About a week or so ago, a girl I've been acquainted with for 20 years pulled her two oldest sons out of a public grade school, opting to home-school the kids instead. At first, I was taken aback. I've never really supported homeschooling*, and though I didn't want to start an argument, the temptation to comment on Facebook was too much. Her friends and neighbors came to her defense, but ultimately my old classmate clarified what was going on. The grammar school that her two sons attended is about 60% Hispanic, and the cirriculum's growing emphasis on ESL was setting students back in their math and reading skills. I apologized and backed away.
What my old acquaintance did for her two sons made perfect sense; her situation is a growing piece of the pie. Her family lives in Elgin, IL, one of the last true blue-collar towns of the Chicago suburbs. With four kids and a mortgage, moving back to a superior school district like Downers Grove would be very challenging. Downers circa 1990 bears little resemblance to Downers now; the town is so overdeveloped and gentrified that you'd have to earn at least $90,000 a year just to buy property there. In a town like Elgin, it's this or nothing.
Regardless, the explosion of homeschooling over the past decade or so still bothers me. Growing up, the only kids I knew that were educated at home were children of devoutly religious parents, people that were amiable enough but not content with a mainstreamed, "secular" form of schooling. Downers Grove is neither rural nor distant, nor could any of my neighbors afford living aboard for extended periods of time. Nowadays parents are especially prickly about public school, and not necessarily on moral grounds; their local schools are failing to meet expectations (see above), the environment is hostile, the mushrooming number of students with special or personalized needs, and so forth. Some concerns are justified, others are exaggerations.
So why specifically do I oppose homeschooling? As a grade schooler, I was socially awkward; I had many acquaintances but few if any close friends, and that pattern of distance and aloofness went on until high school. However, had I been homeschooled I never would've socialized with peers of different religious and ethnic backgrounds. By the time I was in fifth grade my grammar school was 10% South Asian or of Arabic descent --a solid five years before the WTC attacks-- so attending public school was also a lesson in tolerance. (ESL was barely an issue, though.) I bungled most of my opportunities for social development, but at least I had opportunities, period. There are other concerns, like a potential for social extremism and weakened civic engagement, but they don't really apply to my background.
The growing aversion to public schools doesn't mystify me so much as it is troublesome. Apparently, the media seems to disagree with me. This past Friday, the Chicago Tribune (and at least a dozen other papers nationwide) pulled that day's Doonesbury comic strip because "(it) didn't fit the paper's best interests." A legendary cartoon that wears its left-leaning sarcasm on its sleave and treats low-scale censorship with the pride of a war wound, a skirmish like this is nothing noteworthy for 90% of the population. What the Trib took offense to, however was surprising: a PSA for a charity that assists struggling public schools.
I have no aspiration to run for public office --at least, not now-- but if I had to pick a platform I would be a pro-public education candidate. The government has been draining funds for so long, to say most districts run on a shoestring budget is somewhat flattering. Parents like my old schoolmate are being driven to homeschooling --in many cases, without the financial means to do so-- because the state and federal governments think primary and secondary education are highly expendible in a weak economy. On average, state K-12 funding bottomed out in 2011, but there's no specific indication that things will improve in 2012.
With all my ranting and raving, there is a silver lining of sorts. My graduating class at Whittier Elementary School had exactly 30 students; of that group nine became teachers. (I'm a part-time substitute teacher, but not by trade, so I'm exempting myself from that number.) The salary is barely living wage and the hours are long, but the experience is more rewarding than you can ever imagine. That 30% of the Whittier Class of '97 was inspired to take that career path by teachers that were in their own right motivated, driven, and selfless enough to steer us in the right path. It's very unfortunate that economic conditions and political interference are slowly eating away at their very essence, but I hope the next generation of teachers come out of this mess even more energized and emboldened.
*It's one word now? Seriously?