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More money or more strings?

A homeschooling innovation brings opportunity and danger

More money or more strings?

Homeschooling mother Adria Bishop with her sons Tyler, Austin, and Wyatt (Gary Fong/Genesis Photos)

As a young mom, Martha Hazelrigg rarely left the house with her four homeschooled children during school hours. When they did venture out, she coached them to tell inquisitive grocery clerks and shoppers they attended a local Christian school. It was true: Hazelrigg’s children homeschooled through that school’s independent study program. But in 1985, home education was rare, and mothers had legitimate fears that skeptics, even family members, might report them to the government.

Thirty years later, Hazelrigg’s oldest daughter, Christy Harmeson, homeschools her five children without any qualms about leaving the house on school mornings. She usually sees a scattering of families like hers at parks, stores, libraries, and hiking trails. In the San Francisco Bay area, where Harmeson lives, museums, aquariums, and even the University of California Berkeley host “homeschool days” or special classes for home-educated children. These programs sell out quickly.

Homeschooling has gone mainstream. About 2.5 million students—3 percent of all school-aged children in the United States—homeschool, according to Brian Ray, president of the National Home Education Research Institute (NHERI). It’s no longer a movement of non-establishment people on the left and evangelical believers on the right: Nationwide, only 21 percent of parents in 2012 cited religious or moral instruction as their reason for homeschooling, down from 36 percent in 2007, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Ray says more families are choosing to homeschool for lifestyle reasons. They might have a child who is a gifted athlete or musician, or one who struggles in a traditional classroom environment. This has changed the face of homeschooling, as these new homeschoolers may not be concerned about government entanglement and may be open to ideas that steer government funding to homeschools.

Some homeschoolers in California have been using tax dollars to pay for parts of their homeschooling expenses through a charter school program. Homeschooling purists, though, worry that any government money comes with strings that threaten the independence they’ve worked so hard to achieve.

This is an issue bigger than California, however, since 43 states and the District of Columbia allow charter schools—public schools freed from many of the regulations that inhibit innovation in district schools. California is unusual in having homeschool charters, but homeschooling mom Heather Deyden-Littrell notes, “Other states are picking up on what is happening and seeing it as a viable option. It’s becoming more of a wave.”

So far, a few other states offer homeschool charters, but most offer less money than California families receive, lessening their appeal. For example, 10,000 Alaskan students are enrolled in such charters, and districts give parents up to $2,000 in educational funds. More money or more strings: More homeschoolers across the nation will need to choose.

Gary Fong/Genesis Photos

Austin Bishop, who is enrolled in a homeschool charter program, reads a book. (Gary Fong/Genesis Photos)

ADRIA BISHOP, 36, a Sebastopol, Calif., homeschooling mother of three, last year left the Christian co-op she was a part of to join Summit Academy, a homeschool charter program that had recently opened a Sonoma County location. Enrolling was easy: She had to provide her children’s birth certificates and a recent utility bill.

“Homeschooling can be really expensive,” says Bishop: “We already forgo one income and pay for all our curriculum.” The Bishops received $2,800 per child—$8,400 for all three. With those funds, they purchased an iPad, math curriculum, an Oakland Zoo membership, and in-home guitar lessons for one son. They also paid for field trips to Alcatraz Island and Safari West.

The Bishops’ approach illustrates one of the main appeals of homeschool charters: It’s a way to get something back from all the taxes they pay toward education. California allows enrolled families to receive up to $3,200 per child, which they can spend on anything as long as it’s on their charter school’s list of approved vendors. Almost anything goes—except for faith-based curriculum and resources. But parents can still buy religious curriculum with their own dollars.

Nationwide, only 21 percent of parents in 2012 cited religious or moral instruction as their reason for homeschooling, down from 36 percent in 2007.

Those funds make a big difference for some families. Approved vendors offer books, curriculum, STEM kits with science equipment, tutoring services, educational toys, gymnastics classes, zoo and museum passes, music and horseback riding lessons—as well as less conventional educational enterprises like tickets for Disneyland. Charters require parents to return non-consumable items, like laptops, iPads, and microscopes when their children withdraw from the program.

Homeschool charters differ from virtual charters, hybrid schools, and independent study schools that assign specific curriculum and often offer in-person classes at resource centers. Most homeschool charters let parents pick their own books and coursework. Some offer a set curriculum for those who want it.

