How to Home School: Home Schooling Requirements and Information

How to teach your children at home.
By John Holt
January/February 1984
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Learn how to home school and prepare for home schooling. 
ILLUSTRATION: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF


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More and more parents have decided, for many reasons, that they would rather educate their children at home than send them to established schools. They're then faced with a tough question: "What do I have to do to be able to teach my children at home?"

Since I've helped a lot of people work out successful answers to the home schooling question, I will briefly share what I've learned with you.

How to Home School

Find out what your state laws say about school attendance, the legal alternatives to it, the possibilities of home instruction or tutoring, and the requirements for setting up a private school. There are several ways to get this information, all of them good.

One method is to look up the laws yourself. It's easier than you think. Most good-sized public libraries, or law libraries, or lawyers will have a set of all the laws of your state. Look under "Education" in the index of one such collection . . . most or all of what you want will be in this section. Read carefully and copy, if possible, everything dealing with attendance, home schooling, private schools, etc. Also, read and copy everything in your state constitution concerning education and the rights of parents and families.

Looking up the law yourself is a good exercise. It will help cure you of thinking that the law is a mystery known only to lawyers. Also, since you'll know the regulations yourself, you can speak to school officials with the authority of an expert and can correct them if (as often happens) their incorrect or incomplete version of the law fails to mention some of your important rights.

Don't try to find out what the law is by asking your local schools. They may know the statutes on school attendance, but neither they nor their lawyers are likely to know what the courts have said about the rights of parents to teach their own children.

In addition, write your elected representatives, both state and federal, saying that you want to teach your children at home, and ask them to send you all the pertinent laws. It will be useful to have them know that you are interested in home schooling. Even if the representatives do no more than pass your request on to state education officials, those people will be very impressed that federal and state legislators are taking an interest in your case, and they'll probably answer your request for information more quickly and fully than if you wrote them directly.

If at all possible, see your state legislators in person, preferably with your children. The representatives will be reassured to find that home schoolers are real, sensible, and serious people (not the careless incompetents that educators have led them to expect), and they may be willing to exert a little influence or pressure on school officials on your behalf, or even to help introduce and pass legislation more favorable to home schooling.

For the same reason, it may be helpful to talk personally to high-ranking officials at your state department of education, especially if you think your local school district may be uncooperative. Because they control state aid, state officials have a good deal of influence over local schools. Local administrators would be much less likely to take a family to court if they knew that such a suit did not have state support.

Home Schooling Resources

Read my bimonthly home-schooling journal, Growing Without Schooling. Borrow it if you can—though you may not find it in many public libraries—or subscribe. In the journal you will find much more information about the law, court rulings, legal strategies, and effective ways of approaching and dealing with school authorities than I could ever squeeze into a letter, this article, or even a book. And the more you know about these things, the better off you'll be.

In GWS you will find letters from a number of people—much like yourself—who have found safe and legal ways to teach their own children. If they could do it, you can, and you will learn a lot from hearing them tell how they did it.

You may also wonder, particularly if you did not do well or go far in school yourself, whether you know enough to help your children with their learning. Again, in my journal you will hear from people without much schooling who are doing a wonderful job of helping their children, mostly because they have been able to discover from the children themselves what the schools have never been able to realize: It is the interest, ingenuity, and activity of the learner, not the teacher, that is primarily responsible for creating learning.

You will also read much information about sources of interesting and useful books and other materials, as well as school textbooks and packaged curricula (if that's what you feel you must have). GWS includes, as well, the names and addresses of lawyers, professors of education, certified teachers, and public and private schools who have helped and are willing to help home schoolers . . . along with reviews of the many books and materials that we keep adding to our own mail-order book list. Finally, you will have the GWS directory: a list by states of people (often with the names and ages of their children) who are involved or at least interested in home schooling and are willing to give some advice and support to others who ask.

Get in touch with other home schoolers in your town, region, and state. If there is a local publication in this field (we list these in GWS ), subscribe to it. These local groups will have up-to-date information about your area's legal and political situation, friendly and unfriendly school districts, successful ways to home-school, good local resources, and so on. Here you will find moral support, friends, and friends for your children.

