Do the public school authorities feel threatened by homeschooling? Judging by their efforts to lure homeschooling families into dependence on local school districts, the answer is apparently yes.
For the last several years, homeschooling has been the fastest growing educational alternative in the country. Estimates of its growth rate typically range from 15 to 25 percent annually. Homeschoolers are notoriously difficult to count; however, the National Homeschooling Research Institute believes that currently 1.2 million children get their education at home. While that constitutes only about 2 percent of all school-age children, it’s more than 20 percent of those who are outside the government educational system. and, with a 20 percent annual growth rate, another quarter million children will join the homeschooling movement this year.
The sheer number of homeschoolers represents a distinct threat to the hegemony of the government school monopoly. Qualitatively, the academic success of homeschoolers, measured by standardized test scores and recruitment by colleges, debunks the myth that parents need to hire credentialed experts to force children to learn.1
Homeschooling also refutes the “more money equals better education” mantra of the teachers unions. The average homeschooling family spends approximately 10 percent of the per-pupil costs associated with government schools in achieving those academic results.2 Multiplied by the number of homeschoolers, even these modest amounts add up to a sizeable market attracting numerous educational entrepreneurs.
Besides challenging the legitimacy of government schools, homeschoolers also pose a more direct economic threat. Funding for government schools is based on attendance, with a national average of almost $6,000 per student.3 Homeschooled children represent over $7 billion out of reach of local government schools, and, at its current growth rate, each year over $1 billion more slips away.
Politically, homeschoolers are a force to be reckoned with when their rights are endangered. The most highly publicized and effective example of their growing political clout occurred in 1994, when the House of Representatives inserted language into an educational appropriations bill that would have required all teachers to be credentialed. Homeschoolers perceived that provision as a threat to their autonomy and overwhelmed phone and fax lines to their representatives until the credentialing language was removed by a 424-1 vote.
Homeschooling’s economic and political impact is keenly felt by teachers unions, educational bureaucrats, ideological indoctrinators, and other beneficiaries of today’s system. What will happen when the growing number of homeschooling families withdraw their political support for the enormous taxes required to fund today’s $300 billion government system?
To combat those threats, defenders of the status quo are fighting back with all the legal, legislative, and economic weapons at their disposal. The most insidious of these tactics is the systematic undermining and co-opting of the homeschooling movement by establishing government homeschooling programs. Those programs set seductive lures before families by providing “free” resources, teachers, extracurricular activities, facilities, and even cash reimbursement.
When enough families have voluntarily returned to the government system, it will be a relatively straightforward matter to recapture the rest by imposing mandatory homeschooling oversight regulations. Will this seduction succeed in eliminating independent homeschoolers and derailing the growing free market in education? Economics and the history of private schools versus government schools provide ample lessons on what to expect.
The Birth of a Free Market in Education
The term “homeschooling” is a bit of a misnomer. To many people the word conjures up a vision of mom instructing her kids around the kitchen table–a myth perpetuated by the media, which invariably demand that particular image to illustrate their stories. The reality is far different. While instruction around the kitchen table does indeed occur in most homeschooling families, the flexibility and range of homeschooling encourages an enormous variety of alternative educational models. Those models range from child-led, interest-based learning (unschooling) to the traditional classroom model with professional teachers. They include distance learning, cooperative teaching arrangements between parents, commercial learning centers, and subject-specific tutors. Many young teenagers routinely take junior college or university courses. Others participate in the revival of apprenticing.
The homeschooling boom has not gone unnoticed by educational entrepreneurs. Homeschooling conferences attract huge numbers of vendors catering to the hundreds (and in some cases, thousands) of families attending. Traditional curriculum vendors have repackaged their wares specifically for the homeschooling market. Homeschooling magazines and newsletters flourish, increasing in number. Organizations providing paid support (curriculum counseling, bureaucratic paperwork assistance, legal support) for homeschooling families continue to spring up.
