The top three finishers in last week's National Spelling Bee are educated at home. The winner, 12-year-old George Thampy of St. Louis, placed second the previous week in the National Geography Bee. You might ask what difference this makes in the day of "spell-check" and the Internet. Plenty. Contrast the pursuit of excellence and unique personal attention that are the norm among homeschoolers with what occurs in government schools, where the curriculum is often dumbed-down and non-academic subjects take time away from acquiring real knowledge and the endangered species known as wisdom. In Massachusetts, the state board of education is requiring math teachers in secondary schools to take the same exams they are giving their students to discover if the teachers know the material. It would appear not. Thirty percent of the students are failing math statewide. In Montgomery County, Maryland, an elementary school principal has stepped down following allegations that students had been coached and allowed to cheat on state achievement tests in order to bolster the school's prestige. The kids blew the whistle on their authority figures. Those who are part of, or politically beholden to, the education establishment are worried about homeschooling and how well children who participate do. President Clinton thinks homeschoolers should be made to "prove they are learning on a regular basis" or be forced to go to government schools. This is surprising, given that homeschooled children consistently score higher on standardized tests than their government-school counterparts. As for the myth that homeschooled kids aren't getting socialized, an ABC News reporter recently asked one how he feels about that. He indicated he is happy to avoid school shootings and competition over clothes and cliques. Homeschooled children have plenty of time to socialize, but in a different environment. The number of children taught at home has increased from a minuscule 15,000 in 1978 to 1.5 million today. Academic resources are better than ever, with Web pages offering information about good textbooks, teaching aids, and supplemental materials. But mostly homeschooling forges a special bond between parents and their children. It communicates to children how important they are that parents invest so much time in them. It also earns dividends for parents who are able to shape their own children's intellectual and moral development and not turn that responsibility over to an agent of the state, who, no matter how good a teacher, will always be required to teach the state's values and the state's perspective on subjects from sex to history and biology. Children educated at home are some of the friendliest, most articulate, and socially comfortable people I've met. They look you in the eye. They speak in complete sentences, eschewing verbal crutches such as "you know" and "she goes." They aren't robots, but neither are they freaks. They are, I suspect, the way most parents would like their children to be: smart, kind, courteous, respectful, and seeking to live a moral life. A huge political battle is just beginning over school choice. Most people think American public education was here at our nation's founding. In fact, the early American schools were mostly religious, private, controlled by parents and in competition with each other. The objective was to educate students, not establish an education bureaucracy and careers for teachers. The public schools were started in order to mainstream immigrants, inculcate them with American values and erase cultural diversity for the sake of a united nation. Parents were seen as "unfit guardians" of their own children, according to Andrew Coulson in Education: The Unknown History. As economists Rose and Milton Friedman have written, "Nearly 150 years after its inception, the public school system has segregated the population more deeply between the 'have's and the have-not's' by creating a gulf of learning deprivation too wide to cross for the many low-income, minority children whom it fails." Their solution (see their Web page: www.friedmanfoundation.org) is school choice, including homeschooling. Parents would again be given the option of deciding where their children should be educated and the financial resources to help make their choice a reality. That can only spell "s-u-c-c-e-s-s" for the children and the country.
-© 2000, Los Angeles Times Syndicate