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January 31, 2008 News » Cover Story

One of these things ... not like the others. But at its core, just how different is a homeschool education?

click to enlarge Christina Oursler (center) works with 6-year-old daughter - Sophia on a math lesson as Kaitlyn, 13, waits her turn. - BRIENNE BOORTZ
  • Brienne Boortz
  • Christina Oursler (center) works with 6-year-old daughter Sophia on a math lesson as Kaitlyn, 13, waits her turn.

A dry-erase board hangs over the kitchen table, still marked from a recent lesson.

"Clock, flock, lock, rock, sock."

"Black, flack, hack, lack ..."

A world map and a timeline of ancient civilizations cover one wall in the nearby living room. Around the corner, a typed "daily school schedule" peeks from a crowded bulletin board beside notices for Girl Scout meetings and other events.

"Bible read aloud," comes first on the schedule, followed by handwriting work, then math.

True to her plan, Christina Oursler leans back in a worn rocking chair on a warm Thursday morning in January, her two daughters sitting on a bench beside her. A Bible rests in her lap, her coffee mug on the table.

"All right, so yesterday we talked about Jesus getting baptized," she begins. "And so we're moving on."

Oursler reads the next passage, describing how the devil leads Jesus to the top of a mountain, offering up all the world's kingdoms if Jesus kneels and worships him.

"Jesus' refusal was curt," Oursler reads, explaining the last word in a whispered, parenthetical voice: "not the person."

She follows with Jesus' reply, her voice registering only a slight giggle at modern phrasing in the youth Bible: "Beat it, Satan!"

Being able to read the Bible at the start of every school day is only part of the reason Oursler and her husband choose to educate their children at home. Oursler, 33, says the thought of eventually homeschooling her own kids occurred to her while she was a high school student in the north-central Michigan town of Farwell.

In those days, homeschooling was in its pioneering phase as a national movement, but Oursler became friends with a girl named Rebecca, who had largely been taught at home. In a small town where beer and country music held center stage, Rebecca was passionate about ballet and classical music, Oursler recalls. She and her brothers didn't care about their clothes or how people reacted upon learning their interests.

"They were very much their own people already," Oursler says.

This friend was inspiring, Oursler says; her own public school education was less so. After graduating, she joined the Army, married, left the Army and started her family.

As Kaitlyn Oursler, now 13, grew up, the parents dabbled with public schools. They sent her to kindergarten, and then third grade at a local elementary. They found teachers who seemed overwhelmed simply with controlling their classrooms, Oursler says, so they went back to holding classes at the kitchen table.

"I'm homeschooling so I can open up their world, not close it," she says, offering a justification at once noble and vaguely paradoxical.

Rising numbers

According to a 2004 report from the National Center for Education Statistics, between 900,000 and nearly 1.3 million children in the United States were homeschooled the year before. The Home School Legal Defense Association, one of many advocacy groups pressing for near-complete parental freedom in choosing how to educate children, offers loftier figures for the same period: 1.7 million to 2.1 million.

The way homeschooling is reported in Colorado could explain some of the difference. State law requires parents or guardians to file a "notice of intent" with their local school district before they begin homeschooling. According to the state Department of Education, notices were filed for 7,445 students last fall.

This, however, doesn't count homeschooled students registered with "independent schools," which can be loose partnerships of homeschooling families or institutions offering curriculum advice and other services.

Kerry Kantor, a longtime home education advocate, started the Peyton-based Colorado Academy of Independent Learners in 2001. While she won't say how many homeschoolers are enrolled, she estimates that these independent schools and unreported students would bring the state total to between 20,000 and 25,000.

State numbers might obscure the true number of homeschoolers, but they show interesting trends in terms of where they live. As the state's most populous county, it makes sense that El Paso County would have the most students being homeschooled. More surprising, perhaps, is that El Paso County has 13 percent of the state's public school children but 27 percent of its homeschooled kids.

Long known for its religious fervor, El Paso County is apparently a popular place to get away from the avowedly secular schools.

click to enlarge f802_p17c.jpg

There's disagreement, if little debate, about how homeschooled children perform in comparison to the public schooled masses. The HSLDA raves on its Web site about the results of a 1998 study showing thousands of homeschooled students across all grade levels averaging in the 62 to 92 percentile range for math, reading and language skills. For reading alone, the average at most grade levels was in the high 80s.

