On an early Tuesday afternoon in the middle of March, the sun burst out and burned off a cold, gray sky. Standing in the shade of a tree in Tecolote Park, I watched two dozen school-age children play various games. Some swung on swings; some ran in circles on the grass, chasing each other and laughing. In another corner of the park, a group of kids played soccer. They had set up yellow traffic cones as goals and a volunteer coach with a whistle instructed them. Other kids sat on the ground in small groups and talked.
The children were not alone. Their parents, mothers mostly, had laid out a colorful quilt of blankets on the grass. They wore straw hats and poked around in their picnic baskets for carrot sticks and sandwiches. They talked in quiet, earnest tones; every once in a while one would politely brush crumbs from her face. Sometimes one looked up and scanned the park for her boy or girl. Except for the occasional happy shriek piercing the air, tranquility reigned. Everyone was loose and cheerful.
But why, an uninformed passerby might have asked, aren’t these kids in school?
“It was a simple decision, really,” she said. “One day she came home from school with all these questions about the speed of light. She couldn’t figure it out and she wanted to talk about it, but I said, ‘No, we can’t. We have to color in all these bunnies.’ It was her homework assignment. I saw how absurd that was. So I decided to homeschool in order to let her pursue her interests.”
Today, “homeschooling,” once a dirty word among educators and responsible parents, sits on the tips of many tongues. No longer a fringe concept, homeschooling has become a profitable business and a potent catchphrase in the political wars over education. Liberals and conservatives, atheists and fundamentalists, and people from every other ideological camp — including teachers — now recognize homeschooling as a sensible — and in some cases necessary — alternative to a school system that so many of us think is broke. Locally and nationwide, more and more parents homeschool their children, whether on their own or through programs set up by school boards. Almost two million children in this country attend homeschool. By most estimates, about 5000 kids in San Diego County homeschool in one way or another. That number will surely rise in coming years.
The mainstream media’s increasing coverage of homeschooling has something to do with this surge. In its February 26 issue, People ran an article titled “The Learning Place” that claimed, “Home is where the school is.” Early this year Leslie Stahl did a 60 Minutes segment on so-called distance learning (the segment has since run a second time). She profiled the University of Phoenix, an online college that allows students to work or stay at home while they earn a degree. To keep up with these trends, and to make sure they don’t lose tuition revenue, major universities — Columbia and Harvard, for instance — are launching similar Internet-based curricula. Naturally, humanities professors who cherish their seminars and memories of the Socratic banter that taught them what they know vehemently oppose these shifts and predict the annihilation of the liberal education. We should take their warnings seriously. As reactionary and pedantic as it sounds, college must provide more than a degree. The world — yes, the world — will suffer if young adults stop attending college. We can place no value on collegiality. Nevertheless, curious 20-year-olds will find a way to learn, so long as they’re equipped with the basic critical skills that a K-through-12 education provides.
That’s why, in this age of standards and accountability, pundits worry more about homeschooling at the primary and secondary levels than at the college level. It doesn’t matter, they argue, whether homeschooled students attend college in person or remotely (via a computer terminal) if they are crossing the threshold into college education at a disadvantage. The question is, do elementary and high school classrooms impart unique, indispensable lessons that homeschooling or online programs can’t provide?
Many people doubt the inviolability of the classroom. Even William J. Bennett, the back-to-basics, ultraconservative secretary of education under President Reagan, embraces homeschooling — or a butchered version of it anyway. As recently as 1999, Bennett, in a book titled The Educated Child, took a swipe at the burgeoning online learning industry. “When you hear the next pitch about cyber-enriching your child’s education,” Bennett wrote, “keep one thing in mind: so far, there is no good evidence that most uses of computers significantly improve learning.”
But last December, Bennett changed course. He announced that he was founding a for-profit school called K12 that will offer children a complete elementary and secondary education, from kindergarten through 12th grade. The curriculum will be available only online and at a cost of at least $1000 a year. If parents or students have questions or want to correspond with instructors by e-mail, they will have to pay more. The announcement of Bennett’s venture sent shock waves through the education community. Michael R. Milken, the infamous Los Angeles–based financier who pleaded guilty to securities fraud in 1990, is the primary investor in K12. After his plea, Milken concocted a new persona, becoming a high-profile philanthropist. As if Milken’s backing weren’t enough to cause a stir, Bennett recruited David H. Gelernter, a professor of computer science at Yale, as K12’s technology adviser. Gelernter is also a well-known public figure, though not by choice. You may remember that in 1993 a package mailed to Gelernter by the Unabomber blew off most of the professor’s right hand.
Bennett and Milken see homeschooling as a lucrative commodity. Parental anxiety over education knows no bounds, and the market in alternative, for-profit educational products, such as software and tutoring programs, is expected to reach $170 billion by 2005. Bennett has stated publicly that he designed K12 for homeschoolers. In two articles that appeared in the New York Times, the first published in late December and the second in late January, Jacques Steinberg examined the new school. He wrote, “Mr. Bennett hopes to enroll about 50,000” of the country’s two million homeschoolers by 2004. Bennett’s flirtation with homeschooling highlights some of its many facets.