For active-duty military families juggling frequent moves and long deployments that may take a parent away for more than a year at a time, home schooling appears to be growing in popularity as a means of providing stability in their children’s education.
“When there’s so much change, there’s value and power in being able to control one item,” said Lt. Col. Eric Flake, who is a developmental behavioral pediatrician for the U.S. Air Force at Joint Base Lewis McCord in Tacoma, Wash. “You don’t always control where you move, and you don’t control when you move, but you can provide a constant through home schooling.”
But parents who choose that route face a patchwork of home schooling laws across states.
Although it’s difficult to pin down solid numbers on home schoolers, the National Center for Education Statistics estimates there are 1.8 million home-schooled students in the country, which was 3.4 percent of the overall K-12 student population in 2012. That’s about double the number of home schoolers 10 years ago.
Among the 1.2 million children of active-duty military parents, more than 6 percent are home-schooled, according to estimates by the Military Child Education Coalition. And, at least anecdotally, that number is on the rise.
It’s a trend that Mary Keller, the president and chief executive officer of the Military Child Education Coalition, said is driven in part by how frequently military families have to relocate, which is every 2 to 3 years for active-duty members, and that’s not including moving for 6-to-12-month training stints.
“The tough thing as you move from state to state, you can miss fundamental concepts,” said Keller, who formerly worked as an assistant superintendent in the Killeen Independent School District in Texas, which includes Fort Hood. “You can move and miss fractions just because your sending school hadn’t gotten there yet and your receiving school has already done it.”
And while friends and houses change, for home-schooled military children, at least the teacher and the curriculum remain the same, said Mariel Barreras, whose husband is in the Army.
The Barreras’ eldest child, at 12, has moved 5 times since he started school.
Home schooling also gives the family flexibility in their school schedule to spend more time with their father, despite an unpredictable schedule that often has him leaving home for weeks with little to no warning.
“When we were stationed at Fort Irwin, Calif., my husband had a job where he was home Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday,” said Barreras.
“The good thing about us being able to home school, I could keep the lesson plans in line with his job: When daddy was home, we didn’t do school, or we did the fun school projects—the field trips, the science projects. Then when he was gone, we did school work, even if it was Saturday.”
Barreras, who currently home schools five of her six sons, founded the Omaha, Neb.-based Home School Association for Military Families, a support group for military families worldwide. The organization provides resources such as mentoring programs and starter kits to military families who home school or are considering it.
Along with wanting flexibility in the school-day or school-year schedule, Barreras said parents often cite a dislike of the Common Core State Standards and bullying as reasons for home schooling.
Barreras said that from her experience, bullying can be an especially tough issue for children in mixed-race families, which she said is more common in the military.
Still, other families only home school on an as-needed basis.
The Flake family has lived in Washington, D.C., and Ramstein, Germany, as well as in Biloxi, Miss., and DuPont, Wash., where they currently reside. The 5 Flake children have attended public schools, private schools, Department of Defense schools and have been home-schooled.
Sierra Flake, a senior in high school, has also taken evening classes at a community college to make up courses that Washington state requires for graduation.
Staying on Track
Stephanie Flake, a former teacher, prefers that her children attend public schools, but she opted to home school her 3 oldest while living in Biloxi, Miss., because she was dissatisfied with the schools.
But she was careful to make sure they could easily transfer back into public school.
“I used an accredited program so my kids didn’t have to go back and retake classes,” she said. “The hardest thing for home schooling families, if they don’t have the report card, the paper, it doesn’t matter what your kid knows, or how much knowledge they have or how well they test, some states will not let your kid back in at their grade level.”
In an attempt to standardize public school policies that affect military children, such as attendance and graduation requirements, all 50 states plus the District of Columbia have signed an agreement called the Interstate Compact on Educational Opportunity for Military Children. The compact, however, does not address disparate state home-schooling policies, according to the Military Child Education Coalition.
Military families that choose to educate their children at home because they can take their “school” with them as they move still face a patchwork of state laws.
Requirements for what subjects or content tests home-schooled students must take, or what qualifications parents must have to teach their children at home, can vary greatly from state to state, according to a 2015 analysis by the Education Commission of the States.
“It can be as easy as just filing a private school affidavit, to being required to file under an umbrella school to having to submit all of your lesson plans with the school board,” said Barreras, whose organization also helps families navigate state laws. “It really varies.”
But, Barreras said, despite all the moving and dealing with different state home schooling regulations, her family tries to embrace the frequent relocations.
“It’s fun, too,” said Barreras. “When we got stationed out in California the second time, our curriculum said we had to do botany, but we were close to the ocean so we decided to do oceanography.”
And now that the family is stationed in Nebraska and surrounded by farm fields, “we’re doing botany,” she said.