Other studies touted by homeschooling advocates report similar test results. Some even try to survey general measures of life success, suggesting children educated at home do well on college admissions, in the job market and are even more likely to help elderly neighbors carry groceries from the car.

Critics, however, say the picture is more complicated, with most studies conducted by groups pressing for more home education freedom. Rob Reich, a Stanford University political science professor who studies homeschooling, says the situation is a bit like using studies sponsored by tobacco companies to dismiss the risks of cigarette smoking.

"It's just like what you'd expect," he says.

The 1998 study, for instance, was sponsored by HSLDA. Bob Jones University Press, a leading purveyor of Christian homeschooling curricula, coordinated with parents to administer the test.

And while HSLDA reports that the study is beyond reproach because parents did not view scores before they were reported, there's no way of knowing if parents who agreed to be tested actually represent the whole range of people being homeschooled.

For the few independent researchers looking at homeschooling, Reich points out, there's simply no good data. Most discussion centers around what Reich calls the "glorified anecdote." Kids have won national spelling competitions and aced the SATs based on what they learned at the kitchen table. Some take these examples and conclude homeschooling must work.

But, Reich asks, "What's the average homeschool? The answer is, "We have no idea.'"

Reich concedes many children taught at home do very well and says the homeschooling movement has positive aspects. He aroused the ire of many families, however, when he argued in a 2001 essay that homeschooling without sufficient regulation threatens the state's interest in having citizens capable of participating in a democracy and the interests of children in becoming their own people.

Angry responses

Dozens responded when Reich tried to defend his position on a National Home Education Network forum. Some dismissed Reich's arguments, others insulted him, and many hinted at fears of an overarching plot to take control of their children.

"It's another "Contemplating the Lint in my Bellybutton' paper," one participant wrote.

Responding at one point, Reich commented that most people do not object to the idea of the state intervening inside a home when there is evidence a child is being abused or neglected. The disagreement, he wrote, boils down to the scope of that control.

Some participants accepted that point, but the debate remained contentious. The state should make sure children are fed and cared for, but what say should it have in how or what they are taught?

For all its retro appeal, homeschooling as a movement relies on some distinctly modern tools.

Home computers and the Internet have fueled the movement's growth from a few hundred thousand students in the early 1990s to a couple million 10 years later. Families keep up with news on Web forums and use e-mail discussion lists for advice about curricula and to connect with local playmates and activities. Groups like HSLDA offer legal advice and encouragement.

A Beka Book, one of the leading providers of Christian textbooks and course materials, reaches out to a national clientele from Florida, largely using the Internet and traveling presentations. An A Beka representative says 250,000 families presumably many with multiple children have active accounts with the company.

Expanding networks of homeschoolers have developed into cooperatives, meeting regularly for physical education or specialized science classes. High Country Home Educators, for instance, draws about 700 homeschooled participants to weekly enrichment classes at New Life Church.

Perhaps the strongest embrace of the movement has come from Christians, and a new big-box convenience has sprung up to help meet their homeschooling needs: the Christian megastore.

Wedged between a Bed Bath & Beyond and a Hobby Lobby in a northeastern Colorado Springs strip mall, Mardel Christian and Education bookstore is roughly the size of a Borders. Instead of magazines, fiction novels and pop music, it is crammed full of Bibles, inspirational books and teaching materials.

Even with a team of scanner-wielding employees doing inventory work, the store seems quiet on a Friday morning. Mothers with children in tow pick up posterboard and packs of stickers.

A few examine books at the back of the store, where shelf after shelf is loaded with texts and workbooks devoted to Christian homeschooling. Materials from Bob Jones University Press fill a whole shelf, and a store manager says they're the bestsellers among homeschooling families.

While public school teachers shop at the store, the manager says, religious references in the homeschool texts make them less than ideal for their use.

A bulletin board and a few shelves in the homeschooling section offer ads for tutors, pamphlets on homeschool groups and a three-page listing of local support groups.

click to enlarge Michael Apple prefers public schools. - BRIENNE BOORTZ
  • Brienne Boortz
  • Michael Apple prefers public schools.

A rack nearby holds the fall 2007 issue of The Old Schoolhouse, a national homeschooling magazine. Articles describe techniques for making apple cider; share the "many blessings" of drying clothes on a clothesline; and express a woman's joy at homeschooling her seven children while submitting to the leadership of her husband.

