On paper, Bennett appears directly opposed to the ideas of many of the homeschoolers I’ve met. The author of books like The Moral Compass and The Book of Virtues, Bennett exhibits a cartoonish, sanctimonious kind of conservatism. It’s not that homeschoolers aren’t virtuous — quite the opposite — but that they reject his strict prescriptions for education. Under Reagan, Bennett all but invented the absurd system of standards that currently hobbles so many schools and he opposed social-promotion programs of any kind.
Bennett told the New York Times that he was writing the standards for the K12 curriculum himself and that he would base them on those expectations contained in The Educated Child. In that book, Bennett and his coauthors, Chester E. Finn Jr. and John T.E. Cribb Jr., maintain that kindergartners should be able to identify the plants in a playground, second graders should know “that the f sound is sometimes spelled ph,” third graders should know the legend of Romulus and Remus, fourth graders should have a working knowledge of the French and Indian War, a seventh grader should know why trade winds occur, and so on. Bennett also said that K12 students will be “tested frequently online and will not be able to advance to new topics before mastering preceding lessons.” Finn has likened the tests to “a second opinion from a doctor or mechanic.” Another back-to-basics proponent, Finn admitted to Steinberg that there is a political motivation behind the tests. “It will push a school toward teaching the things we think are important,” he said. Homeschoolers recoil from such rigidity. They haven’t removed their children from a structured setting so that Mr. Bennett and his cronies can dictate their children’s education.
On the other hand, some of Bennett’s positions correspond with those of most homeschoolers. He is an outspoken proponent of school vouchers, which are one small part of the larger social movement we call choice. Like homeschoolers, Bennett has said that he favors school choice and that K12 might become a haven for children who don’t thrive in traditional schools, whether because they’re shy, worry about being exposed to drugs, or, as he told Steinberg, have “terrible acne problems.”
By playing tug of war with it, politicians have wrenched most of the meaning out of the word “choice.” On the left, it stands for a woman’s right to choose; on the right, for the freedom to send your children to whatever school you see fit. But there’s a reason Bennett has had to squirm to pitch K12: the issues surrounding education today have become so complex and twisted that standard party rhetoric buckles under their weight. When talking about education, a hippie can suddenly sound like a right-winger and a William Bennett can sound like a compassionate softy. What talking to local homeschoolers and reading the manifestos on the subject taught me is that we should drop the traditional rubrics we use to talk about it — fundamentalist and secular, for instance. Those terms, and others, compress all the reasons and ways to homeschool into tidy packages. In fact, the homeschoolers that I talked with, parents and children alike, contradicted themselves all the time. Ralph Waldo Emerson, though well educated, promoted self-learning perhaps more than anyone. “A foolish consistency,” he wrote in “Self-Reliance,” “is the hobgoblin of little minds.”
Nancy Wooton and I talked about Bennett’s program. We debated whether it should be called homeschooling or distance learning. We decided on the latter. K12 will let kids stay at home and will allow more parental control, but the curriculum is fixed and, according to Nancy, flexibility lies at the heart of homeschooling.
Nancy, 42, lives in the College Area and is the San Diego contact for the HomeSchool Association of California (hsc). The association, based in Atascadero, promotes and provides information about homeschooling and offers opportunities for families to get together. Nancy’s husband works in the dot-com industry, and she homeschools her two children, Laura, 13, and Alex, 11. Neither child has ever attended school.
“The hsc is one of three main homeschooling groups in the state,” Nancy told me. “It’s pretty well organized. If someone has decided to take their children out of school and wants to do some research, they can talk to me and I can help them find support groups. I also moderate an e-mail chat group and we have the park days, although both are separate from the association. We get together because our kids like to play together and we can talk. hsc is inclusive, meaning it’s not an exclusively religious group. There’s one group that is exclusive,” she said, referring to the Christian Home Educators Association.
Another local homeschooler, Lesley Payne, told me that this “big Christian group” bans many people, “including Catholics, Mormons, Jews, and others who are not ‘saved.’ Some people who do meet their criteria just plain don’t like them,” she added.
“There’re people of all different faiths in hsc,” Nancy said. “I’ve known everything from Orthodox Jews to Muslims; personally, I’m an Eastern Orthodox Christian. But we’ve had Baha’is and pagans and all kinds of people in this group.”
Nancy confirmed that homeschooling has become more popular in recent years. “Oh yeah,” she said, “it grows by leaps and bounds. A lot of people are calling me and are looking at it, and for a lot of different reasons. Some people are fed up with the amount of homework their kids are given. They realize their kids are doing a tremendous amount of busywork and are miserable and are getting really stressed out.”
I asked Nancy why she and her husband decided to homeschool Laura and Alex. “We decided even before we had kids that we would homeschool,” she said. “It was a couple of different things. It’s been a long journey. One of them was our own experiences in school. In my case, it was pretty bad. I was a smart kid but I got crushed by about third grade. My husband was a smart kid who thought school was too easy. So I came at it as the C student and he came at it as the A student. We just decided that if there was an alternative we would do it. Then we discovered homeschooling and that was it.”