In rural Wilcox, Arizona, Wendy Cameron’s family only has three neighbors nearby. Their town has one grocery store and a couple dollar stores, but if Cameron hopes to shop for anything else or take her family on outings, they drive about an hour and a half to Tucson. Raising seven children, the Camerons could choose from one local public school or one private school, which only goes through the sixth grade. The slower way of life in Wilcox’s tight-knit community is exactly how Cameron and her husband wanted to raise their family, which is why they ultimately chose to homeschool.
Of her seven children, three completed their entire schooling at home and have since moved out. Only one of Cameron’s eldest children ever went to public school to help meet her unique learning needs. Today, Cameron is still homeschooling three of her children, including her youngest who has dyscalculia and dyslexia. Cameron wasn’t trying to avoid public school for any reason other than her and her husband’s desire for their children to experience something fundamentally different.
“We saw this trend of kids running, running, running, from the time they get up until the time they go to bed. They’re like little stressed-out adults, and we didn’t want that for our kids. We wanted them to be able to be kids,” said Cameron. “We could do a very thorough job of educating them in, maybe, three hours a day, and then they got to be in the dirt. Before we even moved here, we had chickens and alpaca, so they got to learn about taking care of animals.”
According to Cameron, homeschooling seven children offered her kids unique flexibility in how and at what pace they learned, but this choice didn’t come without sacrifices. She and her husband were willing to do anything to make it work, from budgeting to repurposing old curriculum, to relying on the used bookstore.
“We never walked into a Barnes and Noble,” said Cameron. This all changed in 2022, when Cameron learned from a friend in her homeschooling community that Arizona opened up its Empowerment Savings Account (ESA) program to all Arizona students. If a family opts in, the program provides on average $7,000 per student to pay for private school tuition, home education, and other allowable education expenses. Better versed on the program, Cameron quickly applied for her kids still in K-12 to become ESA recipients.
“The idea that there would be funds where we didn’t have to pinch pennies for them to take music lessons, for example, wow. I mean, it was huge,” said Cameron, noting the difficulty associated not only with affording electives, but also with accessing them in a rural setting. She continued:
“My 17- and 15-year-old are really interested in digital art. What that meant before was we shared an iPad because I have an iPad, and so it had to make its rounds. Now they each have their own iPad, their own Apple Pencil, and they’re taking an Outschool class. [The ESA program] has given them opportunities to start learning more about who they are and what they want to do. It’s been beautiful in that regard.”
ESAs ease the financial burden on families like Cameron’s to afford a different style of education from what traditional public school offers. Cameron explained that her 10-year-old daughter with dyscalculia and dyslexia excels in science and math, but if she was in public school, she would face adversity because she’s about two years behind in her reading skills. Learning at home, Cameron shared that her daughter never felt poorly about being “behind” in reading because she could learn at her own pace and didn’t have to compare herself to other students.
“Another beauty of homeschooling is that my oldest graduated at 16 because she flew right through her work,” said Cameron. In rural areas of Arizona, students graduate from high school at some of the lowest rates in the nation. Broadened school choice options like homeschooling serve as a way to increase a student’s success.
In addition to more conventional expenditures such as books and tutors, Arizona’s ESA program allows for some alternative purchases for curricula and supplementary materials of educational value for elective courses.
“When we would make a commitment in the past for them to pursue an [elective] interest, they had to be really, really sure that they were really, really interested in it,” she said. “They couldn’t explore to find out what they might be interested in, in any way that was financially significant. Now, I’m just watching them blossom.”
For families like Cameron’s who live in rural areas, access to a wide variety of electives, extracurricular activities, and nearby outings is often not guaranteed, as in-person schools are limited and the distance to nearby metropolitan areas is far. And for some of these families, homeschooling is the perfect fit. Aided by the state’s newly-available ESA program, Cameron is confident that all seven of her children will grow into well-rounded, skilled, and educated adults.
“I’m so grateful for all the fighting that was done so that my kids have these opportunities,” she said of the ESA program, adding, “Homeschoolers school differently. It’s not going to look like a public school setting. It’s not intended to.”