With the passage of a new law this summer mandating vaccines for school kids in California, home school advocates and organizations say they are seeing surging interest in off-campus education options that would exempt them from the requirement.
“The word on the streets is that, yes, people are coming to home schooling,” said Sarah Ford, membership director for Sonoma County Homeschoolers Nonprofit in northern California.
The controversial mandate, co-authored by state Senator Richard Pan, a pediatrician backed by the California Medical Association, requires any student in public or private school to have 10 vaccinations as an attendance requirement, with some exceptions for medical conditions.
En route to passage, the proposal sparked scathing controversy on both sides of the issue, with opponents (wearing red to symbolize children who have been harmed by vaccines and often with their own kids in tow) regularly flooding Capitol hearings to protest.
Pan even received death threats over the measure, and in the wake of its passage is facing both a recall effort and a statewide referendum to repeal the law. But barring any repeal, the law will go into effect at the start of the next school year.
Lyn Elliott, a mother of a 20-month-old girl, says she is taking a serious look at home schooling because of the law. While her daughter Rebel is “mostly vaccinated,” there are certain shots she feels are unnecessary “and that I feel have risks”.
Next summer, she will have to face the choice of giving vaccinations she does not want, or lose access to daycare – where some of the vaccine requirements will also apply. A single parent after her husband died in a motorcycle accident, she says home school could mean a critical drop in her income, but a move she feels compelled to make.
“For myself and my personal situation, school was something I was somewhat looking forward to,” she says. “I think it would actually be more beneficial for (Rebel) to be in public school but I am not willing to take that risk or let them make that decision for me just to make my life easier.”
Nicole Arango, a 34-year-old mother of two, said she faced a similar choice and decided to move forward with home schooling now.
She recently moved from Oxnard, California to Simi Valley with her son, Ryan, 13, and daughter, Juliet, 6. Because Ryan had an adverse vaccine reaction when he was young, Arango has chosen not to vaccinate further. Rather than put them in school in their new town for a year and have to pull them out when the law goes into effect, she is beginning home schooling this fall.
“I was already kind of on the fence about home schooling anyway but the vaccine law really pushed me over because that’s not something I’m going to have shoved down my throat,” she said. “I feel like I have no other alternative.”
Elliott and Arango are likely just the beginning of a wave of parents looking for options as the deadline moves closer. The law, one of the strictest in the country, eliminated both personal belief and religious exemptions to vaccinations, closing opt-out possibilities for the majority of vaccine-averse parents aside from home school.
Teresa Fitzpatrick, president of Anaheim-based California Homeschool Network, said her organization has also seen a mild increase in calls and questions about vaccinations, but since the requirements for shots do not go into effect until next fall, “we are probably going to see a bigger increase then”.
“Home schooling is definitely seeing a bump, absolutely,” seconded Corin Goodwin, CEO and executive director of Gifted Homeschoolers Forum (GHF), a resource site for homeschooling parents.
Far from being a few fringe families, home schooling in the US now has a myriad of both non-profit and for-profit support networks and curriculum possibilities that service about 1.77 million students – a number that has been steadily increasing for years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Nationally, about 3% of kids between ages five and 17 were home schooled in the 2011-2012 school year.
California has one of the largest populations of home schooled children, with about 177,000 in some form of homeschooling, according to estimates by home school expert Anne Zeise, who runs the website a2zhomeschooling.com.
But few reliable statistics are available for the number of students in California who attend home school because the term applies to different options.
Home school can mean a parent who files the proper paperwork is personally handling a child’s education, or it can mean that the child has a private tutor. It can also apply to kids utilizing private or public charter school programs that offer a home-study option – but those students are often officially counted as part of the traditional school system.
Diane Flynn Keith, who runs home school information seminars in the San Francisco Bay Area, said her three-hour sessions have been filling to capacity since the law passed. Her most recent seminar earlier in August drew a sold-out crowd of 40, when normally she would expect about 25.
“At least 10 of the people there asked me specifically about vaccinations,” she said. That demand has led her to add more events in the coming months.
Goodwin added that her organization has also fielded more inquiries from programs and vendors that are interested in doing business or expanding in the state.
“We are hearing a lot more from the charter programs,” she said.
Keith cautions parents that home schooling “is not easy” and those seeking a way out of vaccinations represent a “whole new group that are sort of being forced into it”.
“You may have people that are sort of doing it more out of fear than anything else, they have no choice,” said Fitzpatrick. “If it’s not done because they believe in the philosophy of home schooling and they want the experience of homeschooling, then it’s going to be harder for them. And I think it could be more of a struggle for the children too.”
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