Home School Methods

Decide how you want to home school. There are four ways: by working out an agreement with the local public schools, by registering your own home as a private school, by making your home a "satellite" of an already existing private school, and finally, by just not telling anyone about your youngsters.

Gaining the cooperation and support of the local schools (which is not always possible) without having to lock yourself into the school's rigid curriculum and its endless, useless, and harmful tests (again, not always possible) seems to me to be the best of these methods. In more and more school districts, home-schooling parents now register their children with the local schools, tell them from time to time what work their children are doing, and give the schools whatever attendance records they need to continue to collect their per-pupil state aid. In return, some schools make available to the children whatever resources they may want to use: library, labs, field trips, special classes, athletic teams, performing groups, and so on. The great advantage of such an arrangement is that you don't have to worry that you may be taken to court or told that some new "clarifying" state law or regulation or other court decision has wiped out your right to teach your own children. If the local school district is happy with your home-schooling program, you don't have to worry about anyone else being unhappy. Also, your children may then have access to all those public resources, many of which you could never match at home and all of which your taxes help support.

The second method, registering your own home as a private school—which can be done in some, but not all, states—is probably used by more home schoolers than any other. Its great advantage is that it keeps the public schools from meddling with your curriculum, methods, tests, and so forth. It has one serious drawback, though: The public schools find the idea of totally unregulated and inexpensive (thus available to everyone) private schools so threatening that they fight it with all their strength, trying to get legislatures and courts to say that families in their own homes cannot be schools. No matter how many times the public schools lose this battle, they keep on lobbying the legislatures and taking families to court, because they feel their schools' survival depends on it. For this reason, the private-school way of home schooling (though it works well when it works) seems to me unreliable in the long run.

The third method consists of registering your children with an already existing—though possibly distant—private school and having this institution regulate all of your teaching activities. Making your home a "satellite campus" of another school works well when a local school district is willing to tolerate your home school only if it can be satisfied that the letter of the law is being obeyed.

But if the local school district strongly opposes home schooling, they may still take you to court on this issue. So far, home schoolers have won many of these cases. For example, recently in Los Angeles county (which is very hostile to home schooling), a judge told a family that, though they could not be a private school, they could be a satellite of an existing school, provided that school was close enough to be able to exercise some supervision in person . . . his idea being that a nearby school with a big financial stake in its own reputation could be better trusted to supervise the family than the family itself.

Finally, there is the underground route. Where the local schools are known to be hostile to all forms of home schooling, it may make sense to say nothing to anyone about your children. But then you may really have to hide your children . . . not just from the schools, but from almost everyone. This is hard to do in most places (it's perhaps easiest to accomplish in a big city). At any moment, someone—even a relative (many home schoolers have been turned in by disapproving grandparents)—may report you to the schools, in which case you may soon find yourselves in court, with a judge who's now prejudiced against you. Such riskiness seems to me to make this only a method of last resort.

Educational Plan

Make a written educational plan. You must do this if you want to reach an agreement with the local public schools, and it is a good idea in any case. If the state threatens you with legal action, such a written plan will strengthen your position. Your plan must be complete . . . and therefore, it will be lengthy. In it you should say, in general and in philosophical terms, why you want to teach your own children and then, more specifically, how you intend to direct, observe, and judge the growth and learning of your children. Here you can quote freely (the more the better) from writings on education. You may want to contrast your own educational philosophy with that of the public schools. If so, try to state it as a difference between two sets of ideas and not as a difference between right (yours) and wrong (theirs). And definitely avoid red-flag words like cesspool. If you begin your homeschooling efforts by furiously attacking the public schools, you are sure to have trouble. Instead, it may be helpful to say—as some parents have—that what you plan to do in your home is largely what the schools themselves would do if, rather than having thirty students for every teacher, they had two or three.

Also, quote ( as much as you can) not only the laws on home schooling but also what federal and state courts have said about their meaning. (Here again, GWS will offer much useful information.) It is important to let the schools know, first, that they have the legal right, if they wish, to approve your home schooling . . . and then, that there is a legal way of doing this that will not cost them their state aid. Even if the schools eventually reject your offer of cooperation, having made it will put you in a much stronger position if they should later try to prosecute you.

