Mises Daily Articles
In Praise of Homeschools
The most admirable group of entrepreneurs is perhaps the least appreciated. Homeschool parents, or parentrepreneurs, are not waiting for politicians and technocrats to fix broken systems of education. Rather, they are eschewing the status quo and finding innovative ways to advance the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual growth of their children. Unlike their counterparts in the public sector, parentrepreneurs have achieved astounding results with humble budgets.
Curiously, parentrepreneurs are seldom the object of praise. They are instead showered with ridicule and demands for intrusive regulations that erode their effectiveness as educators. Self-interested unionists are often at the forefront of this mudslinging. A National Education Association resolution is exemplary of such demagoguery:
The National Education Association believes that home schooling programs based on parental choice cannot provide the student with a comprehensive education experience. When home schooling occurs, students enrolled must meet all state curricular requirements, including the taking and passing of assessments to ensure adequate academic progress.
Clearly, the NEA perpetuates the myth that parents are too ignorant to be educators. Even worse, they obnoxiously imply that government schools, in fact, provide a comprehensive education experience for all students. Of course, the NEA is hardly a beacon of objectivity. Between 1999 and 2007, the number of homeschooled students increased almost twofold, from 850,000 to 1,500,000 — a trend that threatens its wealth and political clout.
Unfortunately, the homeschool-opponents movement is ubiquitous and is backed by more than just power-hungry unionists. Left-liberal elites, statists, and antireligion bigots are also motivated to infringe on the liberties of parents. However, an objective look at four key performance indicators illuminates the truth and leads to an obvious conclusion: homeschooling parents should be praised for their noble work.
Key Performance Indicator #1: Academics
To Murray Rothbard, the merits of individual instruction are unequivocal. Only this type of education, he asserted, can develop human potential to its greatest degree. It was therefore obvious to him that formal schools were vastly inferior.
Since each child differs from the other in interest and ability, and the teacher can only teach one thing at a time, it is evident that every school class must cast all the instruction into one uniform mold. Regardless how the teacher instructs, at what pace, timing, or variety, he is doing violence to each and every one of the children. Any schooling involves misfitting each child into a Procrustean bed of unsuitable uniformity.
Government schools cannot differentiate instruction as homeschools do. At best, a highly effective teacher might have the capacity to place students in small groups based on achievement level, disregarding their interests altogether. It is therefore evident that even an average parent is likely more effective than a great teacher; she does not have to worry about classroom management, arbitrary timelines, and restrictive curricula — her energy is focused on what's best for an individual child. Still, this advantage is perhaps secondary to homeschooling parents. As John Holt explains, what truly separates homeschools from traditional schools is that they aren't actually schools:
What is most important and valuable about the home as a base for children's growth into the world is not that it is a better school than the schools but that it isn't school at all. It is not an artificial place, set up to make "learning" happen and in which nothing except "learning" ever happens. It is a natural, organic, central, fundamental human institution, one might easily and rightly say the foundation of all other human institutions.
This is not to say that all homeschools espouse the unschooling philosophy of Holt. In actuality, they are quite diverse in their approaches to education. Some homeschools purchase curricula from publishers while others opt to enroll their children in correspondence programs. Libraries, tutors, and local support groups might also be used by homeschools. Just as in business, there is more than one way to run a profitable organization — and the results support this idea.
In a study conducted by Dr. Brian D. Ray of the National Home Education Research Institute homeschoolers scored an average of 34–39 percentile points higher than the norm on standardized achievement tests (1, 2). Government regulations, including whether or not homeschooling parents were teacher-certified, had no impact on these scores. In fact, students whose parents did not have a college degree scored at the 83rd percentile. In terms of college admissions, homeschoolers typically score higher than average on the SAT.
