A Letter from Malta

by Deborah Markus, one of nine articles from the special "Homeschooling Around the World" section of Secular Homeschooling, Issue #6, Spring 2009

In a lovely surge of serendipity, I was contacted by homeschoolers all over the world while I was working on this "international" issue — not just by people who had heard about the writing I was hoping to do, but by some who just happened to be looking for help or information and stumbled across the magazine's site.

One of these letters came from a place that I in my ignorance had never heard of.

Hello —

How are you? I saw your comment on the parents' forum on the Time4Learning. [Editor's note: I'm not sure what she's referring to, since I'm not a member of the forum in question; possibly she saw a reference to SHM there.]

I just registered my 12-year-old son at the Time4 Learning. I am planning to do so for one to two weeks to test him, and if we agree that he does well, we will switch him to homeschooling.

I had tried homeschooling with him when he was seven and it was a total disaster. I used the classical training method, and he hated it and challenged us in every way. So we grew tired. We sent him to a private school on the main island. (We live on the island of Gozo, a part of Republic of Malta.) He likes the school but the commuting takes him more than four hours, and a good part of that is on the ferry. (It can be very rough in the Mediterranean.) This year we feel this commuting and the education system (very rigid and exams-orientated) is just too much. So we'll try the homeschool. We have a five-year-old girl who loves to study, but we figure we need to keep her in the government school in our village where she can learn the Maltese language.

Anyway, this is our outline (by the way, our kids are Japanese/American). I am not sure if he could do successful homeschooling, but if he does, I would be happy to reply to any question from you. I have done all summer studies at home.

I would like to ask a question of you. I am not sure if you know, but it is worth asking.

Here in Malta, homeschooling is illegal, but we are not Maltese citizen so we can legally homeschool our kids in the States. However, where we used to live (Massachusetts) is notorious for the legality. Someone suggested that we use a base state with the least rigid homeschool rules, such as Idaho. But we never even set a foot in Idaho or any other states where the rules are relaxed. How can we register our kids in such a state?

I look forward to hearing from you.

I am getting requests for help with all sorts of unusual homeschooling issues more frequently as word of the magazine spreads. Without fail, every one of them leaves me feeling honored by the confidence being placed in me — and completely daunted by it. I may bluster a good rant, but I do not in any way consider myself an authority — on homeschooling or anything else (except, possibly, blustering and ranting).

I understand that if the people who write could find anyone to help them who knew anything about anything, they wouldn't be contacting me. And so I can't just reply with a "Sorry, I have no idea." Not without at least trying to do something for them.

So I hauled out my copy of Linda Dobson's The Homeschooling Book of Answers. This is one of those books that you don't necessarily read straight through (although I can think of worse ways to spend an afternoon), but it's good to have around for when you need, well, an answer.

I turned to the back, which has a wonderful section on the homeschooling laws in every state. I checked Massachusetts, and could understand this parent's concern. Children not attending public or private school can be "otherwise instructed in a manner approved in advance by the superintendent or school committee." I didn't see how a Massachusetts parent could homeschool according to state law while living in another country, unless they'd had their homeschooling "program" approved before they left.

I looked at the laws for Idaho, since the writer had mentioned it. It certainly seems to be a homeschool-friendly state: no standardized tests for the kids, no degree needed for homeschooling parents, no education officials allowed to disallow the course of homeschooling that a parent chooses to follow.

But the point seemed rather moot. I don't know much about official state residency requirements; but coincidentally, I'd had a chat about them with a friend of mine just the week before. She and her family spend most of their time in my own home state, but she owns a house in another state, and they spend at least a few weeks every year there (to my family's deep regret). She mentioned some little tangle that she was working through — something about insurance or jury duty — something that had sprung from the fact that she was a legal resident of the other state, though her children and husband are not.

I'm terrible with this kind of thing. Anything like paperwork and bureaucracy is my own personal red kryptonite. My friend started to explain and it made my head hurt, but I was at least left with the concept that there are certain requirements of residency within a state.

This knowledge came in handy when I replied to the letter above, telling the writer that I wasn't sure what her options were, but I'd do my best to look into it.

I posted to a few of the bigger general-interest homeschooling loops I belong to, asking if anyone had any practical ideas for homeschooling as American citizens abroad when one's "home" state requirements were not a good fit.

