By Wenda Sheard, J.D., Ph.D.
Gifted education policy happens in political venues; it does not happen inside the home. Then why should families who homeschool their gifted children learn about gifted education policy?
The main reason that families should learn about gifted education policy is because the homeschooling of gifted children rarely, if ever, happens exclusively within the confines of the home. Because an educational approach that works for a gifted child at one point in time may not work in the future, gifted children require more frequent tweaking of their education plans than average children require. In many cases, particularly as children grow older, this tweaking of education plans may lead to seeking stimulating educational opportunities offered outside the home.
Parents who are aware of the state and local gifted education policies affecting public school children in their community are in a better position to “work the system” in order to find appropriate occasional educational opportunities for their gifted children. Opportunities available to public school gifted children, and thus theoretically available to homeschooling gifted children, include internships, mentorships, college classes, summer courses, summer institutes, and credit by examination.
How can a homeschooling parent change a theoretical availability into an actual availability? This is where knowing about gifted education politics and policies comes in handy.
In order to understand gifted education policy and politics, one must know people in positions of power within the local and state education systems. Sometimes homeschooling parents fear meeting school officials. Unfortunately, such fears often have a basis in reality, especially in communities with a history of antagonism between public school officials and homeschooling families.
Homeschooling parents in communities with a history of hostility between the public school officials and homeschoolers should begin their quests into public school political realms with three thoughts foremost in their minds. First, homeschooling parents should remember to show that they care about children in public schools as well as children in home schools. All children are worthy of care and concern.
Second, homeschooling parents should remember that the ultimate control of public education systems rests with the voters in a particular state or community. Homeschooling parents should know exactly what public school officials can and cannot do to homeschoolers under current state law. In my experience, the fear that many homeschooling parents harbor against public school officials rests on anecdotes and false assumptions about what those officials can and cannot do under the current laws of the state. One place for learning about current homeschooling laws and rights is the Home School Legal Defense Association website.
Homeschooling parents should avoid the all-too-human temptation to be frightened or worried by anecdotes, and should avoid being frightened or worried by erroneous pronouncements made by misinformed school officials about homeschool laws. Instead, homeschooling parents should know their rights and sweetly stand their ground, remembering, “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” It’s best to enter local educational politics with an unwrinkled brow and a savvy heart.
Third, homeschooling parents should remember that politics boils down to relationships between people. Any lawyer, political scientist, or public administrator knows that the bulk of their jobs involve people relating to people. Written laws, regulations, and policies mean little without the input of people. People build flexibility into laws, regulations, and policies. The extent to which a given law, regulation, or public is bent depends in large part on the circumstances of a particular situation, including one very important circumstance: how much the people involved like each other. Friendships and kindness play a large part in politics.
Another important circumstance in the case of gifted homeschooling lies in the reason why the parents believe the school district is unable to meet the particular child’s needs on a daily basis. Politically savvy homeschooling parents share this reason in a non-accusatory and even sympathetic manner. This can be an opportunity to find common ground with school officials; perhaps the parents and school officials share a dream that that the state would fund the school systems sufficiently to allow every school to meet the individual needs of every child.
A homeschooling parent who projects care and concern for all children, an understanding of the rights and responsibilities of homeschooling parents, and a willingness to trust public school officials as individuals who try to do the best they can for children, will succeed in making friends in high education policy places. Defensiveness, hostility, and fear do not build productive relationships. Caring, concern, and trust are key ingredients of successful political relationships.
Successful political relationships aren’t necessarily relationships in which the people involved agree with one another. A political relationship is successful if the people involved respect one another, are willing to listen to one another, and are willing to help one another. Few things in politics are perfect, but mutual respect and common understandings go a long way in the right direction.
After establishing successful relationships with public school officials, including gifted education experts, homeschooling parents should keep those relationships alive, perhaps by attending public school functions once in a while, or by attending school board meetings every now and then. Homeschooling parents might bring older children along to school board meetings; think of those meetings as lessons in democracy. School board members likely will be impressed by homeschooling students who attend and understand school board meetings; good impressions build good relationships.
Many opportunities lie within the control or at least within the knowledge of a local school district’s gifted education experts. School officials and public school parents who know homeschooling parents, and who share their belief that all children are important, are more likely to share educational opportunities with homeschooling children.
Homeschooling parents should consider volunteering to coach their child and other children in co-curricular and extra-curricular activities such as Odyssey of the Mind, Destination ImagiNation, or similar activities by organizations that specifically allow homeschoolers to participate alongside with school-attendees. Gifted education experts and school district policy-makers need to know that participation by homeschoolers and their parents is permitted by those organization and beneficial to many children.
Homeschooling parents should explore where else they might “fit” their children into school district activities, classes, or events available to school-attending gifted children. Might the school district allow part-time attendance by homeschoolers? California educational code does not currently allow for part-time attendence, but the laws in other states differ. In those states whose laws reimburse the school district for part-time attendance by homeschoolers, homeschooling parents might want to figure out the amount of money their child’s part-time attendance will bring to the district.
School district administrators may be willing to allow your children to participate in public school programs once the administrators are aware of the relevant laws. The school district administrators I encountered in Ohio were unaware that state law allowed reimbursement for part-time attendance, but upon learning about the reimbursement decided to invite homeschoolers into their courses on a part-time basis. When I homeschooled my children in Wisconsin, the local school district allowed my children, including my then twelve-year-old, to attend high school part-time. My children chose to take courses we could not easily do at home, including band, foreign language, and driver’s education.
I was pleased that our Wisconsin school district was also willing to serve as an official testing site when my son took examinations for high school credit through Texas Tech University. The school district welcomed my son, if he wished to graduate quickly, to enroll in the school’s new independent study program geared for at-risk students. The school district officials I encountered understood that gifted students are often at-risk and understood that my children couldn't fit into the normal full-time, lock-step system.
Although savvy school district officials understand that many families homeschool because the school district does not meet the needs of their gifted children, few school officials know precisely how many families in their district have left or entirely avoided the public schools due to the giftedness of their children.
I recommend that homeschooling parents count up the number of gifted children who are homeschooled in their communities and their states due to lack of appropriate gifted education programming in the public school system, and then share those numbers with political leaders and school officials. I suspect those numbers would make for some powerful political arguments in favor of serving the needs of gifted children in the public schools.
In conclusion, because gifted children’s educational circumstances change so frequently, homeschooling parents should stay alert to opportunities within the public school world. Homeschooling parents should be aware of educational policies and politics in their local community, and should endeavor to be on good terms with local education policy decision-makers. Efforts in these directions will go a long way toward accomplishing many goals.
Wenda Sheard practiced law for twenty years before earning a Ph.D. in political science with an emphasis on education policy in 2004. From 2004-2006, she taught at Hangzhou International School in Hangzhou, China, and more recently she taught at TASIS The American School in England. She previous served on the board of Supporting the Emotional Needs of the Gifted (SENG) and NAGC UK. She and her husband have three grown children. She currently blogs at Thoughts on Life and Learning.