By Amanda Costikyan Jones
WASHINGTON – The number of students taught at home in Maryland rose almost 500 percent this decade, growing from 2,296 home-schooled students in the 1990- 91 school year to 13,665 in 1997-98.
Every county saw a significant upswing in home schooling during the period, ranging from a 48 percent increase in Kent County to a 1,114 percent increase in Queen Anne’s.
By comparison, Maryland public school enrollment rose 10 percent from 1992 to 1997, growing from 751,850 students to 830,744.
Maryland Department of Education spokesman Ron Peiffer said there is no single explanation for the increase in home schooling.
“You really can’t characterize people who want to do home schooling,” Peiffer said. “There are just a whole variety of reasons.”
Manfred Smith of Columbia agreed. “It’s just almost any reason you can well imagine,” said Smith, a pioneer of home schooling in Maryland and director of the Maryland Home Education Association.
He said many people mistakenly believe home schooling is primarily a religious movement. Although some home school for religious reasons, he said, most do so “for family reasons.
“They want their children back …. The social atmosphere in many schools … has a very toxic effect on some children,” said Smith, who teaches middle- school social studies in a Montgomery County public school and helps his wife home school their children.
“Parents are baffled. (They think,) ‘What happened to my nice children?'” said Smith. “They meet home-schooling kids …. These kids are polite and responsive; they look you in the eye; they don’t look at adults as the enemy.”
Studies by the Home School Legal Defense Association claim that home- schooled students average around the 85th percentile on standardized achievement tests, compared to the 50th percentile for public school students.
Maryland’s skyrocketing numbers of home schoolers reflect a national trend, according to Patricia Lines, a researcher at the U.S. Department of Education who is preparing a study on the growth of home schooling nationally.
Inconsistent reporting to the states makes it difficult to determine exact numbers, but Lines said the number of home-schooled students in the nation approximately tripled from 1990-91 to 1995-96. And, she said, “It’s still growing.”
Lines also said people may be home schooling for new reasons. She said Florida surveys parents on why they choose to do it.
“A couple of years ago … a plurality (of home-schooling parents) checked religious reasons, and now they’re checking dissatisfaction with public and private schools,” she said. “There’s been some shift there.”
Richard Scott, who coordinates home instruction for Maryland’s Education Department, said he believes values and dissatisfaction with the public schools are the most popular reasons for home schooling in Maryland. But despite such common threads, Scott said, there is no such thing as a typical home-schooling family.
“It’s across the spectrum,” he said. “You see them from every socioeconomic group, every ethnic background, no one more than the others.”
Bill Lloyd, a home-schooling parent in Upper Marlboro, cited five reasons for home schooling: religion or philosophy, family closeness, higher-level academics, control over children’s social interactions and safety concerns about public schools.
Lloyd, who is on the board of the Maryland Association of Christian Home Educators, was careful to emphasize that controlling social interactions is not the same as preventing them. “Home schoolers have as much extracurricular time and activity as anybody else,” he said.
“We had generally very good experiences in the public schools,” Lloyd said. “We just felt like we wanted to be personally responsible for educating and socializing our kids.”
Lloyd said there has also been an increase in “special-needs kind of children being home schooled.” He cited his son Matthew, 13, who he said has Asperger’s syndrome.
“It’s like high-functioning autism,” Lloyd said. “When they’re in the public schools, these kids get reamed out; they get beat on. Their self-esteem gets wrecked.”
Both Smith and Lloyd said they have good relationships with state officials, although Smith can remember when home-schooling parents often ran into legal trouble. Since the mid-1980s, he said, the state has “recognized the right of parents to home school.”
Maryland parents have three options for home instruction. They can enroll their children in either the Calvert School or Home Study International, which offer correspondence courses, or they can sign up with a home-schooling program operated by “a bona fide church organization.” Finally, parents can go it alone, in which case they must let state education officials perform up to three “portfolio reviews” of their children’s work each year.
Each county has a home-instruction coordinator who oversees these programs.
Peiffer said Maryland takes “a fairly hands-off kind of approach” to home instruction.
“There are people who, for various reasons, want to educate their children in their home, and we don’t want to impede that,” he said.