School's Out Forever
The Furgason home has the relaxed feel of a place where you could take a nap in the middle of the afternoon without guilt. A squeaking ceiling fan churns the warm air inside the modest rent house, isolated from its working-class neighborhood by three-fourths of an overgrown acre. Two mismatched blue couches near an ancient Zenith invite inactivity; in fact, they were probably never too nice for such laziness. An old black dog sprawls across the cool concrete of the front porch where he's tethered. But mostly, the slow pace comes from Holly Furgason herself.
She's a round woman, with a kindly, round face. She wears comfortable clothes -- jeans with T-shirts and tennis shoes -- and her long brown hair is pulled back in a bun, with wispy grays forming a fuzzy halo above her forehead.
"Downtime," says Furgason comfortingly, "thinking, resting, relaxing, is just as important as uptime."
Yes, you could take a nap here, if you happened to be in the Furgason house at a time when there wasn't so much activity going on. On this day a rooster is crowing through the bars of an open window; a half-sheltie, half-chow pup is chasing a six-year-old and her balloon around the linoleum; and three older kids, ages ten to 15, are talking loud and fast at the kitchen table. It's a school day, but the Furgason children don't go to school. They never have. They don't do anything resembling schoolwork when they're at home either. In fact, they're playing Pokémon, the bane of an elementary school teacher's existence. Furgason looks on proudly. "Are we normal enough for you?" she says with a laugh.
Furgason is normal in the sense that she wants what's best for her children. She simply doesn't think what's best for them is public school, or traditional homeschooling, for that matter. The Furgasons are unschoolers, a small subset of homeschoolers who keep their kids out of school for educational rather than religious reasons and operate with no textbooks, exercises, assignments, drills or even set subjects to study. The idea is to let children continue with the natural learning process that starts in infancy, when babies begin to walk and talk and take in the world without much adult instruction. If given half a chance, these parents believe, children would tackle grammar and arithmetic with the same fearless curiosity. The unschooling mantra: "Birds fly. Fish swim. Children learn." You can't stop them, you don't need to help them, and you certainly shouldn't force them.
The Furgason family makes its home in one of the most unregulated homeschooling states in the country. In fact, some 75,000 families teach their own children in Texas, a place where pro-government is politically incorrect, where an individual's freedom to destroy his own mind is virtually a constitutional right, and where liberals will argue the sanctity of parental authority as fiercely as conservatives. But even here, Furgason's extremely laissez-faire approach to her children's education may cross the line of reason, and the law.
Furgason had a "typical public school experience" growing up in Buffalo, New York. She was an early reader, so she started kindergarten at the age of four. A shy, well-behaved girl, she did well in class until high school, when she blew off school two or three days a week and ultimately failed her senior year. What happened to the good student?
She remembers sitting in the back of the classroom quietly reading Kafka -- in German. She got detention for it. She asked her teacher how the founding fathers came up with their ideas for the government of a new nation. The answer: That's not on the test. Partly as a joke and partly as an experiment, she took the ACT without looking at the questions and scored a very high 32. She no longer bought into the system.
Furgason wonders how incidents like these didn't quash her love of learning. Perhaps it was because she was so shy; she had nothing better to do than sit at home and read. Fiction, nonfiction, textbooks, encyclopedias, biographies, newspapers, magazines -- she was indiscriminate, as long as the material interested her. At some point she happened upon a book called How Children Fail, by educational reformer John Holt. "Of course," she thought, "I had been one of those kids who failed."
Holt taught elementary school for ten years, all the while trying to figure out how to make the public school system better at fostering learning. But by the late 1970s he had decided that real reform was impossible and that parents should educate their children at home. It was then that he coined the term "unschooling."
"The question I have been trying to answer for many years is, Why don't they learn what we try to teach them?" he wrote in a 1982 revision to the '60s classic How Children Fail. "The answer I have come to boils down to this: Because we teach them -- that is, try to control the contents of their minds."
Holt's ideas made sense to Furgason, who believes she unschooled herself all her life. "Kids are not inherently lazy, stupid creatures. They want to learn, want to know, want to understand the world around them," she says. "I wish I could sue the schools I went to for keeping me from getting an education."
In fact, when she really gets going on the public school system, she makes Holt seem positively moderate. Tossing out names like Thomas Malthus and Horace Mann, she sounds like a conspiracy theorist as she explains that rich people created institutions of compulsory education for the poor, not out of any sense of noblesse oblige but because they needed to prepare them for factory work. Public schools, she says, were designed to train people to go from place to place at the sound of a bell, not to educate an intelligent, free-thinking populace. "I'd no sooner let my kids go to school than I would let them swim in a vat of gasoline," she says.
So when Furgason got pregnant with her first child while she was studying at the University of Houston, she thought to herself, "How would I have wanted my life so I could have learned everything I wanted to learn?"