Traditional appeal

Getting back to basics and following tradition are clearly big selling points in modern homeschooling. The movement, however, cannot be called a direct descendant of any older schooling practice. In the 18th century and much of the 19th, most children received their education, such as it was, in their homes the wealthy had tutors, and others used whatever books were available. But as public schools started opening in the mid-1800s, and then mandatory attendance laws took hold in the next century, homeschooling became a rarity, according to Reich and other scholars.

It wasn't until the 1960s and '70s that John Holt and other educators started making a case that schools failed many children. Holt's notion that kids learn best when allowed to pursue their own interests lies at the heart of the modern "unschooling" movement.

Despite growing interest, Reich points out, homeschooling was not legal in all 50 states until 1993. He cites research suggesting an explosion of homeschooling in the 1980s and 1990s was tied largely to a surge among those with conservative, religious views.

Yet it's not fair to say all homeschool families believe the same things or are motivated by a religious worldview. In a 1999 federal survey, religious reasons were the second most common explanation given for homeschooling, at around 38 percent; 49 percent responded they believed they could do a better job at home.

Michael Apple, a University of Wisconsin education professor and noted homeschooling critic, estimates the actual portion of families homeschooling for reasons connected to their Christian worldview is closer to 80 percent. He suggests about 10 percent, possibly more in states like Wisconsin and Colorado, could be considered "environmental homeschoolers," intent on instilling a conservation ethic. Members of another significant group consider themselves "unschoolers" in the tradition of John Holt.

Finally, Apple says, a growing number of black homeschooling families in cities such as Washington and Cincinnati aim to protect children from unhealthy racial dynamics at school.

Like Reich, Apple has found homeschooling a challenging field to study, pointing to the same lack of data and hostility from a few homeschooling proponents. He says he got death threats based on a short homeschooling section in his 2001 book, Educating the "Right" Way.

The urge to homeschool is easy to understand, Apple suggests.

"Our kind of economy destroys communities and destroys traditions, unless you can turn it into a theme park," he says.

Some strict adherents of a Christian worldview look fearfully on this secular world and seek to control how their children interact with it. At home, parents can use textbooks from Bob Jones University or A Beka Book, teaching scientific principles laced with biblical caveats. They can limit musical and television options and allow children only to associate with those they deem wholesome.

Apple calls this "the cocooning effect." Met with public schools that fail many children, some parents face great temptation to withdraw and protect their kids. One danger of this, as Apple sees it, is that it reduces pressure on the public schools and removes children from what remains the "last public space."

"Every other institution in the United States is almost totally privatized," he says. "I still want a very strong public school system."

The public school system generally refuses to teach about religion. Curiously, Apple observes, many European countries still require courses in religious and moral matters even as their churches sit empty on Sundays. American churches can draw thousands, while discussion about what happens inside them is kept out of schools.

For some, the spheres form distinct and competing worldviews: the Christian worldview and that of the secular humanists.

Bob Jones University Press posts a library of homeschooling articles on its Web site. An article in its January 2003 newsletter makes the case that homeschooling parents should keep those two spheres apart.

"Either education rests on a biblical perspective, or it comes from man's point of view," the article states. "A conscientious parent may use God-denying, humanist materials to point out illogic and contradictions in the other side, but the question remains: Why would someone so dedicated to developing a Christian worldview use as his main tool one that is written from his opponent's view?"

The benefits of imparting this Christian worldview to one's children are seen as starting in the home but extending far from it. An article in the April 2004 newsletter is headlined "Secret Weapon: Home schoolers may become to conservative Republicans what labor unions are to Democrats." The author contends homeschooled children overwhelmingly become politically active adults, voting for conservative candidates and often contributing time and money to their campaigns.

Different outcome

Several homeschooling families intersected Dec. 9 when Matthew Murray ended his murderous rampage at New Life Church. Having killed two people at a missionary school in Arvada, the 24-year-old shot his way across the New Life parking lot as Sunday services let out, killing Rachel and Stephanie Works, teenage sisters who were homeschooled. Their father was also injured.

Judy Purcell, administrator of the High Country Home Educators enrichment program that meets at New Life, was shot in the shoulder as she and her family prepared to leave that day.

Murray, who raged in multiple Web postings against his homeschooled upbringing in a strict Christian family, killed himself after he was shot by a New Life security guard.

