All Commentary
Tuesday, May 1, 2001

Toward an Educational Renaissance

Homeschooling Communities Are Marvelous Examples of Spontaneous Order

Chris Cardiff is a homeschooling father of three spirited girls, a trustee of the California Homeschool Network, and a vice president of AOL. None of these groups—including his family—necessarily endorses his views.

Can parents be trusted to educate their own children? The underlying assumption of America’s vast government school system is that they cannot. Yet homeschooling families, illustrating the powerful concept of spontaneous order in a free society, belie that assumption.

Education is at the top of every politician’s list of promises these days. Each one wants to be perceived as doing something “for the children.” Debate rages between “liberals” who want to throw more money at the present system and conservatives and (some libertarians) who want to introduce pseudomarket reforms (charters, vouchers) to improve it. Rarely do you see anyone, much less a politician, challenge the fundamental premises of state-sponsored and -mandated education.

Behind all the reform rhetoric remains a system based on tyrannical principles. Every single state has compulsory attendance laws and educational statutes prescribing a mandatory curriculum. Failure to comply leads to a range of legal penalties, from fines through confiscation of children due to “educational neglect.”

The terms of the debate need to be changed. Rather than arguing about competing means to reform the existing system, we need to discuss the advantages of educational freedom versus educational tyranny. Education statists will argue that the free market could never create a comprehensive and “fair” educational system. Education elitists will argue that parents can’t know all their children need to know. Education freedom fighters can counter those arguments and illustrate the advantages of a free market in education by pointing to the spontaneous order found within the homeschooling community.

How can parents teach everything a child needs (or wants) to learn? They can’t. However, this is one of the most frequently asked rhetorical questions by critics of homeschooling. It is derived from the Kitchen Table Myth—the belief that mom provides all the instruction the kids need while sitting around the kitchen table.

Obviously parents aren’t experts in every possible subject. This is one of the reasons families band together in local homeschooling support groups. From within these voluntary associations springs a spontaneous educational order. An overabundance of services, knowledge, activities, collaboration, and social opportunities flourishes within these homeschooling communities.

Throughout the United States homeschooling families have created their own educational communities. There are local, state, and national groups. There are online groups (over 500 virtual communities are listed at alone). These homeschooling support groups are every shape and size—from a couple of families who get together regularly for field trips, to the thousands of families that descend on a statewide homeschooling convention, to the tens of thousands of families who have joined the Home School Legal Defense Association.

The diversity of the homeschooling community is reflected in the variety of support groups. The primary reason binding a group together can be political, geographic, religious, educational, or activity-based. Within these, the organizational structure can be top-down, bottom-up, or consensus-driven. And just like any endeavor in the free market, some groups succeed and some fail. However, the breadth and depth of these experimental educational communities demonstrate the power of individuals to create their own educational environments.

There is nothing within the confines of the institutional setting of the government school system that has not been duplicated or improved on in the homeschooling movement. Individuals and groups sponsor sports leagues, yearbooks, choirs, bands, orchestras, spelling bees, dances, debate contests, science fairs, geography bees, newsletters, math olympiads, and foreign exchange students. Different educational models, ranging far beyond parents as sole instructors for their children, also proliferate within homeschooling.

These educational models include new ones, like distance learning, as well as the rediscovery of old ones, like apprenticeships. They include parent co-op teaching, where parents swap instructional services in areas where they have expertise. They incorporate some of the institutional paradigm as well when professional teachers are hired to teach specific courses. But they also include concepts like unschooling, or child-led learning, a model antithetical to the traditional institution-based learning.

The Power of Voluntary Associations

All Ways Learning (AWL) is one such local homeschooling support group. Now in its fifth year, AWL has over 100 participating families. It’s one of several homeschooling support groups in Silicon Valley, but not the largest.

AWL is a nonhierarchical group open to all families. There are no formal leaders and no dues. There are no group decisions made in AWL. All events, services, and classes are sponsored by individuals who decide on parameters such as age limits, cost, timing, and size. Anyone uncomfortable with the structure of an activity (or unable to participate because of one of the restrictions) is encouraged to design and start an alternative. This framework provides maximum freedom for individuals, maximum choice for participants, and minimum hassle in trying to design a one-size-fits-all system for everyone.

