She makes it sound so simple. Naturally, it’s not an easy decision, but all local homeschoolers I talked to said that they met with no resistance from the State of California. In fact, California silently embraces homeschooling. State law neither permits nor forbids the practice, and according to the HomeSchool Association of California brochure, “This vagueness delights some homeschooling families.” The California Education Code states, “All children between the ages of 6 and 18 must attend a public full-time day school unless otherwise exempted.” Of course, parents may send their child to a private or parochial school. Those who choose to homeschool have several options. They can employ a private tutor, who must have a teacher credential; get a teacher credential; or enroll their child in an independent study program at a private school; but from what I’ve gathered, most parents in San Diego County choose one of two other options — either establishing their own private school or signing up their child in a public school’s independent study or homeschooling program.
Mt. Everest Academy in Clairemont, part of the San Diego Unified School District, enrolls homeschooled students — about 350 of them. Linda Gross, a counselor at the school, explained the program to me. “We’ve been operating for 12 years and we call it a public homestudy option,” she said. “If a family decides to homeschool, for whatever reason, their kids come to us and we guide them. We offer different options, we set the kid up with a credentialed teacher, we provide a full set of curriculum materials, and then they go home and do their work. We also offer all kinds of activities to keep the kids socialized and engaged.”
Like any public school, Mt. Everest receives funding from the state. Officials in Sacramento calculate how much money a school gets by counting the number of students sitting at its desks, Gross explained to me. “But here, they calculate our funding based on the amount of work our students hand in.” Gross admits that her job involves lots of paperwork and bureaucracy, but, she told me, “When it works, it works wonderfully. We’re in favor of options and flexibility here. Not all kids are alike; we serve kids who are outside of the box either in their brains or interests. Plus, what we can offer the parent who wants to homeschool are the free guidance, activities, and books and materials.”
The San Diego County Office of Education administers something similar through its County Home Education Program. Sally Maxwell, a teacher in the program, explained to me that the county homeschooling option is just for students from kindergarten to eighth grade. Mt. Everest Academy, meanwhile, ushers students through high school. “We say we’re a choice to what we call traditional school,” Maxwell said. “The greatest benefit, of course, is that unlike homeschooling on your own, this doesn’t cost the students anything. The state has been very supportive,” she says. The county started the program 15 years ago when it realized that so many parents wanted to homeschool. Rather than send those kids away and lose the state funding that comes with them, the county set up the homeschooling program. “Fifteen years ago it was still pretty new,” Maxwell said. “But once the districts saw that it was working and viable, they broke off and started their own homeschooling programs. So now most of the big districts within the county have their own programs; they have the number of clients to warrant the books and everything else.”
Maxwell told me that she never tries to talk a parent out of homeschooling, “but sometimes it might be that a parent is simply mad at a teacher. In a week maybe things could be worked out. Whatever reasons parents have to homeschool, you want them to be sincere, and you can tell by talking to a parent if that’s the case. Also, of course, the child has to buy into it. If you’re pulling out your seventh grader for some random reason and the child fights you, you won’t win. It won’t work.” Maxwell, who has seen its benefits up close, supports homeschooling. “The one-to-one instruction is so valuable. If you look at teachers in the classroom, they do a phenomenal job of trying to teach to all the different learning styles, but if you can zero in on your child’s style, that’s good. You can stay with something longer because they have an interest, or you know when you need to cut something short because they’re losing interest. The beauty with homeschooling is that you tailor make it to the child. If I have a child who is way above in reading levels, I would make sure that I’m challenging that child. All fourth graders are not necessarily fourth graders. This used to be scary, and today every district knows that it’s a choice that really works for some people, that works well.”
“But,” Maxwell concluded, “there are still a lot of people out there who are doing it on their own and they prefer to get their own curriculum. We’re a public school, so we use a state-approved and state-adopted curriculum.”
Gross made the same point about Mt. Everest. “We’re standards-driven because we’re public,” she said. “We’re flexible, but we’re still standards-based.”
Many homeschoolers feel that true homeschooling must be separate from the state and that standards and prescribed curricula poison the whole endeavor. Nancy told me, “Some of these programs have a stigma attached to them because the public schools use them to educate dropouts. I filed as a private school, and that’s what I recommend that other people do.” Establishing a private school in California only requires filing a yearly affidavit, called an R-4, with the state. A private school, therefore, can enroll just one student. (Some state officials have said that parents who use an affidavit to declare their home a private school have misinterpreted certain statutes and may be operating illegally. But one has to assume not. The state never enforces such a law.)