a wide range of people, irrespective of their schooling experience. More interaction is not necessarily better interaction.
Should we criticize home-school families?
Can we criticize the families who home-school as being defiantly opposed to those schools which have been built after years of prayer and work? Is this an illegitimate withdrawal from the community? It may be fair for the local consistory to ask a family these questions: are you educating your child in the fear of God's name? Can you present evidence that home-schooling is better for the emotional, spiritual and educational life of your child? Have you considered the needs of this (small) community?
Remember, while parents do not have absolute ownership of the child, they are the primary care givers and educators of the children God has granted. If a qualified parent can do a more effective job of teaching her children at home, who has the right to condemn? It will for many home-schoolers be a combination of factors. We do well not to label the movement as wrong because of the individual family who appears unprepared to take this step. At the same time, pastors and elders could ask the questions mentioned above, just as they could and should ask the “working parents” similar questions!
In summary, there are reasons favouring home-schooling and areas for concern in individual cases, but it remains a parental decision. We do well not to overreact to the relatively few (even if the number is growing) and charge every home-schooling family with defiance or community withdrawal. (Ironically, we are less critical of these families if they keep paying their school fees, as if money were the problem. This merely shows us that the money problem is not restricted to the home-schoolers!) Of course, if five families out of 300 choose to home-school, it may not be a problem, whereas if three families out of 20 pull out of a system, the ramifications can be quite serious for the school. One would hope that parents considering home-schooling relaxed home environment would seriously consider the needs of the community before taking that step.
A fitting reaction to homeschoolers
How should schools and school communities react to the home-schooling movement? To be certain and not with accusations. We may not like this movement, and we may look at certain families who have taken the step who don't appear to be qualified, or we may decide that they only did so for the money, or because their children don't fit in already and this makes it worse, etc… And some of these concerns may be justified in individual cases. There may be a family home-schooling which shouldn't. There may be some who are theonomists and who want to (wrongly, I would say) use more (overuse?) Scripture in their children's upbringing. The mother-teacher may be unqualified or ill-equipped. In short, there may indeed be families who shouldn't have taken the home-schooling step – in our view – but that does not make it correct to condemn the idea of home-schooling in general. These individual concerns do not alter the Scriptural reality that it is primarily the parents' role to educate their children in the fear of His name. Because some home-schoolers should not be doing so, does not make home-schooling wrong. It is a beautiful thing indeed that Reformed parents have been granted Christian schools; in this the Lord's blessings are so evident. However, this does not make the Christian school system mandatory for every family.
If we can't condemn the movement, can we be concerned? Whether this movement is a result of discontent or frustration with the present system or if it is developing only for financial reasons, there is room for concern. It would be wonderful, if not unrealistic, if Reformed schools could meet all the needs of their diverse membership and it would be ridiculous if everyone who disagreed with the way things were done at a school were to pull out. Obviously, parents must realize that no school is able to meet the needs of every family perfectly. They should be willing to give and take a little, and try to express their possible complaints in a constructive and productive way. And there is certainly room for concern if a small school were disbanded because of a few home-schoolers. In short, while not condemning the families who have chosen this way, home-schooling can pose a formidable problem to some school associations.
What then can schools do?
What can school associations do to reduce the potential problem of withdrawing families? It continues to be crucial that we call on our Father to help make our schools as good and viable as possible.
Perhaps the place to start is with the larger school societies. Church federations have needy church funds; perhaps school budgets should include a nominal amount for fellow associations which are struggling. For example, a school association in Manitoba has the benefit of government funding, and is well-established after many years of the Lord's blessing. They could include a small amount on the budget for other Christian schools who experience great need in terms of operating budget or capital resources. After all, if the Reformed community sees the need for parents to cooperate and have an independent school, could it not be argued that the Reformed community ought to contribute to the survival, growth and vitality of their fellow Reformed schools? Or do they only take care of themselves? It seems to me that if a school association has a problem with home-schooling because it is a threat to the community, then they should be willing to take a small step to support each other in the Reformed community.
At the same time, small schools should be willing to seek their larger “colleagues” for help. This would offer some balance and could make the smaller schools more attractive for teachers and for families who struggle financially. Schools that do well financially will attract more families and the financial burden would ease even more. Many very small school communities do not have the corporate sponsors and the retired members to help them, and one can be amazed and so grateful that the Lord has kept them thus far. But the Lord has blessed some areas (BC, Manitoba and Alberta) extremely well. It would be a wonderful thing if the school communities that had more would share; it would require little effort and the benefits could be vital.
Schools helping schools
To make this point, perhaps I could offer a real example. In the Fraser Valley (BC) a large school community is split into three relatively solid associations totalling over 300 families and about 1000 students. If the boards were prepared to share the wealth in support of the smaller schools, they could agree to pay, say, $20.00 per student per year to a Needy School Fund (NSF!). This would amount to $20,000.00 per year, a substantial amount for a small school in need, but less than $5.00 per month per family! (Obviously, donors could do their part, too!) I'm convinced that if the entire Reformed community in the Fraser Valley were aware of the struggles of some smaller schools, they would be prepared to part with this nominal amount. Of course, there are administrative considerations with respect to distribution, but the point is that the Reformed schools should be prepared to help each other out. It can be done. Shouldn't it?
That may be one way of dealing with the financial aspect of a school's viability in the face of the withdrawing home-schooler, but what about pedagogical and vision-related reasons for the homeschooler's withdrawal? This is a far more difficult problem because the families who choose home-schooling range from the very capable family which maintains membership and still supports the local school, to the disorganized family which uses home-schooling to save money or uses their children as home labourers at the cost of their intellectual development.
The only real way to combat the home-school movement is to make the existing schools as good as possible and as responsive as possible to parents' needs. Remember, the effect of parents on their children's learning is profound, regardless of whether they home-school or not! School leaders should be asking the questions: are our schools doing a good job? Are our schools truly integrating parents in the schooling? Are parents proactively teaching their children at home, and then sending them to the school which has their stamp on it? Every parent should have his or her stamp on the school. A parent's involvement in the school has a critical impact on the child's learning. Conversely, if parents don't parent and simply send their children to a school, expecting teachers to parent (think even of the need for schools to police T-shirts!), the effect will be profoundly negative, eventually. The perfect school might be the one which, essentially, has multiple home-schooling under one roof.
Home-schooling: threat or challenge?
Home-schooling is a challenge, in a few different ways. To the home-schooler it is a tremendous challenge which, in my view, few parents can successfully carry off. The academic, social and physical requirements should not be underestimated, both for the parent-teacher and the students. These parents have the additional challenge of staying involved in their local school community in some way.
It is also a challenge for the smaller school associations in Canada and the U.S., which must convince all their constituents to stay part of the group. Clearly, they must do their utmost to make the school God-fearing, as well as a viable, positive, and responsive institution. They ought also to seek the help of their larger fellow schools.
The challenge for the larger schools is to think small and cozy while responding to and integrating parents (never underestimate the need for schools to be very parent-friendly) and at the same time encouraging smaller schools with support in terms of resources, expertise and yes, money. They have the resource base to promote growth and balance in the Reformed school community.
Parents have the biggest challenge of all. They must home-school their children, regardless of where their children receive a formal education.