School’s about to let out for summer. No time like now for considering, in the relative quiet of the break, that at least 600,000 U.S. families are schooling their children at home.

Most are evangelical Protestants who, lacking a parallel to the Catholic-school system, feel they have no other way to sidestep the faith-busting influence of aggressively secular public schools.

But some experts believe that, over the past several years, Catholics have been closing the gap.

Brian Ray, founder and director of the National Home Education Research Institute, says that only 5% of home schoolers are Catholic, while two thirds are evangelical Protestants.

But no hard numbers are available because so many are “underground,” says Mary Kay Clark, director of Seton Home Study School.

Seton, which spun off from a boarding school in Manassas, Va., to accommodate families that couldn’t afford the fees, now has 11,000 children enrolled in home-school credit courses toward a high school graduation certified by Virginia. Twice that number are using course material from Seton. “There’s a lot who can’t afford our material,” she says. “They borrow from each other or use their books from childhood.”

Since home schooling began to catch on in the 1980s, Seton has expanded several times into new buildings and now employs 75 full-time employees at its Front Royal, Va., headquarters. Another 70 work from their homes. Seton is not only the leading Catholic home-school agency, but they are also the leading U.S. publisher of Catholic textbooks.

Another group supporting Catholic home schoolers is the National Association of Catholic Homes and Educators, which is holding a conference in Baltimore in July. The organization didn’t respond to queries from the Register over the past several weeks.

What of the graduates? Two from the Pacific Northwest — in Canada as well as the United States — have nothing but good things to say of their experience. Ashley Green, 21, is one of six siblings home schooled near Victoria, B.C. With a diploma from Victoria’s prestigious Conservatory of Music, she is planning to study opera in college but is also considering the religious life.

Because of home schooling, “I had a lot of one-on-one time with my mom,” she recalls. “She was my teacher. And I did a lot of additional reading about my faith. Home schooling gave me the chance to grow deeper. I didn’t have any influences in my life contradicting my faith.”

Rachel Daniels, 27, was home schooled in Port Angeles, Wash., from midway through ninth grade until high-school graduation. She quit the public school “mostly to escape the social structure and the teaching methods,” which, she says, clashed with her learning style.

Under her mother’s tutelage, she excelled in history, religion, science and English but did poorly in mathematics. “These were the best two years of my life,” she says. “Taking my faith seriously really started when I was home schooling.”

She has just completed a year in Christian service, evangelizing in high schools, where she met her husband Robin, a University of Victoria student. Her sister, who had learning disabilities, did even better with home schooling, graduating from high school at 20 without having to endure any of the taunting or ostracism that is par for the course among special-needs students in public schools.

Ray, who is himself an educator and father of eight home scholars, says the growing array of studies into home-school outcomes, some conducted by himself, confirms Rachel’s and Ashley’s academic and home experience. Virtually all research indicates that home schoolers score between 20% to 35% higher than the public school average on standardized tests.

In Ray’s own study of more than 7,000 home-school grads, 94% strongly agreed with the statement, “My religious beliefs are basically the same as those of my parents.”

Catholic dramatist and filmmaker Leonardo Defilippis and his wife, Patti, have schooled all seven of their children, ages 7 to 21. He has a theory as to why so many home-schooling families tend to be, like his, large.

“It’s about being open to life, to what Pope John Paul II taught,” he says. “We never knew we were going to have seven children when we started our family — or when we started home schooling.”

Active in the home-schooling community centered at Holy Rosary parish in Portland, Ore., Defilippis thinks his family is on the small side. “We’ve got families with 11 and 12 children,” he says. “The average is more like eight to 10.”

The anecdotal evidence is that such communities provide a disproportionately high percentage of candidates for the priesthood and women’s religious communities. When the diocese of Victoria, B.C, announced a discernment program for young women, the bulk of respondents were home schoolers.

“The children see their parents modeling a life of service and openness to God’s voice,” suggests Defilippis.

Indeed, 76% of parents in Ray’s study cited religious reasons for home schooling and 73% said they wanted to teach children particular values. Meanwhile, 69% cited morality specifically and 61% objected to what was taught in the local public school.

“We’ve raised our children to believe that absolute truth exists,” says Ashley Green’s mother, Gwen Green, “and that is why it is important to search for it.”

Husband Michael agrees. “Both Gwen and I did well academically in Catholic school, but most of our classmates at the 10th anniversary of graduation were divorced, sterilized or using contraceptives,” he says. “Their spiritual formation was pretty darned weak. We want our children to go to heaven.”

In the public-school curriculum, says Gwen, “there is an increasing tendency to emphasize majority wishes, rather than what is right or true. We want our children to think for themselves. We teach them that individuals make history.”

But the Green children haven’t been raised to be selfish. “Our children want their family to be healthy, their community to be healthy and their country to be healthy,” says Gwen.

Research into adult home schoolers supports her assumption, says Ray: “For all civic activities — working for the candidate, a political party or a political cause, voting in national and state elections — the home-educated adults were more civically involved than the general population.”

Home schoolers also appear to be more independent. According to Ray’s data, almost no graduates are unemployed, and home-schooling parents rarely seek government subsidies, saving state education systems millions of dollars annually.

In the Green household, the older children help fund their own extracurricular activities by operating a company, Custom Photo Puzzles, that turns photographs provided by families or companies into jigsaw puzzles.

Socialized and Sanctified

In their book Hold on to Your Kids (Random House, 2005), Vancouver physician Gabor Mate and psychologist Gordon Neufeld warned that children were basically being raised by their school peer groups — with damaging results. They called the opposite view, that school serves a critical socialization function in rendering a child fit for society, “one of the most damaging assumptions of contemporary society.”

One of the prime proponents of the idea that school socialization is good, Judith Rich Harris, author of The Nurture Assumption (Simon & Schuster, 1999), is predictably hostile to home schooling, which she says “may end up producing misfits, poorly suited for the world in which they will eventually have to live.”

But as Mate and Neufeld note, the evidence is to the contrary. Home-schooled children, they say, demonstrate better socialization than public or private school children — both as children and adults.

The Green children belong to a Catholic home-school community of 15 families that, once each week, rents the local arena and gym for skating and basketball. At the arena and other social events all ages participate. Socializing is between families rather than, as it is at school, exclusively with one’s own age group. Such children grow up comfortable interacting with adults and with younger children.

And then there are the opportunities for uncompromising formation in the Catholic faith.

“We take seriously what the Church says about putting Catholic culture into all aspects of the curriculum,” says Clark of Seton Home Study. “So why not learn about the lives of the saints while identifying pronouns?”

Steve Weatherbe writes from

Victoria, British Columbia.