Greg Schneider/Genesis Photos

Heather Deyden-Littrell works through homeschool curriculum with her son Dylan. (Greg Schneider/Genesis Photos)

Bishop chose her own curriculum, including some Bible-based texts, like Apologia Science: “As a Christian, I was like, ‘What are you not going to let me do?’ I was nervous about that … but it was very hands-off.” She used her own money, not the charter’s funds, to buy overtly Christian curriculum.

In return for the state funding, Adria Bishop had to submit to minor state oversight. She had to meet with a certified teacher once a month (via the internet was OK) and turn in an attendance sheet and work samples from different subjects. Since those samples cannot contain faith-based references, Bishop submitted science worksheets without Bible verses or mention of God.

Traditional homeschoolers worry about the effect of homeschool charters on their own freedom to educate their children. 

PUSHBACK TO THE HOMESCHOOL CHARTERS has come from at least two directions: government and more traditional homeschools.

In May, San Diego authorities accused an Australian man and his partner of using their company, A3 Education, to buy real estate and fund other ventures: A3 ran both homeschool charters and traditional ones. Authorities indicted 11 people for a “charter scam” they alleged cost the state more than $50 million in education funds. Following the charges, the state froze the assets of all A3 charters, leaving many teachers, parents, and homeschool vendors in the lurch. Adria Bishop was one of them.


Greg Schneider/Genesis Photos

Eight-year-old Ellie Littrell with homeschooling books (Greg Schneider/Genesis Photos)

A3 Education’s alleged corruption came at a time when California lawmakers were already attempting to cap charter growth. California has more charter students than any other state—660,000, or 11 percent of the state’s 6 million K-12 students.

Because charters aren’t required to hire unionized teachers, California’s powerful teachers unions want to limit them. Controversy over charters spawned teacher strikes earlier this year in Oakland, Los Angeles, and elsewhere. Gov. Gavin Newsom recently appointed a task force to evaluate charter schools’ effect on public schools, and the state Legislature is advancing bills that would limit new charters from opening.

Orange County mother of three Windi Eklund is part of a homeschool charter. She worries that the state might limit her options. She says private homeschool families have been mostly silent about that prospect. “Very few have shown up to support us in this fight,” Eklund said: “There’s this stigma that we’re not really homeschooling.”

Traditional homeschoolers worry about the effect of homeschool charters on their own freedom to educate their children. Christy Harmeson and her husband homeschool privately through a local Christian co-op. In recent years, several of her friends have left the co-op to join homeschool charters springing up in Northern California. She admits the money—nearly $12,000 extra for their one-income family—does sound appealing. But, Harmeson says, “It’s hard not to think the more we take state money, the more the government will say, ‘This is how you have to homeschool’ … and that we are voluntarily etching away our freedom.”

California already requires parents of the state’s 270,000 privately homeschooled children to file an affidavit that registers their home address as a private school. But the state’s homeschool establishment has fought other regulations.

Last year, after authorities accused David and Louise Turpin of Perris, Calif., of torturing, abusing, and neglecting their 13 homeschooled children, state lawmakers proposed two bills to provide more government oversight of home-schooling families. One mandated a yearly fire marshal home inspection and another established a government committee to oversee homeschooling and set teacher qualification standards.

Both bills died. Nathan Pierce, director of operations and legislative liaison for the Sacramento-based Family Protection Ministries (FPM), credits the thousands of homeschooling families who opposed the bills. Pierce said one state legislator asked him, “Can you tell your people to stop calling me?”

In FPM’s nearly 35 years of alerting homeschooling families of potentially restrictive state bills, last year’s battle was its biggest. Homeschooling families tend to stay in the background of California’s liberal politics, but Pierce said, “My experience has been that when [they feel] threatened, people … come out of the woodwork to defend their freedom.”

Though both private and charter homeschoolers opposed the legislation that grew out of the Turpin case, they are often on opposing sides. The Virginia-based Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) has spent more than three decades fighting to keep the government out of homeschooling. President Mike Smith warns against taking government dollars for homeschooling: “When you get involved with the state and take state funding, then the state controls education.”

HSLDA sees governmental oversight as antithetical to the point of homeschooling. “Our view is that children and parents do better without it,” Smith said. That belief puts HSLDA and its network of private homeschooling families at odds with homeschool charters taking public funds. When asked about homeschool charters, Nathan Pierce of Family Protection Ministries said his group does not fight “public school battles.”

Homeschooler Heather Deyden-Littrell thinks he’s wrong. She says if lawmakers restrict charters, they will come after private home education next: “It’s strange that there is this line between private and charter homeschoolers. We all need to band together.”

