Fourteen years ago, when her daughter was four years old, Terry Sopotnick made a decision about her child’s education that wasn’t particularly popular.
“Any time someone goes against the majority, there’s a certain amount of personal fortitude you need to have,” Sopotnick said. “You have to be convinced that this is the right thing, because people will disagree and question what you’re doing.”
Sopotnick, a Poynette resident, opted to educate her daughter at home, an option that had been recognized by the state as legal only 15 years earlier.
In an increasingly diverse educational climate – from online schooling to charter schools to the recently approved statewide voucher program – Sopotnick represents a group of parents who have been making an alternative educational choice before most of these options were even available.
Home-schooled students have been a minority group throughout the 28-year-long history of Wisconsin home-based education, never exceeding 3 percent of the state’s total K-12 student population. Though statistically small, home-based education has become a more widely recognized educational option throughout the past three decades.
In 1984-85 (the first year in which home-schooling was officially recognized by the state as an alternative to public or private school), 966 students were home-schooled, making up just 0.1 percent of the state’s total K-12 student population. As of 2011-12, 18,137 Wisconsin students, or 1.79 percent, were enrolled in home-based educational programs, according to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.
While the choice to home-school is becoming increasingly mainstream, it still invites its share of criticism. Three decades later, concerns persist regarding the lack of accountability in ensuring students are receiving a quality and balanced education, access to social outlets and diversity of thought.
Why home school?
From religious conviction to educational needs to safety concerns, the reasons for home schooling are different for every family.
“The reasons are as varied as the amount of food in the grocery store,” Sopotnick said.
Sopotnick, a former public school music teacher, initially heard about the growing home-school movement from friends at church. By the time she and her husband had children, she knew she wanted to home school. Sopotnick and her husband wanted the ability to let faith influence their instruction, particularly in science. They also wanted to mitigate the potentially harmful effects of peer pressure at school.
Sopotnick is in good company. According to the most recent National Center for Education Statistics study in 2007, the No. 1 reason for home schooling was to provide religious or moral instruction. The second most cited reason was safety and peer pressure concerns.
The most significant reason Sopotnick found, however, was the ability to provide a tailored educational experience for her children.
“Children are people and we’re all unique,” Sopotnick said. “Everyone learns differently and at their own pace. When you are in the classroom, you go at one pace. Some kids are visual, some are auditory, others need to touch and feel everything to be able to learn.”
Mae Seib, a Wisconsin Parents’ Association Regional Coordinator who oversees Columbia, Dane, Sauk and Green counties, says it’s common for families to start home schooling for one reason, but have those reasons evolve over time.
“The reason parents initially have isn’t always the reason they have for continuing,” Seib said. “They often find that there is more value in it than they originally thought.”
doesn’t fit all
Compared to other states with stricter regulations, Wisconsin’s home-schooling laws are somewhat lax. The state doesn’t require home-schooling instructors to have a teaching certification or a specific degree, nor does it require students to take standardized tests. (In contrast, Minnesota requires annual standardized testing and instructors to have a bachelor’s degree, teaching license or other equivalent qualifications).
With the freedom that provides, home-schooling parents develop their own children’s curriculum, often using a variety of media, such as books, videos, textbooks and Internet.
With six children, ranging from 1- to 12-years-old, Lodi resident Clifford Arthur’s family has home-schooled from infancy.
Currently, their 1-year-old is using “Slow and Steady, Get Me Ready” curriculum, which sets basic developmental goals around weekly themes. The older children receive more structured instruction, with the oldest three in a more formal home-school setting.
During the school year, Arthur said his children do math, reading, writing, grammar and spelling every day. History and science are added twice a week. His children also receive religious instruction twice daily, though he said his wife and he would have provided that regardless of whether their children were home-schooled.
Because Arthur’s children are voracious readers, a typical school day leaves ample time for reading. Arthur allows freedom in what his children read, though he likes to minimize “fluff.”
Arthur experiences the tension between what his children want to learn and what they need to learn. But, a benefit of home schooling, he said, is the ability to change curriculum when his children are having difficulty.
“One thing that home schooling provides is the flexibility to customize an education,” Arthur said. “I don’t think there is a public school teacher who wouldn’t agree that if they could customize their instruction, it would be best for all children.”
In it together
Sopotnick draws on a network of families to provide non-core curricular instruction, a common practice among home schooling families.
Fourteen years ago, Sopotnick formed a co-op in Lodi with two other families. More than 200 children have come through the co-op. Currently, 40 children attend weekly, drawing families from DeForest, Poynette, Black Earth, Verona and Portage. The families work together to round out their children’s education with musical instruction, physical education, writing tutorials and other subjects.
“We just get together, and the moms offer what we can offer,” Sopotnick said.
Support from other families also helps keep costs down. Because home-schooling families don’t receive financial government assistance for the purchase of curriculum or educational materials, they incur all costs for their children’s education.
Home schooling costs vary widely. While his family spends a total of about $500 per year on his children’s education, Arthur said he could easily spend thousands if he didn’t set a strict budget.
“One family might budget $500 per year – that would be about the minimum,” Arthur said. “For other families, $500 wouldn’t even make a dent in their budget.”
Additionally, co-ops and other community groups are outlets for students to make friends, in exchange for what a public or private school experience might provide.
