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Religion Still Major Force in US Home Schooling - 2003-03-29


School enrollment in the United States is at an all-time high. There are now more than 53 million students attending primary and secondary schools in this country. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the number hasn't been that high since 1970, when the youngest members of the so-called "Baby Boomer" generation were children. The overwhelming majority of American students study in community-run classrooms, a tradition that began in the 19th century, and was the norm by the turn of the 20th. But an increasing number are learning the old-fashioned way; at home with their parents as teachers. And the "separation between Church and State" that animates American law is part of the reason why.

Education experts estimate nearly two million American children, or about three percent of the nation's young students, are studying math, science, history, and literature in their own homes. That's up from just 15,000, when the home-schooling movement began in the early 1970s. Some of the increase has been a result of curriculum cutbacks at tax-payer funded public schools. As more and more school districts have eliminated art and music programs, for example, to save money, some parents have turned to home schooling as a way to ensure their children are exposed to these subjects.

Others, particularly parents in rural areas, have opted to teach their children at home, because they don't want their kids spending hours a day on a bus, traveling to and from their classrooms. But according to Dave Smith, of the Maryland Association of Christian Home Educators, the impulse that compelled parents 30 years ago to start educating their children at home is still the strongest force driving parents to do it today. "My guess is that most families, you know, at least 50 percent of the families would say that the religious component, or their religious convictions, played some role in the decision," he says.

In fact, a report published by the U.S. Department of Education reveals that religious conviction is the greatest single reason parents choose to teach their children at home. Dave Smith says many Christian, Jewish, and Muslim parents want their kids to be exposed to religious discussions that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the 1960s cannot take place in taxpayer-funded public schools.

The cost of sending a child to a private, religious academy has gone up significantly over the last twenty years, and so parents like Leah Weideman, a mother of five living in suburban Washington, DC, have turned to home-schooling. "Well, we were looking. It was really hard to find Christian schools for the middle-school age that had high schools also. There really weren't a whole lot in this area. Not to mention it's very expensive with five kids all in school also," she says.

Leah Weideman says she was reluctant at first to take on the responsibility of teaching her children, because she didn't think she could handle it. But then she learned about Cedar Brook Academy, one of more than a dozen so-called "umbrella" schools for home education in the state of Maryland.

Administrators there establish guidelines that coincide with state education requirements, telling parents how many hours of each week need to be spent on a particular subject, and also providing experts who help parents choose textbooks and design lessons. "I like the fact that there's someone who's saying "Have you made this test? Have you done this? Where are they at?" And just keeping me accountable, and making sure that we kept up with everything, that they stayed where they should be grade wise," Ms. Weideman says.

Leah Weideman says the guidance offered by Cedar Brook Academy was particularly helpful when it came time for her to select a biology textbook for her children. Ms. Weideman says in most subjects, she's perfectly comfortable having her kids use the same books students in public schools use. But when it comes to science, she wants her children to get a different perspective. "I think there's a large trend in science to elevate science itself as a god, rather than the God of Creation. I have no problems with learning evolution, per se, but it should not be treated as the only one, because it's a theory," she says. "It should be taught as a theory, it should be presented as a theory, and I don't think you always find that very much in a lot of the science classes."

Not all educators agree with Ms. Weidman on that point. In fact, the U.S. Justice Department is currently investigating a claim of religious discrimination against a college professor in Texas who won't write recommendations for students who don't accept the theory of evolution as fact. It's situations like that that Leah Weideman says she'd like to avoid, and that's why she's teaching her children at home. But she also realizes her kids are all going to have to do what her oldest son has already done, and that is leave home if they want a college education.

That's why Leah Weideman chose a textbook that considers both the theory of creation that's important to her, and the theory of evolution that's emphasized at public schools. Her second son, Luke, who'll be entering college next year, says he thinks he's prepared to handle any discussion about the origin of life. "We did touch on evolution and stuff, because obviously you want to know what the other side thinks, because otherwise, you know, you can't argue with them, because first, they won't respect you, because you don't know anything about what they believe, and if you don't know what they believe, you can't really argue with them very well, either," he says.

If Luke Weideman is at all like most home-schooled students, he shouldn't have any problems arguing or competing with his public-school-educated peers when he gets to college. Recently released statistics show that home-schooled students tend to score higher than public school students on standardized college entrance exams like the SAT. And a number of schools, such as the University of North Carolina and Brown University in Rhode Island, report that home-schooled students have higher grade-point averages during their first years at college.