Homeschoolers have gotten their share of bad coverage in the media and in popular culture in the last few years. The publicity on homeschooling runs from atrocious mischaracterization to humorously stereotypical.
In August 2001, TIME magazine published a cover story on homeschooling titled "Seceding from School: Home Sweet School." Although the piece reported positively on homeschool achievement, the writers voiced serious concerns about homeschooling. Does homeschooling produce good citizens? Are they too sheltered to be well-rounded? Is homeschooling worth the erosion of confidence in the public school system?
In more recent memory, CBS Evening News ran two pieces in October 2003: "A Dark Side to Home Schooling" and "Home Schooling Nightmares." These pieces reported on suicide, neglect, and "dozens of cases" of murder and child abuse among (alleged) homeschool families. The pieces strongly suggested that these disasters could have been averted if homeschooling were better regulated.
Hollywood has cashed in on homeschool stereotypes recently. Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd (2003) is the terrible prequel to Jim Carrey's Dumb and Dumber. Socially inept Harry Dunne is sent to school when his mother can no longer stand to homeschool him. At school Harry is viewed as an oddity, and a female student is assigned to write an article about Harry for the school paper.
In Mean Girls (2004), Cady Heron enters a "real" school for the first time at the age of 16, having been home educated by her parents in Africa where they worked as anthropologists. "I was trying to figure out a way for Cady to be a blank slate in that world [of high school]," explained screenwriter Tina Fey, "and that's how the homeschool thing came about." Cady was originally supposed to be an American homeschooler, but the movie studio objected. "[T]hey were scared it might make her too religiously weird if she were homeschooled here," explained director Mark Waters.
Television also takes the conventional swipes at homeschooling. The O'Keefes was a 2003 midseason replacement comedy on the WB, and was described as a "whimsical, family-oriented comedy" in which the children are sheltered from the outside world by an overly-protective and eccentric father. The show's plot synopsis described the three O'Keefe children as "growing increasingly curious about what lies beyond the walls of their school/dining room. They can speak six languages, but are unable to converse with kids their own age. The answer lies in their father's worst nightmare - public school."
Police drama Law and Order: SVU also visited the "homeschool/child abuse" link (There's No Place Like Home, 2/17/04). A homeschool child is found scavenging through garbage looking for food. When the police investigate, the mother is portrayed as a paranoid fanatic who homeschools in order to control her sons. The show mimics reality when the mother calls her "homeschool lawyer" (causing a few chuckles in the HSLDA Legal Department). When the investigators interview a school official about home education, they ask, "Is homeschooling used as a screen for child abuse?"
How is a homeschooler to respond to these mischaracterizations of homeschooling?
First of all, the type of bad press should determine the response. It is important to differentiate between truly bad press and incidental stereotypes. The O'Keefe's used innocuous jokes that did very little to harm homeschooling, especially when compared with the child abuse link raised by CBS. Additionally, the audience that actually watches a movie called Dumb and Dumberer is probably not an audience that will influence opinion-shapers and policy makers.
It is easy to become heated in the face of any criticism. But a deliberate response improves the credibility of homeschoolers. Evaluate the message being conveyed about homeschooling, the seriousness of the attack, and the potential audience. All of this will help in forming an articulate response.
Secondly, go on the offensive. It's not enough to respond to bad press; homeschoolers should be out there generating good press. The news media loves a good David versus Goliath story, and homeschoolers are viewed positively as the underdog when matched up against a local school system or the National Education Association.
Many people have asked me whether it is a good idea to have reporters visit their homeschool group or come to their home for newspaper articles or TV spots. I always encourage people to take advantage of these opportunities. It is an excellent way to promote the benefits of homeschooling, and encourages those considering homeschooling to contact you for information.
Additionally, homeschoolers can make a good impression on the community by writing well-articulated letters to the editor in the local newspaper.
Any time you are out in public, whether on personal business or homeschool activities, you represent the homeschool community. I remember several field trips from my homeschool years where the field trip guide commented that our group was the best they'd ever encountered.
There will always be the occasional damaging coverage of homeschooling, but our response and efforts can negate much of the effect.