The first thing you notice about Karen Allens house is that it is spotless. Even in her teenage boys bedrooms, not a thing is out of place. And her boys, Thomas and Taylor, are polite and engaging. In this household, every chance to learn something new is eagerly seized, explains Mrs. Allen. The Allens are home-schoolers. Instead of sending their children to a public (non-fee-paying) or private school, they teach them at home. They are far from alone. A generation ago, home schooling was rare and even illegal in many states. Now according to the US department of education, there are roughly 1.5 million home-schooled children in America, a number that has doubled in a decade. This is about 3 percent of the school-age population. The National Home Education Research Institute puts the number even higher, at between 1.8 million and 2.5 million.
Why do people teach their children at home? Many of the earliest home teachers were hippies who thought public schools repressive and ungroovy. Now they are far more likely to be religious conservatives. At a public school, says Mrs. Allen, her boys would get neither much individual attention nor any Christian instruction. At home they get plenty of both.
In a 2007 survey by the US department of education, 88 percent of home-schooling parents said that their local public schools were unsafe, drug-ridden or unwholesome in some way. Some 73 percent complained of shoddy academic standards. And 83 percent said they wanted to instil religious or moral values in their children, a number that rose 11 percent from 2003.
Not all home-schoolers shun the public schools for religious reasons. Anne Mitchell, for example, pulled her son Gordon out because she did not like the way the school dealt with his cerebral palsy. Rather than helping him to do things by himself, the school assigned a helper to follow him around and do everything for him. A tenth of home-schooling parents say that one of their children has a physical or mental problem that the local school cannot or will not accommodate. And some parents teach at home because their children are brilliant and public schools fail to challenge them.
But there is no doubt that religion is the main force. American public schools are rigidly secular, and for parents who want their children to grow up with Biblical teachings of creation and morality, home schooling is the best option.
However, opponents of home-schooling — and some of them are vehement — argue that it is socially divisive. Also since home-schooling is largely unregulated there is no way to tell if children being taught at home are receiving an adequate education. Unregulated home-schooling opens up the possibility that children will never learn about… alternative ways of life, writes Rob Reich of Stanford University.
Nevertheless, the movement will probably continue to grow. For one thing, it is getting easier. The internet lets parents discover teaching materials, communicate with each other and share tips online. Parents lobby vigorously against anything that might cramp their freedom. Having Barack Obama in the White House may cause more people to pull their children out of public schools, predicts Michael Farris, chancellor of Patrick Henry College, a Christian university in Virginia, a state where most students are taught at home. Views of the government are coloured by views of the president, he says, even though the president has little control over education. And Mr. Obama is far too liberal for most of Americas home schoolers.
(Excerpted and adapted from The Economist)