Mary Jackson

Mary Jackson

Mary is a book reviewer and reporter for WORLD. She is a World Journalism Institute and Greenville University graduate who previously worked for the Lansing (Mich.) State Journal. Mary resides with her family in the San Francisco Bay area. Follow her on Twitter @mbjackson77.


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  • Katie
    Posted: Fri, 08/16/2019 10:55 am

    This is very helpful information for us as a homeschooling family, thank you.

  • Molly C
    Posted: Fri, 08/16/2019 11:36 am

    Been working with homeschoolers since 1994, offering small classes in areas where they feel less comfortable. In WA, these 'homeschool charter' schools got started about the year 2002, and are called Parent Partnership Programs (PPP) and are run by local school districts. Students are enrolled as though they were warming a seat, and the district gets the funds for them from the state. The PPP then shared the money with parents, and districts were required to meet with the student at least 4 hours per month for each 'class'. So they developed fun little classes for which parents would sign up their kids, and called that their supervision of instruction. At first, these programs WERE the voucher system for WA, and parents could use the funds for an online class, piano lessons, get reimbursed for trips to the local museum, etc. The requirement was to document the time spent in instructional time, and if a family got full reimbursement for a student then they had to document 25 hours per week of instructional time.  Homeschoolers don't NEED that much time to homeschool, so documentation got to be quite a burden.  Parents can document lawnmowing as vocational education, but were then exposed to the liability of kids using hazardous machinery.

    My organization, Zacchaeus Learning Opportunities, states that we teach from a Christian, Bibilically based worldview.  I got phone calls from the local PPPs, wanting to know if they could pay us for a math class, because that would be pretty neutral, right?  I asked if I could tell the story of how we got 360 degrees in a circle, which begins with the Babylonians' stargazing, goes through Daniel landing in the court of Nebuchadnezzar, and ends with the wise men at the birth of Jesus.  Would they have a problem with me telling that story?  Yes they would.  Then I couldn't take their money.

    Excellence was our reputation, and homeschooling families began to use us to 'finish' the education begun in those PPP classes.  We were very disappointed with the lack of education those kids had gotten.  We began having to wind back our classes to cover basics, and parents didn't like it when their 'A' student got put in a class 'beneath' his/her grade level.  Screening for proficiency got to be important to us.  

    The other thing that happened in these district-sponsored classes was the silly distracting behaviors that the PPP kids had learned in those classes.  We had seen those from kids who had been in classrooms.  It's not typical of kids who have been strictly homeschooled.  We spent time quashing that behavior we would rather have spent on instruction.

    The PPPs got more and more restrictive as well.  When the legislature learned that parents were getting reimbursed for piano lessons the legislature decided that districts couldn't reimburse anything the local classroom wasn't getting. In other words, your homeschooled student couldn't get a better education from the PPPs than a regular classroom was giving.  Later, the legislature decided that PPP classes offered to high school students had to actually lead to a credits earned towards high school graduation.  Some of the PPPs collapsed their high school programs!

    Bottom line:  Will you get better education from a government program than you will through your own homeschooling?  I don't think so.  

    The HSLDA definition of homeschooling is the parent-as-teacher, or the student being self-taught.  You are still allowed to direct your child's education, no matter where your child is enrolled.  There are excellent instructors everywhere, including in some of those government homeschool programs and in our high schools.  Find out who they are and get your kids in front of them.

  •  West Coast Gramma's picture
    West Coast Gramma
    Posted: Fri, 08/16/2019 04:58 pm

    Very interesting, thank-you!

  •  TInaH's picture
    Posted: Fri, 08/16/2019 06:51 pm

    When you take taxpayer money, you are NOT homeschooling. Whatever such an arrangement looks like, it is but one iteration or another of public school at home. If that's what a family wants to do, that's their choice (ill-advised but their choice nonetheless). However, they are lying when they call themselves homeschoolers. Homeschoolers are SELF-funded. 

  • Steve Shive
    Posted: Sun, 08/18/2019 07:00 pm

    Thanks for this update Ms Jackson. It was very informative.

    Home education, home schooling, is not a static nor even easily defined educational option. At its core it is when the parents take control of their children's education. This can take various forms but in essence takes place in the home under the authority of the parents. But the beauty of it is that there are various ways to actually do this that fits the needs of a particular family. Contrary to strong words to the otherwise as noted in this piece as well as the comments that follow parents make the decisions on when and how they educate their children as well as how it is paid for. Of course we must be wary of governmental intrusion but then that is nothing new and cannot be completely avoided regardless of what you do. 

