THE scene was a little like the mess tent in ``M*A*S*H.'' But instead of Army medics, it was a group of mothers in a kitchen south of Boston, sipping coffee and swapping tales of official ineptitude like seasoned veterans of the bureaucratic wars. ``Educators feel others know nothing about education,'' said one.
``They can't see life outside of their own narrow little procedures,'' said another.
``They complain that parents don't get involved,'' said a third. ``Yet when parents do try....''
These women are ``home schoolers,'' parents who have decided to teach their children at home. They meet monthly to swap hints on textbooks and field trips, and to shore up one another's resolve in dealing with what they consider official harassment. ``So much of my energy goes into being nervous about the school committee,'' one laments.
STILL, it is hard not to get caught up in the energy and enthusiasm. The difficulties seem to make them all the more determined to continue teaching - and growing with - their children.
In recent years, moreover, the road has been getting smoother. As home schoolers grow in numbers, and as their children distinguish themselves in test scores and in college, many public school officials are regarding this alternative with new respect. ``Who's to say that our curriculum is perfect?'' says Vida Gavin, of the Scituate, Mass., public schools, who works closely with one of the mothers. ``It's not.''
James MacMahon, of the Lowell, Mass., public schools, goes even further. ``No public school in the nation could give these children the individual attention she can,'' he says of a home-schooling mother in his district.
Quietly, home schooling has been emerging as a genuine grass-roots movement of the '80s. Patricia Lines of the United States Department of Education estimates that it has grown from perhaps 15,000 children in the early '70s to upward of a quarter million today. Home schoolers include religious fundamentalists on the one hand, organic gardeners with anti-nuke bumper stickers on the other, and just about every shade of opinion in between.
At a time when the national debate over education is focused almost exclusively on institutions, and the proposed remedies involve ever greater reliance on credentialed experts, the home schoolers are a reminder that the real answers may be closer to home, in something as simple as the commitment of parents to their children.
`AT no time, in all my work as an educator, have I seen greater enthusiasm for study than among these parents,'' says Larry Arnoldson, an assistant professor of edu cation at Brigham Young University. ``They are much more enthused than professional educators.''
The growing respect for home schooling has not come without a struggle. The battlefield is littered with truancy charges, court battles, endless bickering over curriculum plans, and the sneers of school officials who think, as one mother put it, ``is just a parent going to be able to do this?''
The public school establishment is ``scared to death of home schooling,'' says Don Ericson of the School of Education at the University of California at Los Angeles.
To parents, this response is puzzling. From Thomas Jefferson to Gen. Douglas MacArthur (home schoolers know the list by heart), an impressive array of luminaries received much or all their schooling at home. Home schoolers know from experience how eagerly their children learn when allowed to follow their own curiosity. Perhaps most important, the public schools are hardly above reproach themselves, and home schoolers are quick to note the double standard they confront. ``There are kids in school who don't pass the test, and they aren't kicked out of school,'' observed one mother, speaking of the way officials threaten to put her child back in school if she doesn't do well on a standardized test.
It is precisely because the public schools have been under attack, however, that many officials become unhinged over home schooling, observers say. And professional turf is an issue as well. ``The professors and people who develop curriculum won't have as much influence'' if home schooling continues to catch on, says Brian Ray, a doctoral candidate at Oregon State University who publishes a newsletter of home school research.
``It's a threat to their monopoly,'' Professor Arnoldson adds.
In fairness, local officials do see the occasional horror story, such as the family MacMahan rejected for home schooling because the house, with drawn shades and a high surrounding fence, resembled ``Stalag 17.'' They also have to deal with parents - some fundamentalists in particular - who don't acknowledge public authority even to check up on how a child is doing.
Mundane considerations such as state school aid formulas weigh on local officials' minds as well. One mother, who withdrew her fifth-grade girl from public school in the fall after a trial run in the classroom, was told: ``At least she was here for the October count.''
PERHAPS the biggest obstacle is that to many officials, the whole idea is new and therefore suspect. ``When they are ignorant, they tend to be opposed,'' says Suzanne Sheffer of Holt Associates, the Boston-based organization founded by the late home schooling pioneer John Holt. Schools of education teach schooling instead of learning, observers say; home schooling is ignored. And until a few years ago, most officials had never encountered people who wanted to teach their children at home.