The learning taking place at the Furgason house is certainly subtle. The family makes frequent trips, almost always by bus, to the library, as well as to museums, bookstores, art galleries, the zoo, NASA and HITS Unicorn Theatre, where Furgason and all but her youngest child are performing in the musical Oliver! "I create a learning environment for me," says Furgason, "and it just kind of radiates out."
But they seem to spend the bulk of their time around the house, keeping in touch with friends via email, making cookies or their own Play-Doh in the kitchen or just plain playing in a backyard wonderland that includes chickens, an organic garden, a fallen tree, a 1942 Metro bus and a whole lot of open space. They talk a lot, too, about the play rehearsals, books, Pokémon, anything. No matter how inane the conversation, Furgason listens intently and takes her kids seriously. There is no shushing, even when they get a little loud with excitement.
Justin, the oldest at 15, is interested in medieval history, so he makes pieces of chain mail out of paper clips. It was not an assignment. In fact, his mother at first had no idea why he kept asking for her plastic-covered paper clips. Laboring quietly in his room, he would peel off the plastic and form them into round links with the help of a pair of pliers and a plastic chopstick. He hopes to sell his creations at the next Renaissance Festival.
Justin also hopes to be an engineer, but when asked if he has learned any algebra, he responds with his best Scooby Doo version of "I don't know." This may change, especially since Furgason herself became more interested in the subject after finding a book that treats math as a language, a medium she can better understand. Besides, Justin has come to many things a little late in life: He didn't read until he was 11, and happily he still hasn't learned the self-conscious coolness and eye-rolling angst of a teenager. Of course, Furgason isn't pushing anything. "If they never studied math, it would be fine with me," she says. "But the kids all want to learn."
Kate, 12, is the quiet perfectionist. She reads books from the American Girl series about young women in different historical time periods, and she writes and illustrates her own books with her ten-year-old sister and best friend, Courtney. She plans to start taking classes at Houston Community College when she turns 14 and then go to Yale to study drama and law. Furgason has no doubt she'll get in: "She's Yale material."
Courtney, the most outgoing of the brood, belts out musical theater in a low, earth-shattering voice at the slightest provocation. She reads books about birds, Pokémon and other creatures and wants to become a veterinarian. This, along with her siblings' ambitions, will require formal, structured training at some point, but Mom says that's okay as long as they choose it.
Six-year-old Abigail, who has the slightly slurred speech of a child who learned to talk by trying to keep up with her older siblings, wants to be a movie star and never leave home. The imaginative little girl scribbles faux cursive "stories" and gets upset when her mom mistakes a unicorn tale for one about a princess. She's not reading much more than three-letter words yet, which would make first grade difficult. But Furgason has faith. "My kids read, and I never really taught them," she says, "so it's gonna happen."
Out of sheer childhood necessity, Abigail is picking up arithmetic as she tries to determine whether the powers of her Pokémon cards beat those of Courtney's in battle. No such luck. "I'm dead, right?" she asks for confirmation. Abigail also eats leaves, which would seem to be a less than age-appropriate activity, until you realize that she and her mother have classified nearly every plant in the yard to determine their edibility.
The Furgason kids know a lot of interesting things, but it's obvious that there's a lot they don't know as well. Before a reporter can even get out of the car at their first meeting, Furgason makes it clear that her children are not to be quizzed or tested in any way. They don't know the capital of Idaho, she says, but does that really matter?
"One of the problems with homeschooling" 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 time.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."
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 tests.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 designed to meet basic education goals of reading, spelling, grammar, mathematics and a study of good citizenship."
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.
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."
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 (www.gcty.com/athens/delphi/ 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."
At a Heights park with some 35 HUG kids and their mothers, Furgason has transformed herself from political activist back to casual, craftsy mom. She has brought the newspaper and other materials to make a kite with no sticks, and she's working hard to make it flight-ready. The other mothers, talking around her at the picnic table, aren't much help. And the kids, who don't have to do anything they don't want to do, are playing a raucous game of tag/king-of-the-mountain around the jungle gym, with Justin as the ringleader. A few girls are hanging out in the shade just on the fringes of the action.
Courtney is barefoot, her outstretched legs and those of another, taller girl's forming a diamond shape in the playground's pebbles. They push the pebbles into a little hill between them and talk quietly until a boy runs by, extolling the virtues of a World Wrestling Federation character. Courtney begs to differ; she thinks the WWF stinks. She and the boy have e-mail arguments about it all the time.
Once the boy has disappeared back into the game of tag and the girls are alone again, there is another interruption, this time from a reporter, Courtney informs her friend.
Do you ever think about going to school?
"Yeah," Courtney says, still pushing the rocks around. The other girl offers that, based on what she has heard about school, she doesn't think she would like it.
Do you want to go to school?
"Yeah," says Courtney again.
Would your mom let you go to school?
"Nope," she says with a laugh.
"I don't know."
Why do you want to go to school?
"'Cause I've never been there."
She's curious to learn about something new, just like her mom said she would be. But for all of Furgason's protection of her family's freedoms, in this instance Courtney will not be allowed to pursue her interest.
E-mail Lauren Kern at email@example.com.
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