  • jclark53
    Posted: Mon, 08/19/2019 09:23 pm

    As a homeschooler, I felt any program that limited the curriculum or dictated what I had to use, and required submission of student work, to be something other than homeschooling. Anytime you invite someone else to do the work, you are not homeschooling. You are "other" schooling. That's not always a bad thing, but it should have it's own designation.

  • Just Me 999
    Posted: Tue, 08/20/2019 06:55 am

    Homeschooling or educational neglect? We have been homeschooling for 35 years - our children have done very well in public universities in STEM fields, but many of our peers have children who suffer from educational neglect. This is the elephant in the room for homeschoolers, but it is a real problem.

    I would guess that 30-40 percent of the homeschoolers that we have observed have a poor equivalent for high school. These kids suffer with substandard writing skills and very little knowledge of even some basic STEM high school areas. These poor kids are educationally handicapped for life and some wake up to that realization only to find that they cannot realistically make this up. They are stuck for life in some substandard career path because of their deficient high school education.

    Frankly, for today's high tech society, this is educational neglect. There has to be more than keeping little Johnny at home because he is so adorable. We as parents owe our children the very best education and if they cannot get it then private/public schooling is the only option. We must do what is best for our children's future even if that means putting them, as a last resort, in the dreaded public high school simply because their education has such a dramatic affect on their future.

  • My Two Cents
    Posted: Wed, 08/21/2019 12:42 pm

    Just Me 999, that's a bit of a stretch to claim 30-40 % of homeschoolers suffer from educational neglect, while claiming your bright home educated children are awesomely thriving in STEM fields. How did YOU educate them so well in high school? If my kids aren't pursuing math or science as a career, does that mean they suffer educational neglect? 

    "They are stuck for life in some substandard career path because of their deficient high school education." Please define "substandard career path." 



  • Just Me 999
    Posted: Wed, 08/21/2019 05:16 pm

    My Two Cents worth: very simple - not meant to be offensive but take a hard look around you - many jobs are opening up in STEM areas - this will continue as society continues to advance technology, medicine, engineering, etc.

    By not preparing your children for the STEM path you are over time denying them more and more opportunities for future jobs as the STEM fields continue to grow. They will be stuck in a path of not being qualified because they had a very poor STEM high school education that they just can't get caught up on.

    Look at all the foreign students in leading American universities - this will grow over time as other countries have figured out that the STEM field is very hot. Most Masters programs in Engineering are 98% international students. We owe it to our children to teach them STEM skills and have them be top-notch at them.

    Visit the web site I provided you if you don't believe the 30-40% but that's where we are - I can name you MANY HS families that are unable to educate their children to even enter college, let alone the STEM fields. You can't read the success stories - you have to see the elephant that is not in the success story. My years of teaching church, para-church high school ministries, and participation in large HS groups show me that at least 30-40 % of these kids have an 8th grade education.

  • My Two Cents
    Posted: Thu, 08/22/2019 01:09 pm

    Apparently we hang around different groups of home schoolers. In my small city, I can think of three who were national merit scholars persuing education, English, history, and music and have made great achievements in their respective fields. Another family has four children who have become a dental hygienist, a missionary teacher, an inner city teacher and a future engineer. Another National Merit finalist is choosing to become a writer, and another is in ROTC honor program to become an engineer. Some who are currently in college  study engineering, pre-law, social work, computer programming, sport management, and education. Almost all the homeschoolers I've known over the past 10 years have taken dual credit courses while in high school, and gone to college (if they desired) and most received sizable academic scholarships to do so. Some have joined the military. One is studying auto mechanics at the community college. Others have served on the mission field. Please don't assume that a STEM field is a better alternative than the arts, humanities or trades.  Life is complex, and the world is made better with truth and beauty, not just math and science. One compelling reason to homeschool is to foster a desire to serve others and pursue interests. I hope my auto mechanic or plumber were homeschooled, because they are problem-solvers and have a strong work ethic. On the other hand, I know a computer programmer who can't recognize a hammer nine times out of ten. 


  • Just Me 999
    Posted: Fri, 08/23/2019 09:22 am

    My Two Cents: you haven't visited the link that I mentioned because you are doing exactly what the website mentions - only reporting the success stories and ignoring the elephant in the room.

    These are not just my statistics - they also cite the very same numbers.

