Homeschooling and Public School Partnership Programs
by Kenneth Knott
For many homeschoolers, August represents a time of final planning for the upcoming academic year. In doing so, wise parents naturally ask themselves if they are employing the most effective methods of instruction possible. While some parents are content with implementing only minor adjustments to their routines, other parents are desperate for solutions for the various challenges they perceive. It is not surprising, then, to witness a growing number of homeschoolers joining the various “partnership” programs offered by the public school system.
There are a number of reasons why public school partnerships generally represent less-than-ideal approaches for most homeschoolers. Before we discuss some of these reasons, it may be useful to review the historical context in which these partnerships have emerged. While doing so, I’ll occasionally share certain firsthand experiences to help illustrate the shortcomings of these approaches.
From Grassroots to Mainstream to Partnerships
Homeschooling as commonly expressed today began as a grassroots movement in the mid-‘70s to early-‘80s. Back then, the pioneers that initiated the movement didn’t call what they were doing “homeschooling.” They simply schooled their children at home, intuitively knowing they were providing a better way for their children than the one offered through the public school system or through private education.
As homeschooling gained initial momentum, a number of public school systems challenged its legality. Many school districts did not recognize nor respect the God-given right for parents to be directly involved with their children’s education. The arrogance of certain districts was so extreme that lawsuits were sometimes filed against parents for allegedly refusing to abide by certain compulsory attendance laws. As providence would have it, virtually none of those lawsuits were successful. By the mid-‘90s, essentially every state in the union formally recognized homeschooling as a viable and legal option. Thankfully, Michigan emerged as one of the more “homeschool friendly” states.
By the end of the millennium, homeschooling became essentially mainstream and, for the last couple of decades, has enjoyed certain reputable notoriety. However, many educational professionals remained uneasy, most notably those in charge of budgets who resented the fact that thousands of dollars were no longer being received for every homeschooler who was no longer enrolled in the system. Also at play was a general “the experts know best” attitude on behalf of many professionals; they were just sure homeschoolers were somehow neglecting their children. Conversely, certain homeschoolers expressed their own resentments, sour that they were still shelling out thousands of dollars in property tax contributions that funded the public system without realizing any tangible benefits for their own children. So for most of this time, the relationship between the public school system was at best separatist, and at worst, adversarial.
A short, anecdotal testimony may help to illustrate the tension of the times. In 1994, I was hired as a secondary school teacher in a relatively small public district in Northern Michigan. Because of my close ties with many of the homeschoolers in the community, the superintendent created an additional position for me as a homeschool recruiter to enroll as many students as possible in an alternative education program. This program would allow parents certain nominal benefits while still preserving educational autonomy at home. It was probably the first “partnership” program in the state and was initially well received. Within two weeks of launching the program, I had recruited approximately thirty families. However, in the midst of the local homeschool community was a single detractor who simply did not like anything related to government. She reported the program to the head of pupil accounting at the MDE, who in turn issued a cease and desist order to our district. Unbeknownst to the parents, our superintendent had not received prior approval by the State for his program. The homeschoolers who had joined the program were very disappointed; they had hoped to finally reap some benefits of their property tax contributions. But alas, they had tried.
It was not until 2006 that the State, under then Superintendent Mike Flanagan, began to formally endorse alternative education programs that allowed public school students to learn at home under the fully funded umbrella of their local districts. Mr. Flanagan had reasoned that the internet had then advanced to the point that students could learn efficiently at home without the need to be seated in a traditional classroom, hence the designation “seat time waiver” (STW) for all such programs that are approved. Initially, only a few STW’s were approved for certain charter schools and one large intermediate school district in Genesee County. Today, STW’s are available to any public school district that applies.
Prior to the emergence of STWs, a student legally needed to be in-class 1080 hours per year in order for a school district to receive full funding from the State. That is no longer the case under a STW program, in so long as the student is provided a State-approved, comparable educational experience. Initially, all STW programs were internet based through virtual, online courses, but now programs may include a blend of methods, including work-based and experience-based learning.
One of the State’s additional requirements is that an approved program must be overseen by a certified instructor/liaison employed by the district. I personally served in the capacity of a STW liaison for a local charter school, so I know firsthand the dealings of the operation. In retrospect, I can say with conviction that, while these programs have perceived upsides, at best they offer only temporary solutions. As such, they should be viewed as stepping stones for those that absolutely need a sense of stability in certain areas where none currently exists. That said, those families that are already reasonably stable are probably not better off seeking greener pastures in a STW setting. Indeed, while the lure for betterment may be attractive, the trappings and potential downsides are many.
Seven Reasons Why STW Partnerships May Not Be the Best Fit for Your Family:
- STW partnerships are founded upon an inefficient and godless pedagogy—The notion that the State should determine what your children should learn is not biblically sound. On the contrary, the Bible provides a mandate for raising our children that is irrespective of State influence. Central to this mandate is the importance of instilling within our children a godly worldview. All State-approved curricula intentionally omits any acknowledgement of the one true God and therefore indirectly imposes an atheistic philosophy upon our children. The various public school partnerships are no exception to this fact.