Supplementing these numerous commercial ventures and, in most cases, preceding them, are a multitude of local support groups that arose spontaneously to help meet the needs of new and existing homeschooling families. Much of the power of the homeschooling movement comes from these groups, through which families gather to meet the social and academic needs of their children. Those voluntary groups create the environment for low-cost or no-cost academic solutions, such as:
- cooperative teaching, which leverages the existing talents and interests of parents;
- information sharing among parents about what works and what doesn’t for different learning styles;
- renting community rooms (or homes) for group activities and classes;
- hiring professional teachers by the hour (for example, our science teacher is paid $75 an hour, which breaks down to $5 a child); and
- field trips for hands-on learning.
Homeschooling support groups also provide all of the social activities found in traditional schools. One group, All Ways Learning in San Jose, is typical of the depth of activities provided by voluntary support groups once a critical mass of families is involved. The group meets twice weekly, once at a local park and once in a rented community room. Volunteer families organize the monthly newsletter, yearbook, yearly “school” pictures, monthly “PTA” meetings (aka “Parents’ Night Out”), holiday parties, dances, and choir. In addition, a homeschooling sports league in the area sponsors baseball, basketball, and soccer for several hundred homeschooled children. Homeschooling, with its varied commercial and volunteer ventures, is a microcosm of what a true free market in education could look like–parents and children working together, mixing and matching, tailoring the educational style to what works best for them; families spending their educational dollars as they choose, with educational entrepreneurs creating a wide-ranging marketplace of goods and services. It’s not just mom and the kids around the kitchen table. It’s a new educational model.
If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Join ‘Em
Stakeholders in government schools have a vested interest in strangling this nascent free market in education. Early efforts to stamp out homeschooling were fought in the courts, and while homeschoolers have for the most part been successful in that arena, the threat of legal prosecution is still a favorite weapon of intimidation wielded against homeschooling families. However, for the most part, the days when homeschoolers were considered outlaws are behind us.
Homeschooling victories in the legal system forced opponents to use different means to control homeschooling. Moving to the legislative arena, some states imposed mandatory oversight by local school district officials, requiring approval of curricula and quarterly evaluation. Other states imposed mandatory testing, with a child’s failure resulting in a return to a government school. (Note, however, the lack of a reciprocal clause forcing government-students who fail the test to be homeschooled.) Those coercive attempts to control homeschooling actually pale in significance compared to the more subtle and dangerous tactic some states use to recapture homeschooling families: government homeschooling programs. Once few in number, those programs are now widespread in states that allow them.
Early programs in California offered homeschoolers a straightforward $1,000 bribe to participate. To collect the money, homeschoolers merely had to submit receipts to the district for any educational activities or materials. It was an economic win-win situation, as the district retained the remaining $3,000 in per-pupil funding from the state. Programs changed over time as the state gradually imposed more restrictions on homeschoolers. At first, the restrictions took the form of decreasing the amount available for reimbursement and sharply limiting reimbursable items. At the same time, more curriculum resources and teachers were made available. Now, instead of having the freedom to spend money from the state on the educational materials and experiences of their own choosing, families are only reimbursed for the same consumable materials (pencils, crayons) already offered by the district.
However, despite these restrictions, the programs still provide significant economic incentives for both homeschoolers and school districts. For homeschooling families, they get access to a professional teacher, all the district resources, and extracurricular activities like sports and band–all of it “free.” With incentives like these, it’s not surprising that many homeschoolers have rushed back to the same government system they once fled and, in many cases, are demanding their “rights” to these activities. This phenomenon is common enough that it’s attracted national media attention.4 For school districts, the advantages are even greater. Districts receive full pupil funding for only spending an hour a week with a student.5 This is an enormous profit margin over what can be obtained with full-time students, a virtual cash cow for districts. Districts respond to this incentive the way any profit-seeking enterprise would: aggressive recruiting of new customers (even stealing from other districts),6 advertising their programs, conducting workshops on homeschooling,7 and expanding into new markets (for example, high school homeschooling programs).8
Crowding Out Private Educational Alternatives
The damage done to the independent homeschooling movement extends beyond offering financial and other resources to families to seduce them into government programs. The spirit of volunteerism that suffuses homeschooling support groups and makes possible low-cost cooperative learning opportunities also is undermined by government competition. Parents who offer their time and talents voluntarily through support groups have been actively recruited by government homeschooling programs with employment opportunities at $20 an hour.
