The Washington Times
February 23, 2009

Washington Times Op-ed—Homeschooling: It’s the Teacher, not the School

by J. Michael Smith
HSLDA President

“If you want your child to get the best education possible, it’s actually more important to get him assigned to a great teacher than to a great school.” This quote is from Bill Gates’ January 2009 annual letter from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a group that has spent billions of dollars trying to improve education. Mr. Gates also notes that overall, only 71 percent of children graduate from high school within four years. His conclusion is that America’s schools are doing a poor job.

He went on to say that most of the schools helped by his foundation fell short of their goals in trying to increase college-ready graduation rates. A few schools, however, achieved amazing results. Typically, they were charter schools in low-income areas where the administrators were able to pick their own teachers and curriculum. Most states do not require charter school teachers to be certified.

A flexible schedule and creative programs provided by adults who have a vested interest in how the child is educated is a recipe for success and the case homeschoolers have been making for decades. For the most part, government education authorities uphold the benefits of certification, but great teachers are those who can communicate to the student the subject matter in a way that explains the content, and also demonstrates a sincere desire for the child to learn and be a good person.

The major criticism against homeschooling when my family started in the early 1980s was the lack of teacher certification. The argument was that children had to be taught by a professional teacher to have a fair opportunity to learn.

The states that were the most adamant about enforcing teacher certification were Washington, California, North Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa and Michigan. HSLDA represented many families in these states, with several cases going to state supreme courts.

In North Dakota, we had five cases that went to the state Supreme Court and were only able to win one case on a technicality. The court refused to consider evidence that the education these children were receiving, administered by their noncertified teacher parents, met the state’s legitimate interest in education. The children were testing above average on standardized achievement tests. This did not sway the justices.

In the case of Michigan v. DeJonge, an HSLDA member family was prosecuted by a school district in Michigan that alleged the children were truant because the parents did not meet the state’s teacher certification requirement. The state Supreme Court ruled teacher certification was not sufficiently compelling to preclude these parents from teaching their children at home.

Today, no state imposes teacher certification as the only teacher qualification for a parent to be able to teach a child at home. These victories were won primarily in the state legislatures as more than 30 states since 1985 have adopted an exemption from public school attendance for children being educated at home without teacher certification requirements.

It is gratifying to see the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation provide independent confirmation that it’s the teacher that’s most important, not the school. Homeschooling is largely successful because the teachers—the parents—are highly motivated because they love their student. This translates into not only an outstanding education, but in many cases, a true love for learning.

Michael Smith is the president of the Home School Legal Defense Association. He may be contacted at (540)338-5600; or send email to media@hslda.org.

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