By the way, one of the resources we offer here at GWS is a collection of parents' letters and educational plans that have won the support of local schools (and as people send us more such letters, we will print them).

Local School District Support

If you have decided to try to home school with the cooperation and support of your local schools, take your written plan and any other pertinent information you may have gathered, and talk to your local superintendent of schools. Appearances count here, so look as conventional as you can (even a little prosperous, if possible). If you are a two-parent family, it will probably be better if both of you are there.

Say in a friendly, courteous, and confident tone that, like many other people in your state and around the country, you plan— plan, not want or hope —to teach your own children at home, and that you would like to work out with the superintendent a way of doing this that will not cost the schools any state aid and that will make it possible for your children to use, if they wish, the resources of the schools. If any people in your state have worked out such an agreement, be sure to mention them. Otherwise, point out that such agreements have been worked out—and are in force—in a number of other states.

In short, try not to appear to be asking the superintendent for permission to teach your children at home. Sound as if it's clear that you are going to do it and that all that needs to be settled is how. And say several times that you are eager to do this—as many families already are—in a way that does not cost the school money or augment its problems. Add that you have prepared a written educational plan (holding up an official-looking and, I hope, thick folder), in case the superintendent would like to read it.

The odds are very great that if you begin the conversation like this, the superintendent will respond in a friendly and helpful way. If she or he seems uncertain about the law, then—still in a friendly way—say that the courts have repeatedly upheld the right of parents to teach their own children and that you have included more information about this in your written plan. If—as occasionally but rarely happens—the superintendent begins to talk in a strongly hostile or threatening way, say as soon as possible that you are surprised and sorry to meet this response, and that you think it may be better for all parties to continue the discussion in writing, so that at all times there may be a clear record of what has been said. Then leave, and as soon as possible thereafter, send a letter to all members of the school board, explaining what you are trying to do and enclosing a copy of your educational plan. The chances are good that they will say to the superintendent, "Since these parents are so willing to cooperate with us, why can't we cooperate with them?" If this doesn't happen, and things continue to look difficult, get in touch with us at GWS, and we can discuss what to do next.

The Beginning 

So, in a nutshell, that is how to lay the groundwork for home schooling. My guess is that right now somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 families in America have chosen to teach their own children. Probably well over 90% of them are doing so without any trouble from the schools or the law. In fact, though these folks may still be a minority, more and more people are teaching at home with the active support of the schools.

Good luck to you, and let us know what happens.

A Glimpse at Home School Life

"Just what do home schoolers do? What are their lives like?" 

If you're thinking such questions, you may find that Nancy Wallace's new book, Better Than School, is just the resource you're looking for. Nancy offers a detailed account of her and her husband Bob's experiences teaching their two children Ishmael and Vita (who, incidentally, were featured on the cover of MOTHER EARTH NEWS). Her book portrays everything from how the Wallaces won the right to home-school from a resistant local school board to the way they tackled math. It's a very personal, inspiring story . . . with a significance that reaches far beyond their four-person family. 

Below, we're sharing a few short excerpts—reprinted with permission from Larson Publications—from Better Than School. 

It is 8:15 in the morning and I am in the kitchen doing morning chores. I hear the sound of the school bus as it grinds up the hill. It stops, and creaking doors summon the four or five children waiting at the Four Corners. The doors close, again with a creak, and the bus roars off along its morning route. As always, I breathe a sigh of relief as the roar grows fainter. My two children aren't on that bus, and they won't ever have to be. 

Although of school age, they are still eating breakfast. Vita, who is five, is smearing peanut butter on her bagel, and Ishmael, who is nine, is making rivers in his yogurt with his spoon. They can usually linger over their breakfasts, because they don't go to school. They learn at home and in the wide world around them. They spend their days reading about things that matter to them, making scenery for their plays and operettas, playing the piano, going to various classes in the community, and, of course, doing what we still call "school work"—math, science, and other academic subjects. 


