Home-schooling parents find freedom in Montana
EUREKA - Six miles off U.S. Highway 93, deep in the Tobacco Valley, a winding country road ends at the Perea house.
Inside, 13-year-old Joseph Perea, a recent National Geographic Bee finalist, can usually be found buried in books, reviewing details of Kosovo's independence, studying the implications of Balochistan's energy reserves and discussing with his mother - his teacher - fluctuations in the late 19th-century Western fur market.
Perhaps he'll do math, perhaps not. With his home school curriculum, nothing is set in stone. For the Pereas and other home school families, that's the beauty of it.
Besides, Joseph is already a year ahead of his age level in math.
"We don't have to work at the eighth- or seventh-grade level," said Michael Perea, Joseph's father. "We can move ahead as we need."
Or as Joseph, who finished first in the state and then seventh in the nation at the geography bee in late May, said: "If I feel motivated, I'll do more school that day."
Montana is above the national average for per capita home school students, a number that has been on the rise for years, said Steve White of the Montana Coalition of Home Educators.
Joseph Perea is one of 64 registered home school students in sparsely populated Lincoln County, according to the Montana Office of Public Instruction, while just south, Flathead County has the second-most home school students in the state behind Yellowstone County. Flathead has 507 this year and Yellowstone has 514, though Flathead's population is smaller by more than 50,000 people. Gallatin County has 421 home-schoolers, Missoula has 235 and Cascade has 233, according to OPI.
All families that intend on home-schooling are required to register with the county. Not all do, said Flathead County Superintendent Marcia Sheffels, and that presents accountability problems for the county and skews statistics.
"I hate to say it, but I'm sure there are youngsters out there that haven't been identified," Sheffels said. "I am sure there are some that slip through the cracks some way."
Flathead's high number, Sheffels said, is discouraging. She said that while many families choose home school for "all the right reasons" and make appropriate decisions, some do it because of their kid's poor grades in public school or other reactionary reasons. Home education registrations usually increase substantially from the fall to the spring, Sheffels said, a reflection of families pulling their students from public school because of something that happened in the first semester.
"I think we do a fantastic job with public education here, so that's why I guess the number of home schoolers here would be a concern to me," Sheffels said.
Montana's home school laws allow parents to teach mostly unimpeded and thus make home education an attractive option for many in Montana. A law passed in 1991 by the Montana Legislature essentially outlined parents' rights to have complete control over their children's education without government interference: curriculum, philosophy, schedule and everything else. Testing is not required to monitor students' progress, though if a student chooses to leave home school and enter a public school, that school maintains the right to test the student for placement, Sheffels said.
She said she receives calls from families who have moved to Montana to home-school because of the relaxed laws.
"There's no way to validate, really, the educational environment of the home-schoolers," Sheffels said.
Michael Perea believes the liberal laws are a major reason home-schooling is so popular in northwest Montana and throughout the state. To contrast Montana's regulations, he pointed out a recent California appeals court decision that declared home education illegal in the Golden State.
"They pretty much leave you alone," Michael said of Montana. "You just register every year and do your home school thing."
Attendance is checked annually through reports submitted by the families. Sheffels is the attendance monitor for home schools in rural Flathead areas, while home education within cities and towns is monitored by the appropriate school districts. Students are required to complete the minimum number of hours per year mandated by the state. Though families are asked to submit attendance reports, it's impossible to effectively keep track of class hours in each home, Sheffels said.
"Montana law does not provide a vehicle for monitoring them carefully," she said.
Since the late 1980s, White, one of MCHE's founders and its current legislative liaison, has lobbied at the Montana Legislature to preserve laws protecting home school rights and occasionally to promote proposed legislation. He helped write the 1991 bill giving parents free reign over their children's education. White said most - "95 percent" - of his other lobbying efforts have been aimed at defending existing home school laws.
"The whole thing is about parental choice and parental responsibility," White said. "And in Montana you really have the ability to choose."
Joseph said he hasn't had any problems making friends, a concern often associated with home school. Though he doesn't see classmates on a daily basis, he spends time with both public school and home school peers through extracurricular activities. He is involved in the horseman's club, the home school club, the muzzle loader club, and others. He tried soccer last year, but he's not much for sports.
Michael said he and his wife, Wendy, try to match schedules with public schools so Joseph can meet up with his friends during breaks.
"Socialization," Michael said, "is a pretty weak argument for public school."
In the Flathead, home-schoolers have built a strong tradition of sports success. Recently the Flathead Valley Home School Lady Crusaders girls basketball team won their fourth straight Montana Christian Athletic Association (MCAA) state title. Mel Sheeran, whose youngest daughter played on the team and other daughter coaches the volleyball team, was instrumental in starting the MCAA.
White said traditionally families have chosen home education because of religious reasons, as is reflected by the prominence of the MCAA. Some religious families choose home school because they are concerned about the subject matter taught in public schools and wish to base their children's education on their own values. While religion is still the main reason for home education, and always will be, White said, there is a new generation of young families choosing home school for strictly academic or family reasons.
"It's definitely a trend," White said. "They basically want to maintain the family unit."
Like Perea, home-schooled students routinely win or place high in national spelling and geography bees. In Perea's case, much of that can be attributed to the flexibility of his schedule, not to mention he's a very bright kid. In the weeks prior to the state geography bee, and later the national finals, Perea put all of his focus on geography, a privilege not afforded to mainstream students who are locked into a daily class schedule.
"Seven hours a day, every day, of just geography," Joseph said.
During Joseph's first-grade year, it became clear to his parents that public school wasn't keeping up with his abilities. So they opted for home schooling, with his mother taking on the role of teacher. Today Joseph's curriculum, along with the core subjects, includes horse training and working regularly with a local wildlife biologist, among other endeavors.
"If we see an opportunity to teach something or learn something," Michael said, "we try to take advantage of it. It's not 8 to 2, Monday through Friday."
Joseph was one of five home-schooled students in the top 55 at the national geography bee this year and the only one in the top 10. To win the state competition and earn his trip to Washington D.C., he answered this question: "Energy-rich Balochistan located on the border with Iran is home to an emergency movement demanding greater autonomy from what country?" He correctly answered Pakistan.
For the Pereas, geography reflects much of their philosophy on learning - it's without borders.
"You say geography and people think you're just studying capitals," Michael said. "But it's so broad and it encompasses so much, it really ties into home schooling."