School's Out Forever

"Unschoolers" like Holly Furgason don't believe in public education. They don't even believe in teachers. They believe in the ability of their children to teach themselves. Will the law catch up with them?

"One of the problems with homeschoolingŠ" says Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, "is programs like these." Fallon has never met the Furgason family, but she thinks their educational philosophy is "absolutely flaky" and a disservice to their children. "We went through some of that garbage in the '60s with the 'Well, the child will tell us when he's ready to learn' and turned out a pack of illiterates," she says. "Apparently the child had other things he'd rather do that were competing for his timeŠ.He may think it's [great] when he's nine or ten, but it may not be quite as much fun when he's 30 and going, 'Do you want fries with this?' "

To this teaching professional, education is nothing if not a methodical process with certain learning goals that must be achieved at specific points along the way -- whether you do it at school or at home. And she says that most homeschoolers are moving more and more toward very sophisticated and standardized purchased curricula to help their kids keep up. As for a boy like Justin who doesn't read until the age of 11, "we assume he's five grade levels behind his peers and that remediation is critical."

Furgason looks on proudly when her children play Pokémon, saying, "Are we normal enough for you?"
Deron Neblett
Furgason looks on proudly when her children play Pokémon, saying, "Are we normal enough for you?"
Justin wants to be an engineer, but for now he makes his own chain mail rather than studying calculus.
Deron Neblett
Justin wants to be an engineer, but for now he makes his own chain mail rather than studying calculus.

Fallon, like many people, believes the government has a compelling interest in making sure a student is adequately prepared to enter the workforce or college when he turns 18 years old so that, in theory, he will be less likely to fall victim to societal ills such as unemployment and crime. "I understand it's their child," she says, "however, if they fail to educate their child, then their child is a burden on the rest of us who did educate our children for the rest of his life."

Public education's poor record at preventing societal ills aside, it's difficult to gauge how unschoolers turn out in later life. Studies conducted by the National Home Research Institute indicate that homeschooled children perform 30 to 35 percentile points above the national average on standardized achievement tests and that they go on to post-secondary education almost as often as public school graduates (69 percent as compared to 71 percent). But these studies encompass homeschoolers of unspecified educational philosophies, and it's unlikely that the unschooling contingent is well represented in the survey. As for Furgason, she doesn't need studies. She has her own example: An unschooled friend of Justin's named Sophie was recently accepted at Oxford. Besides, Furgason says, college isn't the be-all and end-all of success; a lot of unschoolers grow up to start their own businesses.

But beyond its debatable merits, Fallon also questions whether unschooling meets the requirements of Texas law on homeschooling. "The way that homeschoolers were able to pretty much stay legal was because they came out with a structured curriculum and because they could show that 'This is what I use, this is what I teach them,' " she says. "I always thought they ought to be subject to the state accountability testsŠ.I think they ought to take the TAAS, just like every other child in the state."

This is the kind of regulatory talk that makes Furgason cringe. "It all comes down to freedom. The government shouldn't tell me what my kids should and shouldn't learn. Whether or not they come out with the best education in the world, it's still not the government's business," she says. "You will not find a politician in this country who will say they're against homeschooling, but they won't say they're for homeschooling freedom."

In 1985, the year that John Holt died and Furgason had her first child, school districts in Texas prosecuted more than 100 homeschooling families for violating the state's compulsory school attendance law. The Texas Education Agency had taken the position that while private school attendance was an acceptable substitute under the law, no such exemption was made for school at home.

In retaliation, nine homeschooling families and a young national Christian organization called the Home School Legal Defense Association filed a class-action lawsuit against the TEA and the Arlington, El Paso and Katy independent school districts. In a decision that was appealed all the way to the Texas Supreme Court, a judge ruled that school conducted in the home was indeed a private school and therefore its students were exempt from the attendance law.

It was a landmark case for homeschoolers, but what's critical to the Furgasons' situation is the actual language of the decision. The judge wrote that homeschooling was legal as long as the child was pursuing "in a bona fide (good faith, not a sham or subterfuge) manner a curriculum consisting of books, workbooks, other written materials Š designed to meet basic education goals of reading, spelling, grammar, mathematics and a study of good citizenshipŠ."

Furgason's educational philosophy is specifically anticurriculum, and she does not require that her children study any particular subject at all, including basics such as math and reading.

The Leeper decision, so named for the first plaintiff listed in the case, does allow for school districts to inquire about a homeschooling family's curriculum, but there is little bite behind that threat. In response to any inquiry, the TEA requires no more than a letter from parents assuring that they are complying with the law.

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