Homeschoolers enter the schoolhouse

It’s easy to assign children’s learning experiences into neat, simple categories such as private, public, district or charter schools. But an organic, bottom-up movement in Michigan may offer a path to those interested in breaking down artificial barriers in the name of providing more children with effective learning options.

Parents in some Michigan communities have teamed up with creative education leaders to blur the lines between homeschooling and public education. A groundswell of interest among more families and districts has generated conflict with bureaucrats who seek to recapture public funds and keep various learning experiences in separately labeled boxes.

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Many people are familiar with the basic workings of attending a local school district, but the world of homeschooling is still emerging and not as well-known. The beautifully diverse and growing movement is hard to pin down, with vast ecosystems of curriculum options, lifestyle recommendations and support groups.

Nowhere in the nation is it illegal, though regulations and requirements vary by state. (Michigan is among the states that provide the greatest parental freedom to educate at home, ever since a landmark 1993 state court decision.) In the past few decades, home education has emerged from the underground to the mainstream, now reaching about 2 million children nationwide.

The conservative religious impulse that drove and characterized the movement’s early years is still alive and well, but it is no longer the dominant force. Many who lean further left politically have climbed in, too. Ethnically, it has diversified, with a growing number of African-Americans and Hispanics taking to home education. Families of all races and backgrounds today are much more likely to claim dissatisfaction with the quality of traditional educational options, rather than a moral or religious motivation for educating their children at home.

The homeschool movement’s diversity includes competing views on whether and how to affiliate with conventional educators and government agencies. Some appreciate the freedom they have to operate and strive for their educational goals independently. Some cooperate, more or less formally, to help teach each other’s children. Others look for help through opportunities that may take them beyond the homeschool community. For them, the line between public education and home education is less a fortified steel wall than a fence to hurdle.

In Michigan, more than 5,000 kids enrolled last school year in one of nearly 20 different district-homeschool partnerships across the state. By best estimates, that’s more than 10 percent of the homeschool population. These partnerships are similar to the state’s publicly funded shared-time programs. In these programs, district teachers instruct private school students, often alongside public school peers, but only in certain elective courses.

The innovative superintendent of Center Line Public Schools, an inner-ring suburban Detroit district, exhibits the remarkable attitude that undergirds many of these partnerships. As an elementary principal in the district, she was approached by a homeschool parent about setting up an after-school program. The superintendent’s eyes were quickly opened to the possibilities of learning from and sharing with a different educational culture and community.

Most of Michigan’s innovative districts operate additional programs beyond homeschool partnerships. Often working with businesses and community organizations, they have focused on creating less conventional ways for groups of students who are not served well by the standard schooling model. In so doing, these relatively few districts are swimming upstream. It’s not uncommon for them to clash with government auditors who define terms as narrowly as possible to limit what courses receive state blessing and funding.

Added to these tensions is the growing uncertainty brought by a new governor and a new state education chief in 2019. Political power in Michigan soon will tilt toward the education system’s established interests.

In the meantime, state lawmakers are considering bills that would make it easier for districts to create nontraditional programs, including innovative homeschool partnerships. Though some oversight would remain, new programs wouldn’t have to depend on permission from state bureaucrats who are wedded to older models.

Regardless of where they live, those who are more committed to giving children meaningful learning experiences than to defending the rigid boundaries of different education models should watch how this Michigan episode plays out.

The best, often innovative, educational approaches don’t always arise from large government agencies in national or even state capitals. For many children and families, they may emerge from unlikely but voluntary partnerships.

That is a refreshing reality worth standing up for.

Ben DeGrow is director of education policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, an educational and research organization based in Midland, Michigan.