    The point is that in this increasingly professional society unless all of us who are homeschooling are willing to teach our children at a level where they could be accepted at the finest colleges, we are not adequately preparing them for their futures. That is the burden that we must shoulder when we take on high school education and if we are not able to do so then we should put them in institutions that can and take on the other burdens that go with that choice. 

  • Richard Siek
    Posted: Fri, 08/23/2019 11:16 am

    When parents of children get money to homeschool their children, or send them to a private school, via vouchers or educational savings accounts, they are not accepting public money. The state is merely returning THEIR money over a short period of time that the parents pay in over their lifetime of taxes. Sine the money is not the states money, they have no right to attach any “strings” to it. This country should have universal education savings accounts for everyone, controlled by the parents, so parents have full control over how their money is used to educate their children. If parents decide to send their kids to the local public school, fine, the. the money from the account would be given to the public school.

  •  Soapbxn's picture
    Posted: Sun, 08/25/2019 12:55 am

    We are now empty nesters but homeschooled K-12.  We were, and are, strong advocates of independent homeschooling but also used our local homeschool program through the local school district for high school for a daughter who had aspirations to swim in college on scholarship, which she did all four years, on scholarship, and graduated on time with honors and no debt.  It was a good decision to allow her to be affiliated with the school system in order to make sure she met all of the NCAA requirments and to easily participate on a highschool team.  We ended up having a great experience and are blessed to be in a district that supports home education 100%. Our state, Alaska, is highly pro-homeschool.  We have the freedom to completely homeschool independently with no strings attached and no connection at all to the state if we choose..  This is a big responsibility for parents but also it is the foundation of parental academic autonomy for all families, whether they choose to put their children in the local brick and morter classroom, nearby brick and morter charter school, or do it themselves at the kitchen table. In essence it creates competition within the entire education system.  In order to preserve our freedoms to choose how to educate our children, it is important that we strive for as much indpendence as possible and home school freedom is a big part of that. I always encourage perspective homeschool families to stay indpendent of state funds as much as they possibly can.

  • Kris
    Posted: Fri, 09/13/2019 11:27 am

    I agree more with My  Two Cents than with Just Me 999.  Just Me, your site seems biased toward seeing more educational neglect than is prevalent.  We should not be unconcerned about those parents not seeking their children's best interests, but I only saw 1.5 cases of neglect in my 30 years of homeschooling in the US and abroad.  One was a very large family where the mother seemed overwhelmed and over her head educationally and emotionally. 

    The other was a fake homeschool family I ran into when delivering meals from our church:  their 16 year old was "homeschooled" because he was 16 and refused to go to school, having been placed in the 9th grade.  They moved often and had almost no furniture, but they did have a huge TV and game system.  The 16 year old was angry, rightly. He was not dumb, but was definitely neglected.  They had no books or curriculum.  The family also failed to comply with state reporting requirements.  He stayed home to care for his baby brother.  Before I could make formal inquiries or act, the family had moved again with no forwarding address.  Maybe they thought I was asking too many questions.  I feel sorry for those children.

    Just Me site also says families homeschool at the same participation rate for high school as for elementary.  I seriously doubt that.  The majority of the families I knew sent their children to public high school.  My own children were:   (1) homechooled until graduation then some community college and stay at home mother; (2) public school senior year, now in Certified Nurse Anesthetist program after 7 years as RN; (3) public high school last 2 years, college graduate in Biology; (4) public school last 2.5 years, college graduate and artist/marketting manager; and (5) public school senior year, now freshman at college after a gap year training in the military reserves. All but the last one are self-supporting.

    Just Me's site also referenced parents without high school diplomas as being more likely to "homeschool" than parents with bachelors degrees (4% v 3%).  I may be misinterpreting the data, but I never met a homeschool parent without at least a high school diploma.  Those figures also indicate to me that 96% of homeschool parents have a high school diploma and 93% (?) have post-graduate schooling.  That seems high to me.

    Most families are very concerned about high school achievement and enroll in accredited umbrella programs that issue transcripts or, as we did, do AP/honors courses online.  When my children were in public high school they reported (after the fact) that about half their day was wasted in class.  Learning to be responsible for your own learning (with parental oversight, of course), a good work ethic, and learning time management are important strengths.  But results vary.  My children and not geniuses or "over-achievers". My last 12 years of homeschooling was in Germany with other military families.  I saw no educational neglect there and we had no reporting requirements of any kind.

    I am concerned about money with strings attached.  Parents will do their best to make informed choices.  When we see children neglected, we should NOT be silent.