Bob and I were as helpless as anyone when we first sent Ishmael to school, and much of this book, while on the surface about our homeschooling experiences, is really about how we have increasingly learned to trust our own instincts and "know how" in order to raise Vita and Ishmael in ways that make sense to us, even in the face of disapproval, interference, and distrust. I hope that our successes will encourage other parents to develop the self-confidence they need to find ways to share more of their lives with their children, despite the obvious obstacles—whether it is by taking their kids out of school, by bringing their little ones with them to work, by cutting expenses and finding ways to earn money at home so as not to have both parents working elsewhere full-time, and, in general, by not underestimating the importance of the time that they actually spend with their kids. 


I mailed the curriculum to the superintendent's office at the beginning of September, and we opened our "school" a few days later. With art and drama classes on Mondays, piano and French on Wednesdays, and nature lessons on Thursdays, we soon settled into a fast-paced schedule. When people I met for the first time asked how I ever managed to teach Vita and Ishmael, I laughed and said, "Oh, I'm not the teacher, just the chauffeur." 

In reality, of course, I was doing far more than driving . . . . But despite the fact that I was now much more than a full-time mother to Ishmael and Vita, I discovered that I had more time to myself than I had ever had before. I hadn't realized how much time I had spent dragging around worrying about Ishmael when he had been in school. My whole life had been consumed with his problems, and I had been drained—emotionally and physically—by watching him suffer . . . . By comparison, my life now was a breeze . . . . By afternoon, I found that I was able to sit down for an hour or so and read, or even do some writing. 


So the months passed. In the mornings we worked on math for fifteen or twenty minutes, did some handwriting (which included more reading of poetry than writing it), wrote letters and journal entries, drew, and played piano. In the afternoons the kids went to their various classes in town, played with each other and with friends, read, and often did science experiments or read French with Bob. After supper, we played chess or scrabble—and Bob always read to the kids before they went to bed. 

This is not to say that we were always quite so orderly. Often we took the day off to visit friends, to go shopping, to take a walk, or just to have a break. We weren't always as productive as I would have liked, and sometimes we went through some really miserable times together. I remember one particularly bad morning when, even before I'd washed the dishes, I began yelling at Ishmael because he couldn't figure out how many twos there were in nine. I managed to set his tears flowing-and mine too, when I sat down to comfort him. About half an hour later, Vita sat down to play the piano, and she just couldn't seem to play anything right. After my experience with Ishmael, I was prepared to be as patient as I had to be, but she wasn't, and she burst into tears . . . . I couldn't help wondering what I was doing with my life. How simple it would be, I thought fleetingly, to send Vita and Ishmael back to school. 

Then too, despite the fact that Ishmael did better than ever on his standardized test that spring, I often worried that I wasn't teaching him enough. After all, the rest of the neighborhood kids spent the whole day in school, whereas I only taught Ishmael for an hour or two a day. Actually, the longer he was out of school, the more I began to notice that-regardless of how much time I actually spent teaching him-the pattern of his learning was uneven. It took the form of cycles of intense activity followed by rest .... he tended to focus on only one or two primary interests at a time, like playing the piano and reading biographies or putting on plays and writing poetry. And, as though to recuperate from his creative outbursts, he would then spend weeks doing what I considered to be nothing-riding his bike up and down the same stretch of road, making title pages for books which he never wrote, and reading the same books over and over again. It always took an act of faith on my part to believe that he'd snap out of his doldrums. I used to wonder if I really shouldn't make him buckle down and work harder. Once, for example, I was so worried about Ishmael that I went back to his old school and spent the day as an observer in the fourth/fifth-grade classroom, just to get a sense of how much the other kids really learned each day. It was reassuring to be reminded that between roll call, snack time, lunch time, recess, and the natural confusion that takes place when you squash thirty-two kids into a classroom built for twenty-five, not a lot of formal learning takes place. The most striking thing to me, though, was the fact that even though many of the kids read quite well, they still had to read vocabulary-controlled readers and study phonics in class. Certainly it was better for Ishmael to read Ernest Thompson Seton's Two Little Savages . . . than for him to spend year after year reading colorless textbooks. And I far preferred to see him riding his bike up and down in the sun than sitting in a cramped classroom all day.


EDITOR'S NOTE: In addition, author John Holt offered an in-depth discussion of the reasons for home-schooling in a Plowboy Interview. 


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