THE rapid growth of home-schooling in the United States is draining funds from hard-pressed school districts and helping to fan religious intolerance, according to a leading American researcher.
Many home-schoolers have joined the growing anti-tax movement in the US, reasoning that they should not have to pay for public schooling. Others have obtained public money by exploiting funding loopholes and used the cash to buy Christian fundamentalist textbooks that make offensive remarks about other religions.
The negative consequences of America's home-schooling phenomenon have been highlighted by Professor Michael W Apple, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in the latest issue of International Studies in Sociology of Education.
He points out that Californian "charter" schools (the nearest equivalent to grant-maintained schools) are channelling funds to home-schoolers with the support of some school districts. Much of the money has been spent on religious textbooks produced by the Bob Jones University, the ultra-conservative anti-Catholic educational institution which conferred a doctorate on the Revd Ian Paisley.
Professor Apple says that this circumvents the ban on spending public money on overtly
sectarian material that makes claims such as "Islam is a false religion."
"I do not wish to be totally negative," he says. "This is a complicated issue and there may be justifiable worries among home-schoolers that their culture and values are not being listened to. But it must be openly discussed."
Professor Apple believes that public schools' reluctance to change has helped to push parents "into the arms" of right-wing groups. An estimated 1.5 million American children were said to be "home-schooled" in 1998 and their numbers are thought to be rising by 15 per cent each year.
He traces the origins of the home-schooling movement back to the economic crises of the mid-1970s - and the resultant competition for funding. Until then, the vast majority of Americans accepted that schools and other state agencies acted professionally and impartially in the public good.
"(In the 1970s) the state was criticised for denying the opportunity for consumers to exercise choice. The welfare state was seen as gougng the taxpayer to pay for public hand-outs for those who ignore personal responsibility for their actions," says Professor Apple.
"Much of the anti-statism, of course, was fuelled by the constant attention given in the media and in public pronouncements to 'incompetent' teachers who are over-paid and have short working days and long vacations."
But fears about moral and physical dangers - as well as technological advances such as the Internet - have also
encouraged the flight from mainstream schooling in the US. Ultra-religious parents had come to see schools as places that threaten "the very souls" of their children.
The recent spate of school shootings in the US has convinced many parents it is time to pull out of schools. "If even the schools of affluent suburbia were sites of danger, then the only remaining safe haven was the fortress home," he says.
Apple has some sympathy with parents' anxieties and acknowledges the sacrifices they are prepared to make for their children. But he is worried about the "cocooning" trend in American society, the creation of gated communities and the rejection of cities in favour of a neat and well-planned suburban "universe where things (and people) are in their 'rightful place' and reality is safe and predictable".
Like other education commentators he believes that public schools - despite manifest shortcomings - have provided a social glue that is particularly important in a polyglot and multicultural society.
He argues that the whole of American society may suffer if that glue loses its adhesive properties but he has not given up hope. "The task of public schools is to listen much more carefully to the complaints of parents and to rebuild our institutions in more responsive ways," he concludes. "While I do not want to be overly romantic, there are models of curricula and teaching that are ... committed to social justice and fairness, and that are based in schools where both students and teachers want to be."
'Away with all teachers: the cultural politics of home schooling', International Studies in Sociology of Education, Volume 10 Number 1. Contact: Professor Michael W Apple, Department of Cirriculum and Instruction, Teacher Education Building, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 225 North Mills Streert, Madison W1 53706 email@example.com
Friday magazine, page 11