``This is just work on somebody's desk and they couldn't handle it,'' a mother in the Boston area said of her problems at city hall. ``Once they figured out how to fill out the forms, they became more tolerant.'' Eventually the officials decided they had other things to worry about, and like numerous other families, this one hasn't heard from the school authorities for several years.
By the same token, where relations have thawed between school authorities and home schoolers, familiarity seems to be the main reason. One finds almost a sense of awe at what these parents have undertaken. ``There is a real commitment of time,'' says Gavin of the Scituate, Mass., schools. ``Every parent couldn't do it.'' When home schoolers in Washington State were pressing for a more favorable law there, they invited state legislators to coffees to get acquainted. ``Every single legislator signed on with the bill,'' says Wendy Wartes, who with her husband, John, a public school guidance counselor, were two leading proponents of the bill.
While the law varies from state to state, local authorities generally have wide discretion in approving and monitoring home schoolers. Since 1982, 18 states have strengthened the rights of home schoolers, says Chris Klicka, an attorney with the Home School Legal Defense Fund in Manassas, Va. In recent months, major court decisions in Massachusetts and Texas have done the same.
THERE are other reasons that tensions have eased. Some localities, for example, have figured out how to keep home students on the school rolls so as not to lose state funding. They have also learned that cooperating with home schoolers won't cause an exodus of children from public schools. ``I think that [fear is] crazy,'' says Jack Bohannon of the Mountain Lake school district in Seattle, Wash. Only 75 of Mountain Lake's more than 20,000 students - less than one half of one percent - are learning at home, despite a district policy that home schoolers cite as a model.
Meanwhile, parents have become more savvy in putting superintendents and school boards at ease. They don't criticize the local schools, for example. They do provide lots of paper. Jane Reid of Lowell, Mass., produced a 67-page proposal, complete with appendix listing the books in her home library. Reid follows a regimen familiar to home schoolers: quarterly progress reports, tapes of the children reading, sample math papers, and standardized tests at regular intervals. ``Home schoolers really have to go that extra mile,'' says Susan Richman, a certified teacher living in Kittaning, Pa., who teaches her three children at home.
Perhaps most important of all, a growing body of research in Alaska, Washington, and other states suggests strongly that children who learn at home do at least as well as others on standardized tests, and often better. Oregon, for example, found that 25 percent of children learning at home scored above the 90th percentile. UCLA's Erickson contends that there is ``no evidence at all that certification is required for effective teaching,'' and therefore no reason in principle or practice why parents can't do just as well as anyone else.
That leaves the question of socialization, ``usually the first thing they throw in your face,'' as one mother put it. Children go to school not just to learn reading and arithmetic, but equally important, to learn to get along together.
Parents see a certain irony on this score, given the drugs and other social problems common in the schools. They aren't sure that the kind of socialization children undergo - from teasing of slow learners to competition over looks and grades - is always the best.
And they say school narrows the range of friendship to those of the same age and grade.
``They aren't aware of the class lines drawn by the school system,'' Jane Reid says of her children, who have friends of all ages.
In any event, home schooling families seem to work hard at providing social experiences. Susan Richman tells of how those in her area get together for weekly events such as science fairs. Home learners take karate classes, join the Cub Scouts or Brownies, and play with friends in their neighborhoods, just like everyone else. A study by John Wesley Taylor V at Andrews University in Michigan found that children schooled at home scored higher than others on standardized tests designed to measure ``self-concept.'' While hardly conclusive, such studies certainly do not weaken the home schoolers' case.
AS objections to home schooling recede, some school districts are shifting into a cooperative mode - opening their libraries, class trips, and after-school activities to these children, for example. Mountain Lake's Bohannon was even invited to a ``graduation'' ceremony in one home schooler's living room.
Wartes and other home-schooling families in Washington have formed a cooperative school that their children attend one or two days a week for activities such as music and drama. ``I can't see why the public schools can't do similar things,'' Mrs. Wartes says.
One result could be less strain on the public schools, as parents help share the load. John Betrozoff, the Washington State legislator (and former teacher and principal) who sponsored the home-schooling bill there, sees an even broader benefit. ``If we could get more parents to be like this we would have very few problems in our society,'' he says.