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The pandemic unmoored many of our accepted realities. We were forced to examine our previous certainties concerning the workplace, living arrangements and schooling. 

Two things brought these thoughts to front of mind recently. One was a census report on the tremendous growth in home schooling over the 2020 pandemic year. The other was the simple request of a homeschooler to play soccer in his hometown school district. 

Let’s start by looking at the latter issue. 

What makes young Wyatt Hand’s request to participate in sports so easy for the Middle Township School Board to reject out of hand? If you read the school district’s high school student handbook for 2020-2021, it is not just sports where home-schoolers are denied participation. They cannot join the drama club, or go on field trips, or participate in the school’s French club, or be part of any other organized extracurricular activity.  

District Superintendent Dr. David Salvo was asked this week if the district allowed home-schoolers to participate in any of the districts extracurricular after-school activities. His answer was, “We do not.” 

On the surface, the reason given sounds like it is rooted in pedagogy and a desire to foster equity. The school district is trying to “level the playing field” for all students, Salvo says. The school district has a responsibility to ensure that all students meet the same rigorous requirements for participation in extracurricular activities and sports. Since the Board of Education has no way to ensure that home-schooled students have met all the academic and attendance requirements, there is no choice open but to bar their participation.  

That response meets the classic definition of a red herring. It is meant to mislead and distract rather than to inform. By applying the rules derived from the public school’s education structure to a structure that, by definition, does not use those rules, they have guaranteed the result they want. The penalty for home schooling is that the student cannot have access to any of the things the public’s taxes pay for.  

If a home-schooled middle school equivalent student in the Middle Township district is permitted to join the Lego club (yes, there is one), does that mean the school board violated some grand obligation to fairness and a level playing field? We could go down the list of activities for middle and high school students and find little that would offend our sensibilities in terms of home-schooler participation.  

Now, consider for a moment the increase in home schooling and the reasons for it. First, note that home schooling is a fully legal option in all 50 states. New Jersey is probably among the most lenient and flexible states in the nation with respect to home schooling. Lenient that is until you get to the district level in many areas of the state. 

Even before the pandemic took hold, New Jersey, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, had about 4.7% of students in home schooling, higher than the national average. By fall 2020, with months of school closures, uneven remote learning experiences and the prospect of more months of uncertainty and hybrid instruction, that number jumped to almost 11%. 

Sure, the health concerns inflated the number and some of those students will return to the public school system in time. Some may not. Just as the experience with remote work has upended traditional employment models, just as the freedom to live anywhere has sparked real estate booms in locations remote from the traditional centers of work, so too some families driven to experiment with alternative learning arrangements, including home schooling, may not be anxious to return to the neighborhood school. Whether they do or not may, in fact, depend a lot on the neighborhood school itself. 

The National Center for Education Statistics and the U.S. Census Bureau each supply insights into why some families choose the home schooling option.  

The reason most of the families cite is that they are concerned about safety, drug use among the young and the impact of negative peer pressure.  

The second most common reason is dissatisfaction with academic instruction at the school. With the public school system, geography places many students in districts that may be middle of the road or worse in terms of preparation of students for college or the workplace. 

The third most frequent response is a desire to include moral or religious education.  

School districts that are not successfully addressing the issues driving families to home schooling are increasing the incentives for families to reject the local public school. Maybe school officials would better serve the public by competing for the home-school student in ways that address the concerns their families have rather than by denying entry to the myriad of tax-supported activities that they fence off for use by “their” students. 

It is important to note that the families that elect home schooling continue to pay the same school taxes that fund all the extramural activities for which their children are denied entry. 

There is no attempt here to argue that home schooling will ever be an existential threat to the public school system. It will probably always be a small fraction of the total number of students.  

But, for those who desire it, should it come with a penalty?  

Let Wyatt play. Let other homeschoolers join activities and clubs. School administrators must stop guarding the gates against enemies and instead put out the welcome mat to the young of the school district whose parents have elected an alternative and fully legal method of academic instruction.  

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From the Bible: Matthew 7:12 -- In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you.  

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