Late last month, Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter found time in his schedule to make some glowing remarks at the "graduation" ceremony of a group of home educated students. The prepared text of the speech, which was provided to the Boise Weekly, shows that Otter was prepared to do more than just wish the assembled children well. Otter was on hand to tell the students that their unregulated, undocumented form of education was just the sort of thing this country needs more of. Although Idaho law decrees that the state must provide some form of public education, he said, he was more than happy to see parents take their kids' learning into their own hands.
The remarks were written as a prepared speech for Otter; he may have diverged from them in actual delivery. "Yes, Idaho's Constitution mandates a thorough system of public education," Otter said. "But ultimately, only the family and the individual citizen can be responsible for their own education."
Otter described homeschooling as a fair extension of what President George Washington meant when he discussed, in his first inaugural address, the "sacred fire of liberty" that was "staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people."
"Think about that," Otter said. "It doesn't say, 'entrusted to the hands of the public schools.' It says, 'entrusted to the hands of the American people.'"
Further, he said, "there can be no firmer foundation for your future than the education you have received at home."
This all comes at a time when Idaho's education system has been identified as one of the worst-funded among the states. In April, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that Idaho was in the bottom five for per-pupil spending, about $6,028 per student. Only Utah, Arizona, Oklahoma and Mississippi spent similar amounts.
The man who runs Idaho's public schools, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna, said he would prefer to see Idaho families take advantage of the ever-growing palette of charter schools. "By offering more choices, more options, we'll be able to draw more parents and students into the public schools, and I think that's a good thing," Luna said. In the 2006-2007 fiscal year, the state tallied 28 charter schools, up from just two in 1999.
One reason Luna might want more students in the state's public schools is that Idaho doesn't really have a clue as to what sort of education students are getting in their homes. Luna said the state of Idaho doesn't have any methods for tracking students individually, much less those students who aren't enrolled in public education programs.
Idaho code is very clear on this point: "The parent or guardian of any child resident in this state who has attained the age of 7 years at the time of the commencement of school in his district, but not the age of 16 years, shall cause the child to be instructed in subjects commonly and usually taught in the public schools of the state of Idaho." The generally accepted subjects are: English, math, reading, science, history and civics.
A key phrase in Idaho code is "otherwise comparably instructed." That line gives homeschoolers their strongest defense. Parents or guardians don't have any certification requirements to meet, but they must simply be "competent." As the governing body of their "school," the parents set attendance and regulation policies.
But gaining the freedom that Idaho homeschooling advocates have was a hard-fought battle, one that some advocates say they're probably going to have to fight, in some form, every year.
Bob Forrey has been around for most of the struggle. He was there in 1984, when members of the Shippy family of New Plymouth went to jail in order to defend their right to teach their children at home. He was there when Idaho lawmakers came to him with complaints of kids getting mistreated in homeschooling situations. And for three years, it was his job to hunt down those cases for the state department of education. He was given this job by Anne Fox, a predecessor to Luna in the early 1990s.
"I followed up on every one of those individually," Forrey said. "Not one of them was a legitimate complaint." After a while, he said, the department stopped sending him complaints. He has since retired to his cattle and hay farm near Kuna, but still presides over homeschooler graduation ceremonies like the one Otter attended.
The mystery of homeschooling continues to intrigue researchers and teachers. In 2006, Boise State's Center for School Improvement and Policy Studies released a report stating that of the 215,042 children within the state's compulsory education range in 2003, Idaho was "missing" 13,954 children who exist in the census but were not recorded in any educational institution.
Barry Peters can recite that "missing" figure off the top of his head. The Eagle attorney has been affiliated with the Idaho Coalition of Home Educators and is among those who quickly deride the report as inaccurate. No one from Boise State was available to discuss the report.
"Superintendent Luna believes the current system works well," said Melissa McGrath, a spokeswoman for Luna. "Students who are home-schooled still have the opportunity to take state assessments and enroll in certain courses or extracurricular activities at public schools, when necessary."
But teachers still ponder the state's home-schooled kids.
Sherri Wood of the Idaho Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union, said her organization does not oppose homeschooling per se, but she questions the ability of all parents to take over a child's education. "We have found that homeschool parents are not necessarily taking on the responsibility that they should take on as educators," Wood said.
Also, Wood said, kids who aren't in school are missing out on the socializing effects a public school offers kids.
"They're pretty isolated," Wood said. "They don't have any of those socialization skills. Employers want students who aren't just skilled in academics. They want them to get along well with other people."
But the school environment is precisely why some parents take their kids out of school, said Linda Patchin, the director of Christian Homeschoolers of Idaho State. All four of her kids were taught at home, she said in an interview; one just graduated from Albertson College, and another is at Boise State. Like many homeschoolers, she took her kids' education into her own hands because she didn't like the values they were exposed to in public schools.
"Most people have a particular faith they want to share with their children," Patchin said. "They have a way they want to integrate it into every subject."
Some kids provide extreme examples of the collision of certain values and education, such as the two home-schooled boys in Post Falls who, determined to make a point about their right to bear arms, began carrying guns everywhere they went. Other popular examples come from the documentary Jesus Camp, which showed a mother dismissing the theory of evolution to her home-schooled children.
For now, homeschoolers in Idaho remain defiant, but perhaps more comforted knowing that Idaho's chief executive is such a fan.