Purcell, still recovering from her injury, speaks reluctantly about specifics of that day, emphasizing she wishes to avoid causing additional suffering to the Works family.

click to enlarge Christina Ourslers daughters draw pictures each morning - based on her Bible readings, such as this one by 13-year- - old Kaitlyn. - BRIENNE BOORTZ
  • Brienne Boortz
  • Christina Ourslers daughters draw pictures each morning based on her Bible readings, such as this one by 13-year- old Kaitlyn.

"It was not lost on us, as a community, that the three families ... that were the most greatly affected are all three homeschoolers," Purcell says.

She explains that the event can be seen as an expression of God's sovereignty: "We can do and try to create certain things in our own lives to determine the outcome of several things, but ultimately, God is in charge."

Rev. Brady Boyd, New Life's senior pastor, has met with Murray's family since the shooting and says what happened "had absolutely nothing to do with him being a homeschooled kid."

Boyd says he and his church are neutral about homeschooling, and he guesses 10 to 15 percent of families at the church take this route. While his own kids are in public school, Boyd says, homeschooling works well for some families, and he criticizes the media for making an issue of Murray's upbringing. He says most homeschooled children do very well in life, and he points out that Tim Tebow, the Florida football player who won the 2007 Heisman Trophy, was homeschooled.

Murray's parents did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this story, and it's unclear whether or how his upbringing connects with what happened. What is clear is that some of the feelings he expressed online touched nerves with people homeschooled elsewhere.

Becky Ferguson, a 20-year-old in Texas, knew Murray only from his postings at, a Web site used by people affected by William Gothard's teachings or instructed with materials from his Advanced Training Institute, a Bible-based homeschooling program. After the shootings, she felt moved to write a poem to Murray that reads, in part:

"I know what drove you over the edge

I've felt the same in my soul

You and I were alike my friend

Neither of us truly whole."

Ferguson's horrors started after her parents pulled her from school in the first grade. Her parents attended one of Gothard's weeklong seminars, then started using "wisdom booklets" from his institute to teach her and her two older sisters.

Ferguson says she felt isolated and alone. Things got worse with her father's death, when she was 11. She became depressed and suicidal. When she was 13, her mother decided to send her to a camp operated by Gothard's institute in Oklahoma, where she ended up spending two years. She says she was forced to live by a rigid set of rules and punished for questioning any order or teaching.

She adds she felt thoroughly brainwashed when she left the camp, and things fell apart afterward. Now living independently, she is being treated for a stress disorder and is trying to develop her skills as a poet. She says she is still struggling under the weight of her upbringing and the decisions her parents, particularly her mother, made for her.

"She just felt it was the right thing to do," Ferguson says.

States stances

Texas, where Ferguson was raised, is rated a green state by the Home School Legal Defense Association, placing it among about 10 states with essentially no homeschooling regulations. Parents don't have to tell the local school district what they are doing. There are only general guidelines that parents instruct their children in "reading, spelling, grammar, math and a course in good citizenship," according to the HSLDA Web site.

Colorado is orange under HSLDA's scheme, the second most restrictive of four categories, with requirements that parents file various documents and periodically submit test scores or written evaluations showing a student's progress.

These requirements are easily avoided, an HSLDA legal analysis points out, if parents establish a private school with two or more families or sign up with an established independent school.

Kerry Kantor, with the Colorado Academy of Independent Learners, says regulations are unnecessary to ensure most homeschooled kids get a good education.

"Parents really do have their best interests at heart," she says.

Kantor spent 18 years homeschooling her two children, but in some ways she makes an unlikely advocate for the cause. She grew up going to a Catholic school but later left the church, she says. Her mother became upset when she homeschooled her children without teaching details of the faith.

Some homeschooling families the family encountered, she says, also refused to associate with her children because she did not share their beliefs.

Now, Kantor says, she associates with a whole range of people attracted to the movement, calling them an "eclectic mix of individuals." She helps them choose curriculums, whether Christian or secular.

Christina Oursler, for her part, is not involved with an independent school like Kantor's. For now, she files paperwork to homeschool them, and she teaches a Bible-based curriculum.

That will change next year. Oursler recently started coursework at a local community college, studying to become a paralegal. She and her husband talked about where to send the kids after she starts working, and the plan now is to send them to Hilltop Baptist School in the fall.

The expense is worth it, she says.

"I spent 14 years at home now trying to build an education that has as a core component a belief in God," she says. Putting the kids in public school, she told her husband, would be like "throwing water down a dry well."

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