MYERS REECE Flathead Beacon EUREKA
Six miles off U.S. Highway 93, deep in the Tobacco Valley, a winding country road ends at the Perea house. Inside, 13-year-old Joseph Perea, a recent National Geographic Bee finalist, can usually be found buried in books, reviewing details of Kosovo's independence, studying the implications of Balochistan's energy reserves and discussing with his mother his teacher fluctuations in the late 19th century Western fur market. Perhaps he'll do math, perhaps not. With his home school curriculum, nothing is set in stone. For the Pereas and other home school families, that's the beauty of it. Besides, Joseph is already a year ahead of his age level in math. "We don't have to work at the eighthor seventh-grade level," Michael Perea, Joseph's father, said. "We can move ahead as we need." Or as Joseph, who finished first in the state and then seventh in the nation at the geography bee in late May, said: "If I feel motivated, I'll do more school that day." The Pereas are certainly not alone in their preference for home schooling in northwest Montana, or the rest of Montana for that matter. Montana is above the national average for per capita home school students, a number that has been on the rise for years, said Steve White of the Montana Coalition of Home Educators. Joseph Perea is one of 64 registered home school students in Sparsely populated Lincoln County, according to the Montana Office of Public Instruction, while just south, Flathead County has the second-most home school students in the state behind Yellowstone County. Flathead has 507 this year and Yellowstone has 514, though Flathead's population is smaller by more than 50,000 people. Gallatin County has 421 home schoolers, Missoula has 235 and Cascade has 233, according to OPI. All families that intend on home schooling are required to register with the county. Not all do, though, said Flathead County Superintendent Marcia Sheffels, which presents accountability problems for the county and skews statistics. "I hate to say it, but I'm sure there are youngsters out there that haven't been identified," Sheffels said. "I am sure there are some that slip through the cracks some way." Flathead's high number, Sheffels said, is discouraging. She said while many families choose home school for "all the right reasons" and make appropriate decisions, some do it because of their kid's poor grades in public school or other reactionary reasons. Home education registrations usually increase substantially from the fall to the spring, Sheffels said, a reflection of families pulling their students from public school because of something that happened in the first semester. "I think we do a fantastic job with public education here, so that's why I guess the number of home schoolers here would be a concern to me," Sheffels said. Montana's home school laws allow parents to teach mostly unimpeded and thus make home education an attractive option for many in Montana. A law passed in 1991 by the Montana Legislature essentially outlined parents' rights to have complete control over their children's education without government interference: curriculum, philosophy, schedule and everything else. Testing is not required to monitor students' progress, though if a student chooses to leave home school and enter a public school, that school maintains the right to test the student for placement, Sheffels said. She said she receives calls from families who have moved to Montana to home school because of the relaxed laws. "There's no way to validate, really, the educational environment of the home schoolers," Sheffels said. Michael Perea believes the liberal laws are a major reason home schooling is so popular in northwest Montana and throughout the state. To contrast Montana's regulations, he pointed out a recent California appeals court decision that declared home education illegal in the Golden State. "They pretty much leave you alone," Michael said of Montana. "You just register every year and do your home school thing." Attendance, however, is checked annually through reports submitted by the families. Sheffels is the attendance monitor for home schools in rural Flathead areas, while home education within cities and towns is monitored by the appropriate school districts. Students are required to complete the minimum number of hours per year mandated by the state. Though families are asked to submit attendance reports, it's impossible to effectively keep track of class hours in each home, Sheffels said. "Montana law does not provide a vehicle for monitoring them carefully," she said. Since the late 1980s White, one of MCHE's founders and its current legislative liaison, has lobbied at the Montana Legislature to preserve laws protecting home school rights and occasionally to promote proposed legislation. He helped write the 1991 bill giving parents free reign over their children's education. White said most "95 percent" of his other lobbying efforts have been aimed at defending existing home school laws. "The whole thing is about parental choice and parental responsibility," White said. "And in Montana you really have the ability to choose." Joseph said he hasn't had any problems making friends, a concern often associated with home school. Though he doesn't see classmates on a daily basis, he spends time with both public school and home school peers through his many extracurricular activities. He is involved in the horseman's club, the home school club, the muzzle loader club and others. He tried soccer last year, but he's not much for sports.