When Elizabeth Dean was four, her mother took her out of kindergarten to teach her at home because she could already read Charlotte’s Web while other kids were just learning how to write the letter C.
That was 10 years ago and homeschooling was “still on the fringe of acceptability,” said Elizabeth’s mother, Lisa Dean, between classes in the family home on the history of ancient Rome, the writings of Edgar Allen Poe, online geometry and English for Elizabeth, 14, and 11-year-old Teddy.
“Ten years ago, folks typically would list their reasons for homeschooling as religious reasons or wanting to fly under the government radar,” she said.
But she gave up a well-paid job as a lawyer in Washington to become a stay-at-home mom who homeschools for academic reasons and because she is a self-avowed mother hen.
“I read the same things everyone else reads about what’s happening in schools — sexual activity, drugs, bullying, violence — and don’t feel that kids need to experience that,” she said.
Dean hailed homeschooling for allowing children to choose topics they are interested in, within a set curriculum, and to advance at their own pace.
When Elizabeth, who goes by the nickname Bitsy, begins high school next term, she will enroll in Spanish and writing courses at the local community college, while continuing her homeschooling, which will include an online trigonometry course for students two years older than she is.
Homeschooling dates back to colonial America, but lost ground when institutionalized schooling became compulsory in the mid-1800s.
At the height of the hippy culture in the 1960s, homeschooling enjoyed a renaissance as left-wingers seeking to buck the establishment taught their children themselves.
Christian conservatives were the next to embrace homeschooling, and “by 1990, 85 to 90 percent of all homeschoolers came from the ranks of the religious right,” Paul Petersen, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, wrote in Education Next, which he edits.
The number of homeschooled children soared by 29 percent between 1999 and 2003, from 850,000 to roughly 1.1 million, data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) show.
In Maryland, which keeps its own statistics on homeschooling, there were 2,296 home-schooled children in 1990, and more than 10 times that number — 24,227 — in 2006.
A survey conducted in 2003 by the NCES showed that the reason given most often by parents for homeschooling their children was the environment in traditional schools.
Just over 30 percent of parents polled said they homeschooled their kids because of worries for their safety, about drugs or peer pressure.
Slightly less than 30 percent said they chose to homeschool their children for moral or religious reasons and 16.5 percent because they were unhappy with the academics in traditional schools.
Tamara Bergen has homeschooled her two daughters for the past 15 years, partly because she wants to share her Christian values with them, but also because “families that educate at home have more flexibility with their schedules.”
“You can teach to your child’s level, abilities, pace, interests, gifts and talents. Home education teaches students to be self-starters and independent learners,” says her Web site, theenterprisinghomeschooler.com.
The biggest criticism leveled at homeschooling is that it deprives children of social contact.