A British homeschooler was startled by my posting:

As an Englishwoman who has never been to the States I am totally confused and bemused at the idea you can be a citizen of an individual state rather than just a citizen of the U.S. I get the impression that the "United States" aren't actually so united after all. Does it mean it's difficult to move home from one state to another? And what about people who want to travel across the U.S.? If you are a homeschooler in one state and move to another, are you then still bound by the homeschooling rules of the state you used to live in when you started homeschooling????? Sorry to be so dim!

It was a good point. Coincidentally, my son and I had just been reading some of Jean Fritz' wonderful children's books about the American Revolution; and since I hadn't learned a thing about history in school, I was surprised to learn that Patrick Henry had been furious at the idea of the colonies becoming one country after breaking away from England. And my knowledge of how laws can vary from state to state was born from watching Adam-12 when I was a kid and learning that if you live in a state where it's legal to turn right at a red light, and you travel to another state, you'd better make sure that it's legal there, too, because it might not be. (That isn't the be-all and end-all of my information on the subject, I hasten to add.)

Now this English woman's questions had me worried. I knew that if my family ever decided to move to another state, we'd have to research and abide by the homeschooling laws there; but what if we visited, say, a friend in Boston? Would my son be considered legally truant?

Someone else on the loop posted in reply, just as I was wondering if I should limit any traveling to the summer months, which would kind of ruin part of the point of homeschooling — being able to go places when they're not crowded:

The concept of "state citizenship" is a legal/technical one, used to distinguish certain rights and privileges that all U.S. citizens have from those that derive from residency in a particular state, such as laws regarding gun ownership, homeschooling, the right to tuition discounts at state universities, etc. In practice, people would refer to being a "resident" of a state rather than a "citizen" of that state.

There is no barrier to movement between states, but if you permanently move to a new state, you need to change your driver's license, car registration, and voter registration to the new state, and pay state taxes there. If you are only temporarily visiting the new state, you must still abide by any state laws that are applicable to nonresidents. For example, if my family spent a few months visiting my sister in Pennsylvania, we would not be subject to Pennsylvania homeschooling laws (because we would still be residents of New Mexico), but we would have to obey any laws (e.g. guns laws, motor vehicle laws, etc.) that apply in Pennsylvania to residents and nonresidents alike.

Well, that was a relief.

Back to my new hoping-to-homeschool-in-Malta friends: a few people posted advice for them. One suggestion in particular seemed especially good, and I forwarded it:

I lived in England for 10 years, and my in-laws lived there for about 40 years, but as U.S. citizens we still retained a U.S. state as our "domicile," and still owed state (as well as federal) income and gift taxes, even if the money was earned abroad (subject to certain exclusions).

Usually your state of domicile is the one where you last lived, but you can claim another one if you have significant ties there, such as owning property or bank accounts, maintaining voter registration or a driver's license, owning a burial plot, or having family there. For example, my husband and I lived in California before we moved to England. After we got stuck paying California state taxes on income that had nothing to do with California, we changed our state of domicile to my parents' address in Florida. We got Florida driver's licenses, registered to vote there, opened a bank account, and from then on we filed taxes using Florida as our official U.S. domicile.

If your friend in Malta tried to just randomly choose a state with lax homeschooling laws and claim it as her domicile, I don't think that would stand up to a legal challenge. However, if she has close friends or family members in such a state, especially if they could help her establish domicile by opening a bank account for her, helping her register to vote there, let her use their address for mail, etc., she could probably make that work. She would need to start filing U.S. taxes from that address, too, so she should definitely get some tax advice before she makes such a move.

What about just working with an umbrella or cover school here in the U.S.? It seems like that might be easier in the long run.

In passing that advice along, I mentioned that I'd love to hear a bit more about their situation, as I was working on a series of articles about homeschoolers around the world, and would they mind if I wrote a bit about them?

While I waited for them to get back to me, I hunted up some information about Gozo and the Republic of Malta.

As bad a name as Wikipedia has among serious scholars (homeschoolers, for instance), I find it to be a good jumping-off point. Yes, it's scary that material can be contributed by pretty much anyone; but it's also ferociously guarded by the Nerd Patrol, and I say that with all respect to the people who never got a date in high school and are now getting back at the rest of us by knowing everything about using and fixing computers (and driving a hard bargain about sharing said knowledge). Also, Wikipedia entries tend to have their online sources listed, and those links can be very useful.