Despite these outstanding outcomes, homeschools weren't even legal in all 50 states until 1993 and many states have enacted burdensome regulations. California and New York, for instance, have intrusive laws that regulate curricula, testing, and teacher credentials. Using compulsory attendance laws, government officials enforce these regulations and can prosecute parents who fail to comply. In essence, parentrepreneurs are punished for being exceptional parents, just as successful entrepreneurs are taxed and condemned for their profits.
Key Performance Indicator #2: Socialization
A common criticism levied by homeschool opponents is that government schools are more adept at developing social skills. While this masquerades as a legitimate assertion, it fails to survive even the most rudimentary scrutiny. Not only have studies shown that homeschooled students grow to be aptly socialized adults but the roots of public schools are deeply entrenched in a mixture of assimilation and obedience — fertile grounds for repressing human ingenuity and producing dependent citizens.
A primary impetus for government schooling in the United States was to impose discipline on immigrant children and integrate them into the American way of life. The forefathers of public education, including Horace Mann, drew inspiration from the despotic state of Prussia and emulated many of their practices including compulsory attendance and collective instruction. John Stuart Mill warned of the dangers of government-controlled education:
A general State education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another: and as the mould in which it casts them is that which pleases the predominant power in the government.
Oddly, the vehicle that is commonly thought to be most effective at socializing American children was essentially designed to numb minds and sterilize spirits. This might explain why an astounding 2.7 million youths are medicated for ADHD — without drugs, these "unruly" children would be unable to sit through manila lessons and behave subserviently. Of course, this is only to speak of the type of socialization that occurs at good schools. Minorities are often not as fortunate — they're forced into virtual prisons, fully equipped with metal detectors, security officers, and chaotic classrooms.
Is this the socialization that homeschool opponents espouse? To say their criticism is hypocritical would be far too polite.
To opponents, homeschoolers are held captive from society and insulated from the life experiences needed to socialize them. This view is pure bigotry. Homeschooling families live the belief that the "world is a classroom." According to Ray's study, the average homeschooler is involved in 5.2 activities outside the home such as scouts, volunteering, and sports. Other studies have shown that, as adults, homeschoolers are more likely than the general population to go to college, vote, and participate in community service. One Canadian adult reflects on her social life as a homeschooled child:
In my experience [my siblings and I] had ample opportunity for socialization with other children. Between homeschooling group activities (such as art lessons, soccer, swimming lessons), piano and voice lessons, choir, guitar, cello and violin lessons and activities in the parish, we had a great deal of socialization.
The socialization myth should be exposed for what it is: a narrow-minded fear that homeschoolers will grow to be socially awkward adults. With the current state of government education, is this really what homeschool opponents should be worried about? Just imagine a society where cocktail goers have more to discuss than weather, shopping, and reality television! (On second thought, this is precisely what the establishment should fear.)
Key Performance Indicator #3: Finances
Much is often made of the linkage between budget "constraints" and the performance of government schools. If only they had more money, the argument goes, their problems would be solved! While it's true that some schools operate in decrepit facilities, this neither dooms children to failure (ugly buildings don't render teachers ineffective) nor does it give an accurate representation of the resources most administrators are bestowed with. The average public school district, after all, spends $10,499 per child annually — or $136,487 for thirteen years of compulsory schooling. And this does not include capital expenditures and research and development that is spent by school districts and schools of education.
The costs of waste, bureaucracy, and incompetence in public education are difficult to quantify, especially to those who are blinded by emotional rhetoric (e.g., "Budget cuts will harm our children!"). The guardians of "our" children should be informed, however, that parentrepreneurs spend an average of — get this — less than $600 per child annually. A pittance compared to the expenditures of government schools. Of course, homeschools don't have incremental expenses for things such as buildings, gymnasiums, and unnecessary administrators — which is precisely the point. A good education does not require an abundance of resources.
