“Yeah, that’s absolutely ridiculous. We cannot let this law get to the parliament with that article in it,” the angry teachers’ union representative in the row behind me practically yelled at her colleague.
We were attending the public debate on a proposed new law on primary education (covering ages 7-15) in our post-communist country of residence. Since these debates can change a law proposal significantly before it even reaches parliament, they are more than a bureaucratic hoop.
The union rep was, of course, talking about the one article I was there for: the one that proposed to legalize homeschooling. The hall was filled with teachers’ union representatives, municipal workers, and local politicians. I was there with my two young children and a handful of other parents who were unhappy with the current public school system.
Socialization, Illiteracy, And Devaluing The Teaching Profession
The arguments against homeschooling we heard that day mostly consisted of those familiar to United States homeschoolers, though some were specific to this country.
“The fact is that children are leaving primary school barely able to read or do basic arithmetic,” the union rep from behind me said. “If we legalize home education, we will lose even that little. Parents will be able to use their children as free unskilled farm workers, and they’ll never even see a book.”
Not everyone spoke that eloquently, and here is what else we heard that day:
- Homeschooled kids in other countries are completely isolated by their fundamentalist Christian parents.
- Roma gypsies don’t send their kids to school anyway, and legalizing homeschooling would mean there is nothing society can do about that.
- Homeschooling makes children socially handicapped. Children belong in a collective, not at home with mom all day.
- Not everyone can be a teacher, and thinking that parents can teach devalues the teaching profession.
School Is Compulsory–Is Education?
There was, in short, a lot of anger, but not many people had thought about what homeschooling actually means in practice. I came to the debate to try to change that. When the chair gave me the opportunity to speak, I asked my tiny five-year old daughter to read a passage from Susan Wise Bauer’s Story of the World.
The union reps had heckled everyone who spoke before, but were silent now. Despite that, I could hear them thinking: “What on earth is the point of this?”
I was a rookie who had been homeschooling for less than a year, but my daughter could read and have an intelligent conversation. Since her peers in the state daycare system wouldn’t be learning the alphabet for another two years, that was quite good enough.
Public school commences at age seven here. Too late, I think, but it did mean my daughter had not reached compulsory school age yet, and this is why I was able to discuss our experiences openly.
Armed with my copy of the Well-Trained Mind, I briefly explained what we did on a daily basis, and went on to compare education as laid out by Jessie Wise and Susan Wise Bauer to the education public schooled children in our country officially receive.
“Many of you have said today that you believe experimenting on our children to be unacceptable. As a parent, I agree,” I concluded. “We have discussed the social problems public schools face today, and we have heard that children graduate from primary school barely able to read or do basic arithmetic. This law proposal forces society to take a moment to think before declaring that homeschooling is inferior by definition.”
Then I asked my little daughter to finish up by describing what she liked about school.“History is my favorite subject,” she said. “It was really fun to learn about Nebuchadnezzar going crazy, and I like the Greeks, too. Math can be hard, but fun, too. I love spelling, and grammar, and biology… and having plenty of time to play with my mom, brother, and friends after school.”
After we spoke, the parent of a physically disabled daughter had the chance to show those in attendance what public school can be like in this country. The child was in a wheelchair, but because her classroom was on the first floor and the school didn’t have a lift, she never attended any lessons. Instead, she had to wait in the hallway for the duration of the school day.
No matter how many times her mother asked, the school didn’t listen to suggestions to move her whole class to the ground floor or at least to make sure she got some one-on-one attention. “Can’t I just keep her home?” the child’s mother had finally asked the municipality. The answer? “Of course not. Primary school is compulsory.”
Homeschooling Is Legalized
That union rep found me during the coffee break. “Can I get you something to drink?” she asked. She turned out to be an adult educator, teaching those who left primary school literally unable to read. “I am amazed by what you are doing. Your daughter is really intelligent and she isn’t shy either. I can’t believe she spoke in front of hundreds of people! You’ve just shattered my ideas about homeschooling.”
Later that day, she told the conference that the wheelchair user’s mom and I made her change her mind, adding: “Homeschooling looks like a perfectly viable option for those committed to teaching their own kids, as long as rigorous oversight is in place.”
Three years after the debate, the law finally ended up in parliament. Governments rarely make it to the end of their mandate in this country, and laws are automatically pulled from the parliamentary procedure when a new government takes office.
The parliamentary debate was less interesting than the public one, and opposition to homeschooling had largely waned. Newspapers had covered the subject in detail, and society had apparently gotten used to the idea. “But who will teach them physical education?” was the best the parliamentarians could come up with.
Now the law says that “parents have the right to organize primary education for their children at home”. The government has just fallen yet again, halfway through its mandate, and I have heard that those who are sure they’ll win the elections are already planning another overhaul of the law on primary education.
Our right to homeschool is not guaranteed to last, but one thing is for sure — we will not give it up without a fight.