Gozo, I saw, is the second largest island in the Republic of Malta, an archipelago just south of Sicily. It has a population of about 31,000 people, and a land area of about 26 square miles. Just to depress myself, since their population sounded like about the number of people who live in my apartment building, I checked out my own city's stats. Population, about 88,000; land area, just over 8 square miles. Swell.

Gozo is thought to be the island Homer was referring to when he wrote that tragic part of The Odyssey during which the nymph Calypso kept Odysseus a prisoner, forcing him to endure the company of a gorgeous immortal she-babe who demanded fairly constant smooching.

I heard back from my new friend in Malta promptly. (Full disclosure: As well as asking her for more details about her homeschooling journey and the "summer studies" she had mentioned in her first email, I asked for information about the program she was using for homeschooling, and she gave it to me. This was before Time4Learning became an advertiser in this magazine. I'm mentioning all this because I don't want what she had to say to sound like some product placement piece. These are her words, and they were given on request.)

Thank you very much for the info on registration of a state. I have my mother-in-law in New York where my husband still registers. I have his sister in Maryland, brothers in Colorado and Massachusetts, his uncle and aunt in New Mexico and Florida. So I will check which state has a more relaxed system and see. I really appreciate your input.

Below is the summary of our trial and I hope it might help.

We moved to a smaller island called Gozo in the Republic of Malta in 2001, when my son was four years old. We placed him in a government school till he was a first grader in the primary school (elementary school in the States). Then, briefly, we went back to Japan, and when we came back from Japan to Malta, we tried homeschool for various reasons. Back then, there were not so many interactive lessons online, and we thought we should stick with the classical education based on the curriculum from The Well-Trained Mind. Unfortunately, he hated it. Every minute and hour was a battle with him, and we decided to send him to a private school on the main island of Malta. The education at the school is better and he liked the school.

I reflected what went wrong with the first homeschooling, and I still have a hard time finding an answer. It must be a combination of my son hating to be forced to do things which he found very boring, and rebelling against us when we ordered him to do certain works. It surprised us since he was generally a very good boy but when it came to the homeschooling, he was poorly behaved, to say the least.

Meanwhile, the commute of more than four hours has become a burden on all of us. He wakes up at 6 to get to the school at 8:30 a.m., then finishes school at 2:40 and comes back around 5:00 if the weather is fine. (He takes a ferry.) When the weather becomes worse, the commute can be a nightmare. After he comes back home, he is bombarded with loads of homework and even works on weekends to finish his homework and exams preps. Here the curriculum is based on the British system, and it is rigorous. They have fewer school days per year, but they still have to digest the British curriculum, which must have been outlined based on a longer school year. (For instance, during June, Maltese schools are half-day, and there are so many other holidays and a longer summer vacation time.) Thus, teachers are forced to give extra homework to students.

He has no time for anything else, and this situation really bothers me.

Meanwhile I came across Time4Learning and we started the program last week. My son loves it. The program is very entertaining and visual. It is quite comprehensive as well. I think this program is a lifesaver for someone who can be bored with the classical education. It gives parents an opportunity to view what our children have done at the end of the day so we can easily check their progress. Our son is more willing to finish his workload and sometimes he does not mind doing extra of his own free will. What I found nice is that at the each lesson, there is a quiz. I tell my son that if he fails to score more than 80, he would have to retake it. He had a hard time with social studies and his score was below 80. So after another review, he retook a quiz but this time the questions were different from the previous ones. So there is no worry that students memorize questions for answers. (No questions are the same, I guess.)

Regarding summer studies at home, here the summer starts from July till the end of September, which is way too long. Thus, we have to try some studies at home during the summer. Strangely, the school never has given us reading lists or anything, other than telling us to review what they have learned.

I have been using Singapore Math for a few years. I found that this math program is very similar to the math I learned when I was a student in Japan. I have used a math curriculum ion program (very interesting) from Japan for brain stimulation. For English, we have used many textbooks to improve his writing. Writing can be a challenge for him since he is a reluctant writer. But since Malta's education is based on British system, the English grammar is very solid in his school.

If you have any questions, please feel free to email me.

I thanked her profusely, and assured her that I would love to hear more about her homeschooling journey as it progressed.

Funny to think that I had been so rattled initially by her request for help. I was pleased now to think that I might have helped her a bit, and very grateful for all that I'd learned in the process of trying.

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