All Commentary
Monday, February 1, 1993

Homeschooling and Educational Choice

The best possible school choice plan would be the free market.

Dennis Peterson is a homeschooler.

The 1992 election campaign brought to the forefront of public attention an issue whose time apparently has come: school choice. The condition of public education has deteriorated until parents are demanding the opportunity to choose alternative schools for their children, whether different public schools, private academies, or parochial schools.

Conspicuously missing from the discussion, however, has been an alternative form of schooling that has already been the choice of the parents of an estimated 250,000 to 1,000,000 children: homeschooling. According to an article in USAir Magazine (March 1991), its estimate of 500,000 home-schooled youngsters is “perhaps only half the actual number,” and the total is increasing every year.

Five years ago, my perception of homeschooling was at best neutral and in some instances openly negative. I saw homeschooling as an over-reaction of well-meaning but misguided parents to admittedly bad conditions in public education. I could understand and support one’s choice of a traditional private school; I had even taught in several such schools, and two of my four daughters were enrolled in one. But homeschooling was a step off the deep end. Whoever made that choice deserved whatever harassment they got from hostile local or state government officials.

Today, however, my perception has changed dramatically. After careful research and consideration, my wife and I stepped off the deep end, too. We pulled our two oldest daughters out of their traditional private school and began teaching all four of our daughters (the youngest two were kindergarten age at the time) at home. We are now in our fourth year of homeschooling and are more convinced than ever that we made the right decision.


Countering Objections to Homeschooling

Several objections are raised against parents’ homeschooling their children. Perhaps the most frequent contention is that it robs the child of opportunities for proper socialization and therefore leaves them unprepared to interact with not only children their own age but also adults. Most homeschoolers, however, including ourselves, are involved regularly in myriad outside-the-home social situations. Church youth group activities, scouting, various sports leagues, and a variety of clubs offer sufficient opportunities for socialization. Experience reveals, in fact, that in many cases home-schooled children are actually better able to interrelate with their peers and older folk as well. Many support groups are available among homeschooling families to provide for social activities as well as for opportunities for public performances by the children. Our girls regularly take part in plays, recitations, and work demonstrations sponsored by the support group to which we belong.

Perhaps the second most frequently voiced objection to homeschooling is that untrained parents are not certified professional educators; therefore, they are incapable of adequately teaching their own children. Beside the fact that state certification has never been a guarantee of teaching ability or professional qualification, there is much that can be said to counter this charge. Not even the best classroom teacher, with from 15 to 30 or more students, can know any individual child as well as do his parents, let alone provide that child with the individual care and attention he often needs.

The homeschooling parent, on the other hand, has an almost ideal teacher-student ratio of from 1:1 to 1:5, thus permitting a great deal of individual attention. Former Secretary of Education William J. Bennett wrote in The Devaluing of America, “When serious teachers are asked the single most important improvement that could be made in education, they invariably say greater involvement and cooperation on the part of parents.” One could not ask for a higher degree of parental involvement than homeschooling provides for the child.

But the argument goes further than parental involvement. The typical homeschooling family, according to the USAir Magazine article quoted earlier, has “one principal wage earner, almost always the father, making almost $30,000 per year. Both parents enjoy approximately 1.5 years more education than the average American” (emphasis added). Homeschooling parents are not generally high-school dropouts; they are well-educated. For example, in a random sampling of the 30 or so parents in our local support group, more than two-thirds are college graduates (and many of those have graduate degrees), and several are former teachers.

Even for the parents who are not trained educators, however, the availability of curricula specially designed for homeschool parents make successful home-based education possible. As the number of parents opting to educate their own children has increased, so has the demand for high-quality teaching materials. With greater demand has come a proliferation of educational publishers, many of them university presses, who are willing to provide the specialized curricula and related materials. Resourceful parents have learned to mix and match curricula to meet the individual needs of their children. An entire industry has evolved to research, develop, test, and market these textbooks and teaching aids.


Life Is Education

Homeschooling parents also have capitalized on extra-curricular learning opportunities, proving that education, rather than being confined to the traditional classroom and restricted to the hours of 8:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. five days a week for nine months a year, is perpetual and unlimited. Education is life; life is education. Thus, they make wise and frequent use of family field trips, learning at times and in places that often are inaccessible to students in traditional schools.

For instance, our family enjoys camping. We count our camping trips as school days because we consciously plan educational activities for the children. We study biology together as we explore mountain streams and hike nature trails. We learn together about how our ancestors lived as we visit living history exhibits, watch mountain craftsmen, and listen to park rangers’ nightly talks on the pioneers and Indians who once lived in our rugged mountains. We create both verbal pictures and visual sketches as we contemplate the nature around us in the wild. We learn how to provide for our health and safety in the wilderness and how to appreciate and care for our land’s natural resources. Perhaps the best part about all of this learning is that the girls never complain that they “have to go to school.” They now know that learning and having fun as a family are complementary, not competitive, activities.

Homeschooling is not a panacea, and it is not for everyone. Whoever considers it should carefully count the costs before taking the leap. In deciding to homeschool our children, we carefully weighed and willingly chose to accept the following limitations and restrictions.