Regarding the question of socialization – a common criticism of home schooling – Lodi home-schooling parent Karen Anderson calls it a “myth” that home-schooled students lack social opportunities. Her children are involved in Boy Scouts, church and the Lodi co-op, which allow them to interact with a diversity of age groups, Anderson said.
Likewise, Arthur says the socialization criticism doesn’t hold water, a conclusion he has arrived at over time. Before having children, Arthur, who attended public school, had the impression that home schooling didn’t foster interpersonal skills.
Now, Arthur says that was rooted in a false understanding of the role of school in a child’s formation.
“We have this perception that we should send our children to school for them to become human beings,” Arthur said. “But that’s the parents’ job. It’s the parents that should teach students manners, to be cultured. That’s not the school’s job.”
Meanwhile, back at school
In 2011-12, a total of 48 of 1,631 students in the Lodi School District were home-schooled, making up 2.76 percent of the district’s publicly-enrolled students. That figure is slightly higher than neighboring communities, including Poynette (2.09 percent), DeForest (1.3 percent) and Waunakee (0.93 percent). Portage and Baraboo have higher home-schooling rates at 4.02 percent and 4.43 percent, respectively.
While home schooling doesn’t directly hurt or help public school funding, home-schooled students’ decision to opt out of schools affects a district’s potential financial aid. In short, more students mean more money. Because a school district’s amount of state aid is determined, in part, by enrollment, home-schooled students don’t help bolster the district’s numbers.
Moreover, while parents sometimes choose to partially enroll their students for arts, music or advanced level classes, under Wisconsin law a district is not allowed to claim state aid on behalf of home-schooling students who attend a public elementary or middle school part-time.
While standardized testing isn’t required for home-schooled students in Wisconsin, some parents still choose to track their children’s progress through testing. Arthur’s children have used Saxon standardized tests to assess their grade level.
Other home-schooling families don’t use standardized testing until it’s time for their students to prepare for the ACT or SAT.
Advocacy groups often cite statistics indicating that home-schooled students receive higher scores on the ACT compared to the national average. The most recent statistics comparing the two scores show that in 2006 the average score for home-schoolers was 22.4, while the national average was 21.1.
ACT scores are just one component of a home-schooled student’s college application process. University of Wisconsin – Madison recruitment and media services manager Ken Cutts said that while the admission process is altered to accommodate home-schooled students, the university’s priorities remain consistent.
“Our goal is to recruit, admit and enroll a high quality and diverse freshman class,” Cutts said. “The academic record always comes first in our admissions review, and we also consider written statements, standardized test scores and letters of recommendation if submitted. Because of our holistic process, students who are home schooled have an equal chance at being considered for acceptance.”
The main difference between a home-schooled and a public- or private-schooled student is their transcript. While public and private-schooled students generally have uniform transcripts, home-schooled students’ transcripts can vary widely. Home-schooled families make customized transcripts to reflect their student’s academic experience, including detailed lists of textbooks, enrichment activities and course syllabi, Cutts said. Admission officers also like to see standardized test scores to assess how well students retain information.
According to University of Wisconsin – Madison admission office data, on average, home-schooled students have a higher rate of admission into the university, compared to overall admission rates. Of the 44 homeschooled students that applied in 2012, 59 percent were admitted. That same year, 15,841 students applied to the university, with 54.6 percent being admitted.
Those statistics are representative of the university’s admission rates from the last five years, with home-schooled students having an average admission rate of 59.7 percent, compared to the overall admission rate of 54.3 percent.
The future of home schooling
According to National Home Education Research Institute President Brian Ray, the national home-schooling rate has effectively plateaued over the last decade, in comparison to its exponential growth in the 1980s. While parents like Arthur, Sopotnick and Anderson have found home schooling to be the best option for their children, Ray says there are factors that limit the practice from taking off.
“How many parents are willing to put that much energy into their child’s education? That’s limited. How many parents want to be with their children that much? That’s limited. How many want to live on one income to have the other parent home school? Those are all limiting factors,” Ray said.
A few other factors could change the tide though. Ray said growing dissatisfaction among public school parents could mean an increase in home schooling within the next five to 10 years. Ray said if public schools get “worse faster” – if academic opportunities decline or if parents’ safety concerns increase – more parents may opt to home school.
In the meantime, home schooling parents and students remain a minority.
“Every home schooling parent, regardless of how you teach your child, is still a pioneer because you’re such a minority,” Seib said.
Some home schooling parents continue to experience a stigma that suggests the practice hasn’t yet been fully embraced. It’s a tension felt acutely by Arthur, a Lodi School Board member, whose tenure on the board has been met with a dubious response from some. But, Arthur says, those reactions come from a misunderstanding of home schooling.
“It’s out of step and out of the mainstream,” Arthur said. “People don’t trust things that are out of the mainstream.”
“When people hear that you home-school while their child is in public school, they hear ‘You think you’re better than me,’” he added.
The misperception, Arthur said, is exacerbated by the religious connotation associated with home schooling.
The privilege to choose
While Sopotnick, with one child graduated from school in 2012 and the other at the end of her high school career, stands confidently by her decision to home-school, she recognizes circumstances might prevent other families from being able to make the same choice.
“It all comes down to priorities,” Sopotnick said. “And every family has a God-given privilege to discern what’s best for their children.”