This lack of centralized planning results in a rich set of services and activities for families participating in AWL. Academic services include some of the educational models mentioned above. The natural extension of teaching your own children is co-op teaching where parents who are subject specialists offer their services to other families. Classes led by AWL parents over the years cover a wide range: art, biology, history, Latin, literature, math, Red Cross babysitting, and Russian.

Classes led by professional teachers are also found within AWL’s repertoire. Professional teachers from local schools are hired and the classes are held either in a local community room or a home. Science and Spanish are the most popular courses led by professional teachers. Both have grown in popularity over the years so that now they are offered for three different skill levels.

The AWL calendar is filled with dozens of other learning opportunities. Field trips and hands-on learning are ever popular, with several scheduled each month for different age groups. The monthly newsletter provides publishing opportunities for writing and drawing. The Geography and Culture Club explores a new country every month. The annual spelling bee sends a representative to the regional Scripps Howard contest in San Francisco each year. The math olympiad team competes with teams around the country. The AWL Music Hour features performance opportunities bimonthly.

What About Socialization?

AWL is equally rich in social opportunities for kids and parents. Park Day is the mainstay, with dozens of families meeting weekly. Parents chat around the picnic tables, toddlers romp on the swing sets, younger kids dart around playing tag, and older kids race back and forth playing Ultimate Frisbee. On rainy days, meeting at a local bowling alley or playing games at a community center is a preferred alternative.

Other regular social opportunities include the usual holiday parties (Valentine’s Day, Halloween, and Christmas), a barbecue at the beginning of the year, and the annual end-of-year gala, which combines a talent show, graduation, awards night, and party all in one. In between, Mom’s Night Out provides a break for parents, while kids have the Digit Clubs (Little, Single, Double, and Teen) for regular age-specific playtimes and get-togethers.

Helping to bind AWL families into a community are the monthly newsletter, several online e-mailing lists, annual AWL group photo, and a yearbook. This educational community is the result of individual families working to create opportunities for themselves and in turn making these opportunities available to other families. The extensive social and academic opportunities in AWL exemplify Tocqueville’s long-ago observations on the primacy and importance of voluntary associations in America.

Beyond the educational communities that homeschooling families have built for themselves, there is an infrastructure growing up to support them. With more and more families choosing homeschooling, the market for education services has moved to embrace them. Textbook publishers create special homeschooling editions. Advanced Placement courses aimed at homeschoolers are available over the Internet. Teachers offer their expertise as individual tutors or class leaders.

Those reaching out and sustaining the homeschooling market include many name-brand vendors. Barnes & Noble offers homeschoolers teacher discounts. State Farm Insurance offers homeschoolers “good student” discounts. Jostens offers homeschoolers yearbook services. Stanford University hosts admissions seminars for homeschoolers.

And surprisingly, even government schools have introduced homeschooling programs. While demonstrating that a virtual monopoly can respond to market pressure, these programs present both an opportunity and a threat to the independent homeschooling movement.

For some families, these government programs are a stepping stone to independent homeschooling. Recognizing the value of the resources available within the independent homeschooling communities, resource teachers in these programs refer families to local support groups, subscribe to their newsletters, and on occasion go so far as to hire homeschooling parents to teach within their programs.

However, states also use these programs to extend their control of education. Some states try to force homeschooling families to use their programs. Others require government school officials to review and approve the educational programs of all homeschooling families in their district. These regulatory efforts make it clear that the government school system won’t give up its monopoly on education willingly and is prepared to use the force of government to combat the free market.

Educational Freedom Works

From the collapse of communism to the bounty on our supermarket shelves, Americans are reminded daily of the miracles of a free market. Yet despite the overwhelming evidence, we remain mired in a centralized, top-down, government-run education system. The idea of a free market in education seems unbelievable to many.

The homeschooling movement is slowly converting these unbelievers. All Ways Learning is just one example of a self-organizing educational community. There are many other communities and many other ways to organize them. These homeschooling communities are marvelous examples of how spontaneous order works in a free society and are a microcosm of the educational renaissance we can expect with true educational freedom.