The State figured out long ago that the most efficient means to indoctrinate the masses was to determine for them what they should learn, how they should learn, and what the benchmarks should be for demonstrating competency. Granted, the STW system offers more latitude regarding how a student might learn than was historically offered, but the mandated objectives are still created at the State level. Parents considering such a partnership would be wise to review the recently implemented Common Core State Standards Initiative to become familiar with the mandated objectives.
The content of Common Core presents many concerns for Christian parents, not the least of which are the standards for human sexuality. These standards are interwoven throughout various core subjects, so they aren’t only presented in a sex education or health course. Students as young as five years old can be presented content and concepts related to sexuality that would be clearly objectionable. Parents considering enrolling in a partnership course should not assume their students will be immune to related exposure.
There are also a variety of humanistic, worldly objectives contained within Common Core that conflict with many Christians’ socioeconomic and environmental values. Responsible parents might consider spending some time studying these matters before assuming that all is safe.
- STW partnerships rarely deliver on the goods—Partnerships are often promoted with pie-in-the-sky promises that may sound appealing but often come with cumbersome snags or hidden requirements. “Learn at your own pace,” “one-on-one mentoring availability,” and “free tech support” are only some of the many marketing clichés used while peddling to the masses.
Parents may hope to somehow be empowered through a partnership program. However, the public school system is inherently designed to create dependence upon it! Parents looking for “assistance” will more than likely find themselves in a perpetual snare where things are ultimately done the so-called professional’s way.
The truth of the matter is that all courses offered via government-sponsored partnerships have the significant potential for being unduly burdensome. To be sure, there will be deadlines and standardized testing of various sorts imposed. In fact, STW programs require the appointed liaison to administer a unique before/after assessment to students to demonstrate the efficacy of the program.
In addition, STW students will also be required to take the same state-mandated standardized tests that all public school students must take. These include those tests required in the M-STEP assessment system and the Michigan Merit Examination. Traditional classroom students commonly spend an inordinate amount of time preparing for these tests. Parents in partnership programs may be surprised, and frustrated, at the undue diligence these assessments require.
Many of us began homeschooling because we were dissatisfied with the inefficiency of conventional public education. Why should we believe that their virtual and other alternative offerings are any more efficient?
- Most STW/partnership programs heavily rely on virtual, online course offerings—While it is true that online learning can be an effective educational method, parents would do well to consider the consequences of requiring these methods for their children, especially if multiple classes are taken in this fashion. You may think that your children might thrive in such an approach, but are you sure of it? Your family could be in for a very long and frustrating school year if the online programs assigned by the school for your children are not quality products or complimentary to your children’s learning styles. Parents that are thinking of enrolling their children in online courses might consider insisting on somehow sampling the courses before fully committing.
In my experience, virtual, online courses can be a nightmare. I recall many times during my capacity as a STW liaison when parents and students complained of the various glitches they experienced. Sometimes course offerings were incompatible with a provided operating system. Other times online assessments were not properly processed, or previous schoolwork was lost in cyberspace. Far too often we were putting out various associated fires, only to see them resurface. The sad thing was that these families had to rely on the public school to work out the snags, and there really was no option to quit a course or try a new one. Once a family committed to an established curriculum, the system was loath to be flexible, even if the provided courses were inherently faulty.
- Work-based, experience-based, and project-based learning programs for credit are questionable—A STW program may possibly include provisions to grant state-approved credit for students’ job experiences, unique life experiences, or personal projects. Districts love when parents partner with them in these scenarios because of the easy money involved. There is essentially no overhead expenditure; it’s all 100% profit for the schools while parents and students do all of the legwork. Homeschoolers attain absolutely no benefits for this approach that they couldn’t otherwise grant for themselves. Parents should therefore rightly ask what’s in it for them before agreeing to these types of partnerships.
- Students may be targeted as special needs—Parents may unknowingly be putting their children at risk for being targeted and labeled as special needs students. STW programs need to demonstrate efficacy, and the assigned liaison is duty-bound to discuss and report any suspicion that one of your children may have a learning disability.
Solid research has confirmed that the human mind develops in spurts, especially in the formative and operational years. Many students who are labeled as special needs simply have not yet cognitively matured to learn certain content. In other words, they simply need more time. In the public schools, students who do not read well by second or third grade are often “tested” and labeled as learning disabled. More often than not, this can be the kiss-of-death for students, as they are placed in an environment that expects from them that which they cannot perform.
Parents who resist suggestions for special testing or offers for related assistance may be marked as being negligent, and formal investigations may ensue. Similarly, a liaison may feel duty bound to report certain happenings he witnesses in your family that conflict with his secular worldview, and these reports could be followed by invasive investigations. While this concern may sound alarmist, it is nonetheless a potential reality that could result in nightmarish results.