It’s a simple economic calculation for most parents to make and just one more step in the seduction of homeschoolers. The end result is a siphoning off of the creative leadership of the private homeschooling sector. Inevitably, there are some who follow their leaders back into the system.
Homeschooling businesses are also undercut. Private independent study programs (ISP) typically provide a range of services to homeschooling families, including curriculum counseling, specialized testing, record-keeping, and other educational resources. It is increasingly difficult for them to compete against equivalent services offered for “free” by the state.
The burgeoning charter school movement provides one more example of the state’s crowding out of private educational enterprises. Similar to government homeschooling programs, new charter schools in California aggressively recruit homeschoolers with mass-marketing tactics: placing ads in homeschooling publications, cold-calling during the dinner hour, and email spamming (junk-mail solicitations via email). Motivated by the same low overhead and high per-pupil funding for homeschoolers, their entrepreneurship is admirable, but their goal of recapturing homeschooling families for a government-funded and chartered program is not. The most aggressive charter schools use another traditional business technique to achieve rapid growth–merger and acquisition. Backed by state funds, they can afford to make generous buyout offers to private ISPs. ISP owners in California charge between $100 and $400 per student. Charter schools can hire owners as “administrators” and pay them $1,000 per student, while still retaining 75 percent of the state funding for charter school “overhead.” Everybody wins economically here, as the homeschooling families no longer incur the cost of the private ISP.
Slamming the Door on an Educational Free Market
Having established a viable government alternative to the private sector and independent homeschooling, the government’s next step is logical–outlaw or regulate independent homeschooling out of existence. Not only is it logical, it follows historical precedent.
This is the same pattern used in the 1800s to virtually eliminate the large private-education system that predominated at the time. First, fund it with compulsory taxes, though attendance is voluntary. Once private sector competition is driven largely out of the market, make attendance compulsory as well.9 The same process is underway with homeschooling today and is at various stages in different states. With guaranteed funding from taxpayers, the government system can afford to spend whatever it takes to undercut private homeschooling alternatives.
Not coincidentally, the National Education Association (NEA) has already formulated the game plan for state control of all homeschooling. For the last several years during their biannual conventions, the NEA has passed formal homeschooling resolutions demanding that:
- Teachers of home-instruction programs meet state certification requirements;
- State or local permission be required annually for home study;
- Home study be monitored by local school administrative personnel knowledgeable about excellence in the teaching-learning environment;
- Students participate in state or locally mandated testing programs in suitable settings and in other assessments conducted by the school district;
- Students have the option of attending public school for part-time instruction. They should be counted in the average daily membership without proration (in other words, full per-pupil funding with minimal attendance and overhead).10
With the infrastructure already in place to support homeschooling within the government system, it would take only a small legislative tweak to make these programs compulsory. As mentioned earlier, some states have already implemented some of these regulations-homeschoolers in Pennsylvania and Hawaii, for example, are subject to annual approval and monitoring by government school officials.
