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Smart Buying

Fun and Learning

Choosy parents often find that the best classroom is none at all.

The only time Oliver Walton goes to school is when he's on the set of an acting job, where he's required to put in three hours a day. Otherwise, the 13-year-old from Long Beach, Cal., spends his time playing cello in a youth orchestra, taking field trips, competing in gymnastics championships or playing Scrabble -- in French.

Oliver and, until recently, his brother, Nick, 16, are the new faces of home schooling. The Walton family has no religious or political beef with the public schools. Mom Jennifer -- a violinist who plays on movie soundtracks and does studio work -- and Dad Scott, a Los Angeles police detective, just think they can do better. They focus on the boys' strengths and interests (foreign languages and fine arts are core subjects) in a setting free of drugs, disruptive behavior and general pedagogical malaise. Between 1999 and 2003, the number of home-schooled kids jumped nearly 30%, to 1.1 million.

There's no best home-schooling model -- that's another appeal. "You own the education," says Patrick Farenga, an education consultant and home-schooling dad who lives near Boston. Parents may act more like general contractors than teachers, lining up tutors, online or community-college courses, or learning co-ops.

The cost runs from a couple hundred dollars a year for field trips and basic materials to a few thousand dollars for a prepackaged curriculum from the prestigious, 109-year-old Calvert School, in Baltimore.

Calvert's plan comes complete with professional assessments and advice. The biggest cost of home schooling is often the forgone income of a parent who gives up employment. But few kids spend their whole childhood studying at home. The average is two years.