Parents who suspect that one of their children has a legitimate learning disability might be tempted to seek the public school system for support. But before doing so, it might be wise to thoroughly evaluate the efficacy of their offerings and to seek wisdom regarding the long term consequences of formally placing your child under their watch.
- STW programs are disproportionally profit-driven—Make no mistake about it, your children are worth approximately $8000 each to your district in the form of a foundation allowance allotted for enrolled students! A district enrolling, say, thirty students would generate nearly a quarter million dollars, with only a fraction of these proceeds required to operate the STW partnership program.
A family with three children would generate over $20,000 for its local school, with the benefits received likely available for less than fifteen percent of that figure if pursued in the open market. Where is the fiscal justification associated with that scenario? With so much money at stake, an ethically minded parent may want to consider if the school is sincerely representing the best interest of its family.
Similarly, it’s fair to consider the probability that your children are being used to generate significant profits to subsidize programs or staff salaries that have nothing to do with the STW/partnership program. The charter school where I worked generated enough profit from its STW program to prop up its entire traditional system that was otherwise going bankrupt.
- Your children will be working toward a public school diploma— As far as the local school district and State are concerned, your children will no longer be homeschooled; they will be public schooled in a STW program. As such, the public school will generate academic transcripts for your children, and students who finish their senior years in a STW program will likely earn a public high school diploma.
Your local school district may verbally affirm the notion that you are still homeschooling, but if your children are listed on the public school’s attendance books, the district will rightly consider them transfer students over whom they have jurisdiction. After all, your children will no longer technically be homeschooled, regardless of where most of the instruction takes place. This is especially true if your children are enrolled more than half the time in a partnership program.
As a side note, parents who intend for their children to take advantage of participation in high school athletics as a benefit of the partnership program should note that the MHSAA will honor a single transfer, but your children will be required to sit out a season if they later transfer to a different school.
A Biblical, Long Term Perspective
Granted, parents looking for solutions to perceived challenges may find certain short term relief from government-sponsored partnership programs. Yet this begs an important question: Are there better alternatives than the one currently offered by government?
A comprehensive offering of possible solutions is beyond the scope of this essay, but encouragement might begin with an admonishment for all of us to embrace a biblical and eternal perspective. While God is concerned that our children are academically competent, He is immensely more concerned with their character and salvation. It is His hope that they become men and women of conviction, able to share the Good News of Jesus Christ to a lost and dying world, and to raise for themselves a godly progeny for future generations.
A word of encouragement may be offered also in regard to some of the perceived challenges parents experience. Perception and reality are not always the same things, though we may think they are. After all, scripture tells us, “As a man thinketh … so is he.” We should therefore remind ourselves that certain perceptions may, in fact, be untrue regardless of how “real” they may seem to us. Case in point: I have heard many homeschoolers make statements to the effect that one of their children was academically “behind.” When challenged on this notion, it became apparent that they were comparing their children to a bogus set of standards they had embraced from the public school system. I have also witnessed many parents being set free from the need to make such comparisons.
Many of us are first generation homeschoolers, and it is amazing how often we look to the public school system for benchmarks indicating where our children “should be.” The temptation is also there for copying their methods. Perhaps many of us are institutionalized in this regard; if so, let us realize that we are teaching individuals, not the masses, and we generally have time and flexibility on our side. Once the cognitive “windows of opportunity” open, a homeschooled child can learn in a fraction of the time what it takes for his public schooled counterpart to learn.
Also, some parents are pressured into thinking that education necessarily requires thousands of dollars. Not so! For the looking, there are many resources available on how to effectively homeschool inexpensively. And regarding a biblical perspective, let us keep faith that our heavenly Father will provide all of our children’s needs, including all those related to their education.
Perhaps the greatest encouragement available is the growing network of Christian families who are successfully homeschooling. The concerned parent looking for solutions might seek out certain successful families for mentoring, suggestions, and encouragement. Our Lord is honored when the body of Christ works together to achieve a worthy goal!
Lastly, homeschool parents can all benefit from some periodic soul searching. Are we homeschooling out of convenience, or as a result of solid, biblical conviction? It is my estimation that those who do so out of convenience will be routinely looking for temporary solutions for temporal purposes. Those homeschooling out of biblical conviction will have most of the answers to their questions already laid before them. May we all do what is truly best for our children in the eyes of our Lord!
Kenneth Knott is a homeschool father of six sons and one daughter. He is the founder and curriculum director of Teleo Scouts and author of Made for Manhood: A Guide to Christian Maturity for Fathers and Sons. Ken has a diverse background—he previously taught and coached middle school and high school students for ten years and presently owns and operates a reputable building company. He holds degrees in biology, English, and a Master of Arts in Humanities. He and his wonderful wife, Shireen, have been married twenty-five years and reside in Northern Michigan.