Journalism won’t die if you donate. Support Voice of San Diego today!

Something had long bothered Laura Tate.

Her mother had started home schooling her three younger siblings when Tate was still in public high school. When Tate went back to visit her family in Ramona, it looked to her like her mother never taught the three teens.

They used workbooks or took lessons on the computer, but got little guidance or personal instruction from their mother, said the 26-year-old Tate, who recently got her teaching credential.

The same thing worried her older sister, Tina Ellis. “I’m watching my siblings slip through the cracks,” Ellis said. Their teenage sister, an eighth grader, struggled with writing simple sentences, she said.

And their older brother Daniel Tate had the same misgivings when he came home to visit from the Bay Area. When two of the home-schooled kids went briefly to public school this fall, Laura Tate and Ellis said tests showed the children were behind. But the kids were pulled back out and home-schooled again.

Her mother, Vicky Tate, refused to talk for this story. The battle over how to educate the younger kids has driven a wedge through their family — and sent Laura Tate on a campaign.

Convinced that her younger brothers and sister need a better education, Tate phoned a long list of local legislators, state agencies and legal groups this fall, seeking their help and asking for options. But as Tate quickly found out, California does little to regulate home schooling.

Unlike several other states, California imposes no tests to check how home-schoolers are faring. It does not examine student work or ask teachers to vouch for how home-schoolers are doing. And parents don’t have to show the state their lessons. While public schools have been increasingly bound by testing and data, home schooling in California has escaped the educational mania for public accountability.

The Tates are now living the bitter debate over how to regulate home schooling, a question bound up in the complicated calculus of how to balance the rights of parents, their children and the state.

“There are a few basic things home schools have to do at the beginning — and then there’s not a whole lot of checks and balances to follow up,” said Elisa Weichel, administrative director for the Children’s Advocacy Institute at the University of San Diego. “It doesn’t look like California is doing much.”

Families say more regulations would cramp their creativity and force them to be measured by standards they never agreed to. They believe that any problems are too rare to write new laws around. Home schooling should not be treated any differently than private schools, they argue — and even public schools are rarely shuttered when kids are behind. Why should home schooling have to?

“It gets tricky when you start getting into checklists of what kids need to know or how you measure cognitive ability,” said Lauren Reynolds, who consults schools in San Diego County on special education issues. She was home-schooled herself. “It’s problematic even in the public school system.”

It has confused the courts, especially because the state education code is silent about them. Home-schoolers panicked two years ago when a California court weighing a child abuse case said no parent could home-school on their own without a teaching credential.

That ruling was ultimately overturned, keeping home schooling legal. But judges pointed out “a near absence of objective criteria and oversight for home schooling.” They added that “clarity in this area of the law would be helpful.” Nothing has changed.

Many home-schoolers opt for more regulation on their own: A growing number of home-schoolers enroll in charter schools or study independently through public schools, where they are regularly tested and check in with a credentialed teacher.

But families can also form their own private school by filing a simple form with the state, pledging to teach in English, keep track of attendance and cover basic areas such as math, English and social studies. The Tates, for instance, formed the Guardian Angels School with three students at their Ramona home.

California does not judge the applications or license the schools. It just takes the paperwork. More than 11,000 Californians have filed those forms to create schools with five students or fewer. Others join up with larger private schools as satellite programs from home, making it hard to gauge their numbers.

“California has always been pretty liberal about this,” said Stephen Sugarman, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley who studies school choice and family law. “It’s very easy to arrange.”

One recent national study found that nearly 3 percent of students were home-schooled — more than went to charter schools. As home schooling has exploded over the past three decades, it has evolved from an underground movement to an organized, respected group with political muscle.

Freelance writer and former education researcher Patricia Lines says home schooling is often a backlash against whatever is happening in public schools. When prayer and Bible study petered out in public schools, Lines said, many religious families chose home schooling. But families choose it for a wide range of reasons, from crafting a unique curriculum to accommodating kids with special needs.

“I don’t know any two home-schoolers that do it the same,” said Becca Orlowski, a mother who home-schools her three sons in Serra Mesa. Her kids have taken classes at college, with tutors, through the computer and via a Christian cooperative. “You find what works for each family.”

While home schooling has gained acceptance, regulation is still an area where people disagree. Many other states set stiffer rules on home schooling than California does. Iowa requires home-schoolers to be assessed annually using anything from a test to a portfolio, while Virginia lets a licensed teacher vouch for home-schoolers. Other states vet educational plans before parents get started.

California does step in for extreme cases: Courts have ruled that parents don’t have an absolute right to home-school if children are abused or unsafe. School districts also could investigate a family for truancy if they find out kids aren’t being educated at all. But the state stops short of gauging quality.

“I’m not saying that parents can’t educate their kids,” Laura Tate said. “I just think there needs to be some kind of accountability.”

Home schooling advocates counter that they operate just like any other private schools and should be free to teach without the government getting involved. Parents are better at deciding what their children need than the state, they say, and are the best safeguards against their failure. They have a good track record: Several studies have found that on average, home-schoolers perform better than public school students.

“If your kids aren’t getting an education, you’re sitting there and you know it,” said Loren Mavromati, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit California Homeschool Network.

Heidi Troge says no parent who wanted it easy would home-school. Her Poway home, blanketed with colorful maps and charts, doubles as a schoolhouse where her three children follow a set schedule and learn Spanish and Mandarin. During a history lesson, Troge paused to ask them questions.

“What did the people in England think about smoking?” Troge asked her younger son after she finished reading them a dense passage about how the slave trade evolved in tandem with tobacco.

“They thought it was suave,” said Nathan Troge, 10, savoring the vocabulary word.

Troge chose to home-school so that she could stay close to her children while continuing to counsel women at her church at night. She also worried that Nathan, who has Asperger’s syndrome, would get less attention in the larger classes at their public school. He has thrived at home.

“People talk about cases where home-schooled kids fall through the cracks. Well, what is falling through the cracks? What is too far below?” asked Brian Ray, president of the National Home Education Research Institute. “And can the public school guarantee that the child will do better?”

Full disclosure: Laura Tate’s boyfriend, Vladimir Kogan, is a former VOSD reporter and current contributor.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at or 619.550.5665 and follow her on Twitter:

Emily Alpert

Emily Alpert was formerly the education reporter for Voice of San Diego.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.