Now it must be conceded that this comparison is incomplete as it fails to account for the opportunity cost that parentrepreneurs endure. While many parents send their children to "free" school and work full-time, homeschooling parents often forgo careers to invest scarce time and energy in their children's futures. It should be of little debate that this sacrifice of ego and material well-being epitomizes the definition of parenting. To the parentrepreneur, however, this is hardly a fleeting concern: there isn't time to wait for "reform" — no grandiose plan or heralded piece of legislation will fix government schools today.
Homeschool opponents are quick to retort that "only the rich" can afford homeschooling and most families struggle to make ends meet with two full-time incomes, let alone one. This objection, naturally, is just more of their usual rabble-rousing. The median family income for homeschooling parents is about the same as the nationwide median, approximately $79,000. So, roughly half of homeschools are earning less than $79,000 per year — with many making substantially less. Is this what they consider to be wealthy?
While not every family can afford homeschooling, this illustrates that it's within the grasp of many — if not most — Americans. Some may need to go without expensive vacations while others may need to make more substantive cutbacks, but the potential returns are incalculable. With the number of homeschools growing exponentially, it is evident that an increasing number of parents are recognizing the tangibility of this opportunity.
It is worth mentioning that homeschooling parents save taxpayers an estimated $16 billion annually. With budget crises rampant throughout the public sector you would think our beloved officials would encourage homeschooling as the fruitful endeavor it is — but this could ultimately serve to diminish the influence of homeschool opponents.
Key Performance Indicator #4: Values
Government schools, to at least some extent, obstruct parents' ability to shape their children's values. Much to the chagrin of libertarian parents, for example, their child might have a Marxist economics teacher. Similarly, a conservative parent might be upset to learn that his or her child's instructor is teaching "safe sex" in lieu of abstinence. Regardless of a parent's political stripe or value system, government schools will ultimately stain the canvass on which they are painting.
Homeschooling parents recognize this problem and, as a whole, refuse to allow their child's primary role models to be chosen by bureaucratic fiat. In fact, 36 percent cite religious or moral instruction as the most important reason for homeschooling, while 21 percent are primarily driven by concerns about the school environment.
Naturally, this infuriates opponents who believe that every child should be exposed to "progressive" values, and they strive to regulate homeschools to achieve this end. Writing of the so-called dangers of homeschooling, Robin L. West of Georgetown University Law Center advances such a view:
Also sacrificed is their exposure to diverse ideas, cultures, and ways of being. Again, this is not incidental; it is the fully intended result of the deregulation movement. The children of the most devout fundamentalists are being intentionally shielded from those parts of a public school curriculum that have this broadening potential.
Perhaps a visit to one of DC's finest public schools would help enlighten West of the "broadening potential" of government schooling. She herself will likely discover "ways of being" and "cultures" not encountered during everyday life at Georgetown. Ironically, West's fellow homeschool critic Rob Reich dispels her claim that parentrepreneurs are "the most devout fundamentalists":
Home schoolers are now a diverse population. No longer the preserve of left wing unschoolers and right wing religious fundamentalists, the great range of people who have chosen to home school their children make it very difficult to draw even broad generalizations about the phenomenon. Berkeley unschoolers who disdain structure, Christian evangelicals who disdain secularism, and suburban technophiles who download Khan Academy tutorials: this is the picture of homeschooling in 2011.
Forced indoctrination of any system of beliefs or values would do grave injustice to individual liberty. Do opponents really believe that homeschoolers are contributing to the moral decay of society? It is highly likely that not one homeschooler is a member of the Bloods, Crips, or any other gang of delinquents that plague government schools. (What have public school curricula done for these miscreants?) Homeschooling parents should be commended for actively shaping their children's values — and yes, even those of the leftist variety.
Homeschools are an inspiring example of how entrepreneurism can overcome government incompetence. Homeschool opponents are threatened by the success of parentrepreneurs and try to use regulations and fear mongering to maintain their virtual monopoly over the minds and pocketbooks of Americans — these efforts are unjustified and deplorable. Homeschooling parents are tremendously courageous and should be commended for being exceptional parents.