Parents who are educating their children at home, without official permission, are in many cases escaping the notice of school authorities.
"We have not had such a case reported," said Beatrice Cameron, director of the Fairfax County Public Schools Department of Special Services.
"There are no such cases this year," said Tom Inge, chief of the District of Columbia Public Schools Tuition Act Enforcement branch.
"I don't know of any cases like that," said Parthenia Pruden, director of the Prince George's County Public Schools Pupil Services.
School authorities, generally, are surprised unapproved home schools exist. Yet, they expect the unschoolers will be swept up in the routine checks of school attendance offices, or will be reported by neighbors for child neglect.
"Once a child is registered in a public-school system, the system is set up to follow them, so that we know they have completed their education or else have moved out of our jurisdiction," said Pruden.
"If a child is out illegally, we work with the parents to get the child back. If we are unsuccessful, then the case is carried to the courts, where the parents are subject to a fine or jail sentence."
Some unschoolers are willing to fight in court for what they believe is their right to control the instruction of their own children. Last spring, a Norfolk family won a court case in which they argued that their home is a private school. The court also recently ruled in favor of a King George, Va., family in a similar case. At issue is what qualifies as an alternative school and who qualifies as a teacher.
Court battles, however, are viewed as a last resort, and most unschoolers prefer to remain non-existent in the eyes of school authorities. They may succeed, according to Pruden, "if they never register in a public-school system, and they are never called to our attention. We are not knocking door to door looking for truants."
Legal exemption from school attendance is granted in some cases for students participating in an accredited correspondence school such as the Home Study Institute of Takoma Park, Md. Typically, the students are performers on tour or their parents are stationed overseas.
Exceptions are also listed in each state's school attendance law. In Maryland, for example, children may be excused from school in cases of: death in the immediate family, illness certified by a physician, quarantine, court summons, physical incapacity (not accommodated in school facilities), mental incapacity, violent storms, work or activity approved by or sponsored by the school, religious holiday and state emergency.
Virginia's law is similar to Maryland's, but the District of Columbia's law is more lenient. However, according to Inge, "We try to discourage home study. We allow it only where there is extreme hardship, the parents' reason is extremely well-prepared and the tutor has credentials equivalent to D.C. teachers'."
Exactly what constitutes a 'good reason" for teaching a child at home has unschoolers and school professionals lined up in opposite camps, arguing the evils and merits of home and public schools.
"Even educated parents as individuals don't have the complex resources that are demanded these days for children to become prductive social beings," said Pruden. "In the home setting alone, there is also a complete void of the socialization process. If we have no experience in dealing with diversity, then many times we are unable to cope in society."
Parents should have a role in their children's education, but not a monopoly, said Louise Waynant, coordinating director of the Prince George's Public Schools Instructional Services.
"School is an exciting, interesting place that can't be duplicated at home. This is not an either-or situation, Parents are partners with the schools who may visit the school and guide their children's learning during after-school hours."
If a parent is dissatisfied with a school, the answer is not to leave the system, according to Jim Gines, associate superintendent of instruction for the District of Columbiat Public Schools. "Parents should insist that their children's needs be met within the system. If needs are not met, parents should attack that problem, not teach themselves."
How the needs of most students are met varies according to the preferences and dictates of local school boards, school principals and classroom teachers. However, special education of handicapped children is required, regulated and partially funded by the federal government.
Independent study programs for the talented and gifted may not be available, or are operated in part (such as the pilot project in the District's Region 6), or are operated in all schools (the mandate for Prince George's schools by January 1980).
Yet, for the most part, children are taught in general groupings that, as Waynant pointed out, "require structure and management to insure that learning tasks take place." The unschooler's goal of individual, self-directed instruction may have advantages, concedes Gines, "but they are outweighed by the value of a child's growth and development guided by professionally trained teachers and the interaction with other children."