SCHOOL'S OUT Forever

Homeschooling isn't just fundamentalists and eccentrics anymore.

          "This isn't going to be a negative piece, is it? Where you get some quotes from one homeschool family and then have some expert from the MEA or the MFT do a kind of point-counterpoint and talk about how abusive homeschooling is? Because I really don't want to be a part of something like that."

          St. Paul mother and homeschooler Linda Winsor's initial ambivalence typifies the caution that's become ingrained in a homeschooling community long at odds with both the public education system and public opinion. Prior to the 1980s, when much of the country underwent state-by-state retooling of vague compulsory schooling laws, the threat of prosecution for failing to provide an "equivalent" education to that available in the public system was a very real reason for homeschooling parents to keep a low profile. Media treatment of homeschoolers has tended toward one of two stereotypes: bomb-sheltered fundamentalists (either biblically or constitutionally speaking) diligently preparing the next generation of Freemen or quaint remnants of the cultural backwoods (and the subject of many an MPR hayride into Amish country). On the Internet, which burgeons with homeschool-related homepages and resource link farms, a prickly "Homeschoolers Media Guide" advises practitioners how to turn the tables on journalists who "come calling about their latest exposé."

          But the world is changing around the homeschoolers; what they're doing no longer seems so outré to a lot of people. There appears, in fact, to be a growing number of families who regard home instruction as a kind of triage--against any number of dangers, including perceived physical peril and poor teaching as well as racial tensions and objectionable subject matter.

          When we do meet, Winsor is quick to cite a recent proliferation of home schools in her neighborhood. "Almost always now when you tell somebody," she says, "they'll say, 'I know so-and-so who's doing the same thing.' A neighbor, or a family member. It touches almost everyone." For Winsor, the fact that Minnesota's homeschool population has overtaken the 1 percent mark and continues to grow by nearly 20 percent each year since the state started keeping track in 1987 means she can now look out her front window and point to two nearby home schools. Besides them, she adds, "Another family just moved in that has three little ones, and they've been homeschooling all along. And the people behind us have a 6-year-old. That makes four families within a block."

          At the dining room table of her St. Paul stucco, Winsor gives her long hair a rustle. She calls herself and her husband "old hippies" who never thought they "would have anything in common with right-wing Christian fundamentalists." And given the prevailing image of homeschoolers, she now is often mistaken for one. Winsor laments the news coverage of a spring rally at the statehouse this year--billed as a celebration of "Minnesota, the Land of 10,000 Homeschools" (the most recent state figure is close, at 9,135)--which emphasized the Christian angle at the expense of others present.

          There's no question that the face of homeschooling has changed. There is currently little public information about Minnesota homeschoolers, but the Florida Department of Education has surveyed homeschooling families for some time now. And while their studies have consistently found a majority citing religious reasons in the past, the picture changed in 1995 when two-thirds of respondents pointed to dissatisfaction with public schools as their main motive. And what they propose to provide instead is in many cases as varied as the families themselves. What follows is a series of sketches of a number of Twin Cities families I visited in their homes.

          Evelyn Eubanks

          "I DON'T let my kids go play past the end of the street," Evelyn Eubanks assures me. I assume that's because the style of play gets slightly rougher if you hang a hard right at the end of quiet Ferrant Place and walk half a block to the hub of Penn and Broadway. Some other parents evidently have similar rules because Eubanks's frontyard is a frenzy of children giddily buzzing in the extended evening sun.

          On the way up the walk of the well-kept, older house, I catch a whiff of pine cleaner, and, as I duck to tie the shoes of the toddler in the yard, a resonant voice comes booming out the door. "You can tie them up, but those shoes are on the wrong feet!" I whisk the baby up into the house to start over. Evelyn Jr., a shy 12-year-old, kneels to help.

          Eubanks, a divorced mother of six, last year made the decision to opt out of the public system. She's been homeschooling five of her kids since then. (Her oldest, Dionne, at 18, preferred to remain a senior at North High.)

          Eubanks eventually scoots the children from the room and starts by answering a question I haven't yet asked. "No, I did not want to teach my children at home. I was busy. I was a single mom with all that stress right there." Having served as secretary of the citywide PTO and president of both Lincoln and North High PTOs, she describes her journey to homeschooling as one that began with the belief that greater involvement in the schools was the best parental response to dissatisfaction. "After finding problems in our school, I thought it was my job to identify those problems. Once I identified them to people who were not aware of them, they were going to take care of them, and I was going to go home."

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