Non-religious families often find it difficult to educate their children without relying on conservative Christian curricula and communities.
The modern homeschooling movement is one of revolt. From its humble beginnings in the ’70s, led by graduates of the hippie generation who saw public schools as too constrained and religious, to its pop-cultural peak in the ’80s and ’90s under conservative Christians who wanted more God and less evolution in the classroom, homeschoolers and their parents have pushed aggressively against mainstream education.
Today, there are more than 1.7 million homeschooled kids in the U.S., roughly double the number of those at the turn of 21st century. Religious families, nearly exclusively Christians, make up more than two-thirds of them, and religious curricula and social groups dominate the community. In states where homeschoolers are required to be part of a larger “umbrella school” to meet government learning standards, those networks are frequently organized by churches.
For a small segment of parents and kids who opt out of traditional public schooling, something is changing: They are also opting out of religion. Studies suggest that young Americans are more likely than their older peers not to identify with any religion. While about one in five of all Americans aren’t affiliated with a religious group, the same is true of roughly one in three people in their 20s and 30s. And while atheists and agnostics account for just a sliver of the country’s population, more than two-thirds of them are under 50. The number of those under 18 may also be growing. In recent years, advocacy groups have successfully launched a handful of secular clubs in high schools across the country. For some of today’s kids, being non-religious isn’t special; it’s normal.
“More and more people want to teach their particular set of values and beliefs in schools and not have the state do it,” said Brian D. Ray, the president of the Salem, Oregon-based National Home Education Research Institute, who has studied homeschooling for three decades. As the number of “atheists, agnostics and secular people grow, there are more of them homeschooling, too.”
“Then I got this kid. The school system was sucking the life out of him. He had ADHD and dysgraphia,” a disorder that makes it difficult for him to express himself in handwriting. A special-education teacher, who Smith described as emotionally “abusive,” didn’t seem to her to be interested in helping him improve.
There are a lot of hurdles to success in homeschooling: meeting state guidelines, making sure your child gets a high school degree, helping your child compete for college admissions, and more. Non-religious families face an additional challenge: finding lesson plans, qualified teachers, and daytime social groups that aren’t overtly religious. Parents often decide what kind of religious or non-religious education their kids will get, and the kids either follow suit or rebel. In Aiden’s case, things happened differently.
“I didn’t ever believe in God,” said Aiden, who started calling himself an atheist after learning the word from a segment on The Daily Show when he was in sixth grade. “Religion just makes no sense.”
When Smith decided to homeschool her son and started searching online for resources, she realized most homeschool families are Christian. Eventually, she started following secular homeschooling message boards and Facebook groups to figure out which lesson plans are atheist-friendly and which science books and instructors will teach evolution. Finding non-religious resources has been difficult at times. “You can’t even buy a planner sometimes without there being Bible verses on it,” she said.
Each day, Aiden wakes up around 10 a.m., ready to sit at the dining table or his desk and start on a mildly plotted schedule of math, science, social studies, English, and P.E. He uses a computer to bypass his handwriting problems, and he and his mom have come up with creative interpretations of traditional subjects that get him more excited to learn. For English, he’s writing a review of the film Aliens, and last month, his writing project was an essay arguing against the death penalty. For science, he’s creating a comic book based on Batman, in which the Joker and Scarecrow sell poisons on the black market. For P.E., he takes figure-skating lessons on the weekends—he’s currently working on his single-Axel jump and recently auditioned to play a pirate in a Peter Pan kids’ ice show.
Every 20 days, Smith turns in Aiden’s work to a learning specialist from Excel, the charter school he’s enrolled in as a homeschooler, and she regularly writes summaries of his lessons for state audits. In California, enrolling in a charter is one way many homeschooling parents get public funding to support their kids’ educational needs. For Aiden, this includes speech classes and occupational therapy to help with his handwriting, along with the homeschoolers’ art class and science labs he attends.
Religion often comes up in his home-based classroom. His first essay as a homeschooler over the summer was about Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk who wouldn’t issue marriage licenses to gay couples. Here’s what he wrote, in its original form:
Recently in the news there’s a clerk not making marriage license for any couple. The First Amendment works with and against the clerk. Some parts of the First Amendment include freedom of press, assembly and religion. The whole reason we know this is because of the press. The county clerk couldn’t tell the press to leave because it goes against this amendment. Now the whole world knows about this crazy county clerk … People think it means you can discriminate because of your religion but it’s actually the opposite.
Many atheist, agnostic, and non-religious kids and parents credit social media with helping them realize there are others like them. In nearly every place in the U.S. where there are homeschoolers, there are organized “park days” where kids get together weekly to play with other kids, go on field trips, or participate in sports. The California Homeschool Network, an extensive but incomplete compendium of resources in the state, lists 47 Christian homeschool-support and park-day groups, and seven that are secular. But across the state and country, there are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of secular homeschool Facebook groups where moms and dads post photos, hatch ideas for social gatherings, and discuss their struggles and successes with state laws.
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