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Some Public Schools Try to Lure Homeschooled Students

June 9, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT
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LEE HOCHBERG: At a recent Sunday service at the Arago Community Church in tiny Myrtle Point, Oregon, school superintendent Robert Smith was there– not just to worship, but to recruit.

LEE HOCHBERG: Smith was trolling for new students, Christian students whose parents had pulled them from his public school district to teach them at home instead.

The nation’s 1.1 million home schoolers are a problem for Smith and other school administrators. That’s because under the school funding formula used in Oregon and an increasing number of states, schools receive state funds based on how many students are enrolled at the school. For Smith, each student taught at home represents $5,000 his schools don’t receive.

Myrtle Point is a town of 2,700 in Oregon’s struggling timber country, and its schools have been hemorrhaging students, whose parents have pulled up stakes. The district already faces a $675,000 shortfall next year from state budget cuts. The 100 children being home schooled only add to the money woes.

ROBERT SMITH: We’re missing $500,000; $5,000 a kid. It’s basically the difference between the quality of an excellent district versus the qualities of a not so good district.

LEE HOCHBERG: Public school administrators in larger cities have the same problem. Many students in Seattle have transferred to private schools. And in Detroit, shrinking population has left fewer students and fewer state funds. Mike Griffith is with the Education Commission of the States, a nonpartisan education think tank.

MIKE GRIFFITH: In the past if you were a high school of, say, one thousand students, and you lost ten or twenty kids that decided to go to a private school or home school or to a charter, you didn’t really pay much attention to that. Nowadays you have to.

ROBERT SMITH: How can the public schools help home schooling families come back?

LEE HOCHBERG: Myrtle Point superintendent Smith met with church-goers after service to hear how he might lure them to the district.

MAN: I know holding hands is allowed in the school. I don’t know about public kissing, those kind of things would have to be greatly limited.

LEE HOCHBERG: They told him his science and English curricula would have to change to reflect Christian values.

MAN: Creation is important. Biblical literature would be helpful, things that are not anti-Christian as well, concerning curriculum; acknowledging America’s Christian history, for example, creation, biblical curriculum. I think the home schoolers would respond positively to that. I know we would as Christians. We’d love it.

LEE HOCHBERG: There’s no mention of creation in the school’s biology text. And the vast majority of scientists argue against it. But adding it to the biology curriculum seemed workable to Smith, who believes it will appeal to home schoolers.

ROBERT SMITH: We’ll work with our board of directors and in formulating board policy, hopefully that can accommodate the interests of our home schooling families.

LEE HOCHBERG: So that you would teach evolution as a theory and creationism as a theory?

ROBERT SMITH: Well, that’s our hope to be able to do that. That’s what our home schooling families would like us to do. And we’re going to do it if it is at all legally possible.

LEE HOCHBERG: The view alarms educational experts, like Griffith.

MIKE GRIFFITH: You’re cheapening and bending the way that you educate children to keep one group happy. And it doesn’t matter what that group is or who they are. You don’t want to go too far down that road. You know, your job as an educator is to educate. Your job isn’t necessarily to win over the most people.

BILL YESTER: That’s a PH of zero, so that’s a strong acid.

LEE HOCHBERG: Putting creation on equal footing with evolution also leaves Myrtle Point science teacher Bill Yester uneasy.

BILL YESTER: To bring in religion to get people to come here, I’m not sure that’s the right way to go. If we were a private school, that’s different. But we’re not a private school; we’re a public school. So I would have some feelings about teaching creationism. I’m not sure I would really want to do that.

JEFF CLARK: The question is, how can a moral young man coexist in an evil world without undermining his or her own integrity? That’s the problem of Hamlet.

LEE HOCHBERG: Down the hall, though, English teacher Jeff Clark said he’d have no problem teaching a class on the bible as literature.

JEFF CLARK: We’re talking about having a basis to understand literature itself. And literature, western literature is founded upon much of the bible and much of Greek culture. The bible is an interesting collection of works that really causes us to reflect about our own ethos and about why are we what we are.

LEE HOCHBERG: The superintendent says in tough economic times, his public school may have no choice but to include Christian teachings.

ROBERT SMITH: We have a variety of constituents here that we’re hoping to meet their needs in such a way as to include them within the public schooling process. And I think that’s a collective view that supersedes individual interests. We can ill afford to exclude any segment of our constituency and expect to survive.

LEE HOCHBERG: It’s not just religious courses that are being used to entice home schoolers. Smith is making home visits to families like the Romans. He’s pitching an expanded course list that includes forestry and ecology for their four home schooled kids.

STUDENT: Do you guys have, like, any cooking classes or anything?

ROBERT SMITH: Hmm. Yes, I think we could. We would have to make one.

LEE HOCHBERG: Where no course exists, Smith offered to create one.

ROBERT SMITH: With your background in home schooling, it might be possible for you to enroll in that one on an accelerated basis.

LEE HOCHBERG: Even if the home schoolers take only one or two classes, Smith’s school will receive partial compensation from the state. And other public schools are contracting with outside educators to attract home schoolers. Five school districts in the Portland area struck a deal with a private alternative school, called Village Home, to offer classes like international cooking to 250 home schoolers in their districts.

TEACHER: On your cutting board, you can bring it over and put the onion into the pan.

LEE HOCHBERG: Village Home also offers this forensics class, also Tae Kwan Do, a Harry Potter class called “Hogwart’s Comes to Village,” and “Lego Robotics for Fun.” One hundred home schoolers from the Beaverton, Oregon district enrolled in these classes and the district received $132,000 from the state.

But all five districts are pulling out of the agreement this month, after the Oregon Department of Education ruled Village Homes’ unusual classes don’t comply with state regulations. Education analyst Griffith says it’s not enough to simply create classes home schoolers like.

MIKE GRIFFITH: Yes, it’s nice that you’re getting the money from these kids, but you’re starting to move away from what your central goal is. Your central goal is to educate student and prepare them for life. If you’re giving them, you know, Legos classes, I don’t see where that’s really getting them towards life.

LEE HOCHBERG: And many home schooled families say they have no interest in public schools regardless of what classes they offer.

TECKLA WILSON: What’s unique about the way that they give birth?

LEE HOCHBERG: Teckla Wilson has taught all four of her boys in her Myrtle Point home, believing it’s simply a better place to learn than public school.

TECKLA WILSON: I understand that they do need more money, and I don’t begrudge them wanting that $20,000 that my sons represent. I just don’t think that it’s going to get that through home schoolers.

LEE HOCHBERG: Other home schoolers we talked to agree. With more states basing school funding on enrollments, home schoolers and the money they represent could become an ever greater problem for schools. Some states are trying a phase-out system, where districts that lose a student lose only 25 percent of the funding for that child the first year, then 50 percent the next, and so on. That could lessen the financial impact.