First, homeschooling leaves us less personal time to do what we as parents would do individually or together as a couple. Homeschooling (if it is done right) takes an awful lot of time in preparation and application. It can tend to monopolize one’s thoughts and conversations, to say nothing of the time it takes. It certainly intrudes on private time, especially one’s hobbies. For example, part of the price I must pay to homeschool our daughters is giving up some of my own reading and writing activities. My wife can spend less time with her crafts and gardening or lawn care.

Second, it can mean living in a house that looks well lived in and that is by no means in showcase condition. The yard may at times have to go an extra week before it gets mowed. The laundry may pile up. The next remodeling or redecorating project may get bumped to the back burner indefinitely. But what is a house if it is not a place where real people live? Besides, we have found that many of those cleaning tasks can get done through teamwork with each family member carrying a little of the load and applying a few of Leonard Read’s economic principles for boys and girls—picking it up if you drop it, putting it away if you get it out, and cleaning it up if you mess it up. And in the process, the children are learning responsibility.

Finally, homeschooling is an added financial burden. Just because we are not using the facilities, materials, or teachers of the public school system does not exempt us from paying for them. But we choose to accept the additional expenses of textbooks, materials, registration, higher field trip fees (most places don’t give homeschoolers group discounts) and testing required by homeschooling. For our situation, this averages an additional annual expense of about $600. But we believe the benefits far outweigh the cost.


Control of Curricula and Teaching Time

One such benefit is that we have gained control of the curricula of our children and are able to devote time and effort teaching the facts, values, and principles that are most important to us as a family. Because we select and teach the materials, we do not have to worry about a stranger foisting onto our children values or ideas foreign to our beliefs. We have no fear of a teacher using a program that supposedly is designed to “clarify” values but that in reality undermines the values we hold.

Another benefit is that it gives us control of teaching time, permitting us to devote either more or less time to certain lessons according to the individual needs and interests of each child. No longer does our brightest daughter have to sit and wait for other slower students to finish their work before she can go on to new lessons. No longer must a slower daughter be frustrated to tears because the teacher cannot take time to offer her individual help lest she hold the entire class back; she, too, can proceed at her own pace. Plus (and our girls really like this point), we do not lose precious time getting everyone lined up to go to the restroom, lunch, or recess!

A third benefit is that we are getting priceless, never-to-be-repeated opportunities to know our children as individuals because we spend so much time doing things together. We have become firm believers in the idea that children need not only quality time but also large quantities of time with their parents. Homeschooling permits both.

Another benefit is the flexibility that homeschooling affords. Although few interruptions are permitted when our school is in session, we can be flexible in times of emergency. If pressing business demands that we travel on a school day, we don’t have to pull the girls out of classes; we take the classes with us and learn as we go. We can have school at night, on Saturday, or even on holidays. We can conduct classes in the summer if we want (although we generally try to adhere closely to the local public school calendar because most of the girls’ playmates attend public schools).

But just as homeschooling has many tempting benefits, it also has some dangers. Perhaps the danger most widely feared among homeschool parents is interference by government. As the number of parents who homeschool has increased, so has the number of situations in which government has tried to force parents to compromise their convictions or even to give up homeschooling altogether. Some parents have been challenged because they are not certified to teach, do not have college degrees, or have refused to register with local authorities. Of those who have been so harassed, a few have been sued or even jailed for various violations. Some local public school authorities seem especially bent on discouraging homeschooling within their districts because each homeschooler represents thousands of dollars in lost revenue for their schools if funding is allotted according to individual school enrollment.

In recent years, however, many authorities have begun to be more cooperative with homeschoolers. Every state now permits some form of home education, each with somewhat different rules and regulations. In our state, for example, any parent with a high school diploma may homeschool his or her child through the eighth grade; parents of high schoolers must have a college degree. (Parents without a degree may apply for a waiver, but none has ever been granted.) Students must have at least a 180-day school year and must be tested in grades 2, 5, 7, and 9. Homeschoolers must be registered with either the local school superintendent or a private “umbrella” school. Although the cooperation of local officials seems to make the climate for homeschoolers better, that in itself seems to be a cause for concern: whenever the power of government is involved in something—even for apparently good causes—the recipients of such favor or tolerance should beware.

This is the greatest fear my wife and I have of the much-discussed government-sponsored school choice plans. Unless the choice is totally free, government can and will make its power felt somewhere in the “choice” process. Perhaps it will come in the guise of limiting the choice to only other public schools, to ”approved” or accredited private schools, or to parents who have degrees from government-approved colleges or even to parents who have been certified. If the voucher plan is approved for a school choice program, wherever government funds or tax credits are extended so is the strong, controlling arm of government. Government funds always come with strings attached.

Undoubtedly the best possible school choice plan would be the free market: no government coercion to attend any school. That means total freedom to choose—whether that choice be public schools (should any survive the competition of the free market), private schools, homeschooling, or even no school at all. Let the market, which has brought the United States such unsurpassed material prosperity, bring us a similar educational prosperity.