Home-Schoolers The Buzz At Spelling Bee

By Seth Lewis | July 7, 2008 | 8:19 PM EDT

(CNSNews.com) - Home-schoolers have turned the National Spelling Bee into their own personal showcase.

In fact, this year's champion was taught at home most of his life, and home-schoolers made up more than 10 percent of the field of 248 students. Last year, all three of spelling-bee finalists were home-schooled, as was the winner and runner-up of the National Geography Bee.

Those are curiously high numbers for a group that makes up two percent of all school-age children, according to U.S. Department of Education estimates.

"This validates home-schooling," Michael Smith, president of the Home School Legal Defense Fund, said in one television interview.

Sean Conley is just the latest case of home-school bragging rights.

The 13-year-old eighth-grader from Anoka, Minn. spelled "succedaneum" to capture the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee in Washington on Thursday.

Conley, last year's runner-up, outlasted 16 rounds, including a five-round championship duel with Kristin Hawkins. "I wasn't sure I was going to pull it off this time," he said.

While a home-schooler, Sean learned nearly 20,000 words with the help of his parents, Mike and Bry.

"That's what you do as a home-school parent," Bry Conley told reporters. "You facilitate opportunities for your child."

Home-schoolers are pleased - but hardly shocked - by such success.

"These are just bright kids who like to compete, and they study hard," said Michael Farris, chairman of the Home School Legal Defense Association.

Critics, however, question the fairness of home-schoolers' success in spelling and geography bees, claiming such students have more time to study than public-school students.

But home-school supporters maintain the parental-guided curriculum is hardly one-sided. Beyond that, they say, why punish children for challenging themselves?

"I think it's a very interesting response," Farris said, "that these home-school kids are 'cheating' by studying more. I think any suggestion that this is all they do is just preposterous."