Other states aren’t waiting for legislative tweaks and are trying to outlaw independent homeschooling directly. At one time, the California Department of Education maintained a benign and even marginally helpful attitude toward homeschooling. Today, with no legislative changes to the education codes, the California DOE informs prospective homeschoolers that the only legal way to teach their children at home is through their government programs or with a credentialed teacher. That is misinformation at best, as even a casual reading of the pertinent education codes demonstrates.1
Enforcing those policies is all too easy with our existing truancy laws; it is exacerbated with the new wave of daytime curfew laws. In California, truancy laws are enforced by Student Attendance Review Boards (SARBs). SARB proceedings are arbitrary, with little resemblance to due process. Recently armed by the California legislature with the power to subpoena parents, at least one SARB had parents arrested for failure to appear (they were not homeschooling parents).12
While SARB actions against homeschooling families are still few in California, the majority of children stopped by police because of daytime curfew ordinances are predominantly homeschoolers. Those ordinances typically allow police officers to write citations forcing parents to appear before a court and pay stiff fines for repeated violations. The combination of SARBs with subpoena powers and daytime curfew ordinances will have the proverbial “chilling effect” on independent homeschoolers, forcing them underground or into the government system.
A Clarion Call for Homeschooling Independence
While educational statists will never be able to put the homeschooling genie back in the bottle, they’ve made great strides in coaxing him to do their bidding. Many homeschooling activists recognize the dangers and are sounding a clarion call to resist the seductions of state-funded “freebies” and the inevitable strings attached to them. The 1996 National Homeschooling Roundtable Conference, titled “Freedom in Education,” held multiple workshops debating the merits and dangers of government-funded homeschooling programs. Organizations like the California Homeschool Network have already taken a stand. Their recently issued Declaration of Homeschool Independence reads in part:
The Board of Trustees of the California Homeschool Network holds freedom to be essential to the fulfillment of homeschooling’s promise. We therefore dedicate our resources and services toward the protection and promotion of homeschooling independent of government support and intervention. This policy represents a deliberated response to the encroachments on family independence and the security of homeschooling rights posed by the growth of government funded and controlled home-based school programs.
Educational efforts like these are needed to avoid following the same path of private schooling in the 1800s, which ceded 90 percent of the educational market to the government. Homeschooling families need to understand that the real cost of the “free” homeschooling resources provided by the government is, ultimately and inevitably, their freedom.
- Karl M. Bunday, “School Is Dead: Colleges That Admit Homeschoolers FAQ,” October 7, 1997, http://learninfreedom.org/colleges_4_hmsc.html.
- Dr. Brian Ray, “A Nationwide Study of Home Education: Family Characteristics, Legal Matters, and Student Achievement” (National Home Education Research Institute, 1990). The homeschooling families in the study averaged $488 per pupil per year.
- Peter Brimelow and Leslie Spencer, “Comeuppance,” Forbes, February 13, 1995, p. 121. “Inflation-adjusted per-pupil spending reached $5,971 in 1993.”
- Dana Hawkins, “Homeschool Battles: Clashes Grow as Some in the Movement Seek Access to Public Schools,” U.S. News and World Report, February 12, 1996.
- Linda Parrish, “Home-school Programs Are Lucrative for Districts,” Seattle Times, October 1, 1996.
- Mark Sabbatini, “State Cites Violations in Home-Study Program,” Los Angeles Times,, June 24, 1995, p. B-7.
- Kelly David, “Workshop to Provide Home-Schooling Tips,” Los Angeles Times, June 3, 1996, p. B-3.
- “Home School Program to Be Expanded,” San Diego Union-Tribune, May 17, 1996, p. B-2.
- E.G. West, Education and the State, (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1994), Chapter 10: “The Rise and Fall of Nineteenth-Century Private Schools for the Masses.”
- NEA Board of Directors, “Policy Statement on Home Study,” 1984. While these excerpts are from the 1984 resolutions, the substance of them has been re-approved at subsequent conventions.
- Jackie Orsi, ,Our Rights, Our Laws, Our Children (Vineburg, Calif.: California Homeschool Network, 1996).
- William L. Seymour, “Parents Get Schooled in Embarrassment; Attendance Up,” Fresno Bee, November 6, 1995, p. B1.