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?

Texas homeschoolers do not register with their school districts or the TEA. According to Houston Independent School District attendance specialists (the new kinder, gentler name for truant officers), when a family is reported as having school-age children at home during the day, say, by a neighbor, an officer visits the family's home and inquires about the situation. If the parents say they are homeschooling, they are asked to fill out a form answering yes or no to curriculum questions lifted almost directly from the Leeper language. Once the form is completed, the inquiry is over. Often the attendance specialists never see the children.

Officers have visited Furgason's house on several occasions. She simply tells them, "My children are not enrolled in public school; they are being homeschooled, and that's where your jurisdiction ends." So far, this has been enough.

But Scott Somerville, an attorney with the Home School Legal Defense Association, says that even though the written curriculum part of the law is not being vigorously enforced right now, unschoolers are still on shaky ground. "We have not yet had a case," he says, "where a bona fide unschooler with a genuine educational philosophy and kids who are actually learning has come to court and had the judge say, 'You don't have a written curriculum, therefore I don't care what your kid knows.' It's going to make an interesting case when it comes up. It's going to make for a great constitutional case."

Gayle Fallon worries that unschooled children might one day be asking, "Do you want fries with this?"
Gayle Fallon worries that unschooled children might one day be asking, "Do you want fries with this?"
Six-year-old Abigail eats plants she finds in the backyard. A less than age-appropriate behavior? Not when she and her mom have classified them.
Deron Neblett
Six-year-old Abigail eats plants she finds in the backyard. A less than age-appropriate behavior? Not when she and her mom have classified them.

Furgason's husband did not want to speak with the Press about his children's education. According to Furgason, he doesn't have as much interest in publicizing unschooling as she does. But to her, unschooling is more than a private choice for her family; it's a movement, and she is, in Houston at least, its leader.

Furgason says that there are a lot more unschoolers running around than you might think, but they're generally very independent, not as organized and visible as traditional Christian homeschoolers. Even Holt's 23-year-old magazine, Growing Without Schooling, a national forum for unschooling discussion, has a deceptively small subscriber base of 5,000. Part of the problem seems to be that different families practice many different variations on the idea of unschooling; in fact, among nontraditional homeschoolers, it's hard to tell who's an unschooler, and to what degree, and who's not. The joke, as Furgason tells it, is that "unschoolers don't have their own group because they can't get it together."

But that didn't stop Furgason from founding the Houston Unschoolers Group three years ago. It is, of course, a very casual group with a Web site ( 1794/hug.html) and a fluctuating membership of about 75 families. While homeschooling traditionally has been the province of the white and well-off, Furgason says she has been getting more phone calls lately from interested working-class minority families. She thinks it's because they recognize the "poor neighborhood" prefix on her phone number.

HUG serves mostly as a social network for kids and a support system for parents. It's hard for parents to have that "knowledge that your children will learn, can learn everything they need to succeed," says Furgason. "I don't think anybody is 100 percent confident." But HUG is also a sort of protopolitical action committee, and in that arena, Furgason's confidence never wavers.

In a recent HUG meeting at Houston City Hall designed to convince the intrigued but not necessarily converted, she presented a paper that she wrote with Justin about the legality of unschooling with regard to the Leeper decision. (The conclusion: perfectly legal, if you broadly define the idea of "curriculum.") She argued against the more relaxed unschooling idea of "facilitated" learning, and at one point decided that reading, while it certainly enriched life, was by no means necessary to a child's success. In a rant against Houston's daytime curfew law, she invoked the founding fathers, who she suspected were turning in their graves. "One of our fundamental freedoms," she said with a pitch-perfect mix of exasperation and patriotism, "is to come and go." And her children can't come and go during school hours for fear of being carted off to juvenile hall. She lamented the fact that public school is teaching the poor kids from her neighborhood to aspire to be plumbers and carpenters rather than lawyers and doctors. And she cautioned against aligning with Christian homeschoolers, who are more likely to concede points held dear to unschoolers: agreeing to submit to registration or standardized testing or curriculum approval or visits by the school district. "Good laws for them," she said, "aren't necessarily good for us."

When a man from The Woodlands asked if there is a lobby for unschooling, Furgason answered provocatively: "Here. This is it. We can all go to Austin right now." She was joking, but there's a hint of truth in her desire to give legislators a big piece of her mind. The threat, if not the reality, of government intrusion or political conflict with the Christian right is ever present. Furgason knows that unschoolers must be vigilant in naming their rights and protecting their freedoms.

By the end of the meeting she sounded like the "radical hippie" that her son sometimes calls her. If that's true, she says, "I'm the most boring hippie I know."

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