The Free Market
Why Home Schooling Thrives
The Free Market 15, no. 8 (August 1997)
An hour before midnight, February 3, 1997, a sheriff's car with its lights flashing pulled up to a middle-class home in Effingham County, Georgia. It had come for Debbie Gaskin, wife and mother. She was arrested, handcuffed, fingerprinted, and photographed. She posted bond, and was released.
What crime had Mrs. Gaskin committed? Three weeks earlier, she had removed her 5-year-old daughter, Jaynie, from the local public school and decided to educate her at home.
Mrs. Gaskin had told school authorities of her decision. The county attendance officer refused her permission, and threatened her with prosecution. Then she called the Georgia State Department of Education, which told her she could home school, but she had to complete some paperwork, which she did. The superintendent got a warrant anyway, saying "we'll let the judge decide."
The charges were eventually dismissed, but only after tremendous legal headaches, embarrassing news coverage, and weeks of humiliation (for which she successfully sued, winning a mere $13,750).
This is not an isolated incident. The home-school movement is growing rapidly. From a fringe movement of tens of thousands of students in the 1970s, there are as many as a million students currently being instructed in a home setting. These home schoolers continually face the possibility of legal entanglements and harassments. Hardly a day goes by without a similar report.
The rise of home schooling coincides with the general breakdown in the public school system. It began when LBJ, our first "education president," signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, with funding of $1.65 billion. The congressional sponsor predicted, ironically, that the bill would reduce "the cost of crime, delinquency, unemployment, and welfare."
Since then, the educational system has become ever more centralized, bureaucratized, and costly. There are more teachers and fewer students in public schools. From 1973 to 1994, per pupil teacher costs have risen 28 percent in real terms. Meanwhile, administrative costs have increased 80.6 percent. If administrative costs had been held down to teacher costs, we'd spend $967 less per student and save $16,729 for every classroom in the country.
What has been the result? The composite (verbal-math) SAT has dropped from 980 to 900 (without including the dumbing down of the test itself). At the same time, grades have gotten better. High schools gave out twice as many Cs as As in 1966. By 1978, there were more A's than Cs. In 1990, a majority of students averaged A minus or better. The situation is summed up by the Washington, D.C., valedictorian who was refused admission to a local college because he scored a dismal 600 on the SAT examination.
Teachers themselves don't trust the schools. A survey of the Chicago-area showed that 22 percent of school children attend private schools, but 46 percent of public school teachers' kids do. A New York survey showed no member of the Board of Education and no citywide elected official had children in the public schools.
Granting that public schools are a heterogenous lot, what is the basic problem with the educational system? Many parents think that the social and political mission of schools has swamped real teaching and learning. When I was certified to teach public school, I answered interview questions with the usual clichés. I especially impressed the interviewers with the meaningless comment, "We are teaching seventh graders, not mathematics."
One option for parents wanting to avoid the public schools is to teach their children at home. The academic benefits from this are substantial. A 1994 study of 16,000 home school students found that the average student scores in the 77th percentile on standardized tests. Generally, half of home schooled students score in the top quarter of the overall student population.
Most colleges and universities now accept home schooled students, and have noted their high moral values, strong work ethic and self discipline, study habits, and maturity. Some schools now have scholarships specifically reserved for home schoolers.
In 1980, only three states had laws generally protecting home schoolers, and now 32 do. Parental qualifications range from a high-school education to some college education to passing a basic skills test. Only one of these states, Mississippi, does not specify a list of subjects that must be taught. All have either a minimum number of days or a minimum hourly requirement or both. Home schoolers also have to notify public school officials about their intentions (but only in four states do the officials have to approve the request).
Often, a minimum standard must be met as a condition for home schooling. For instance, in Colorado, if your child is not above the 15th percentile, he cannot be home schooled. Parents object because no public school in any state has such a requirement. Besides, students in the bottom 15 percent may be the ones that need home schooling the most.
Several states have laws requiring the parent to show that the student receives instruction "equivalent" to the public schools. Home schoolers have generally attempted to eliminate these laws on grounds that they are vague and give officials the power to intervene in each home school situation.
A school superintendent near Scranton, Pennsylvania, argued in a court deposition that all children must be taught about the dangers of drugs, but using the Bible to do so does not suffice. According to him, a parent doing this would not be providing an education "equivalent" to a public school education.
In other states, home schools operate under private-school laws. If private schools are unregulated, as in California and Texas, so are home schools. Yet there can be legal tripwires even in these fairly lenient states. Disputes about what constitutes a school, as well as attendance regulations, can lead to harassments of all sorts.
If private schools are heavily regulated, as in Iowa and Michigan, home schools are too. Both states require parents to be teacher certified by the government. The problem in these states is that the legislative bodies are dominated by NEA interests that want to use teacher certification laws to harass home schoolers.
In no state do home schoolers feel completely free of government interference. They are vulnerable to sudden change if the wrong official gets his way or the wrong lobbying group prevails on the governor or the legislature. Yet despite it all, home schooling is thriving.
What are the advantages of home schooling over public schooling? Students work at their own pace using techniques that fit their individual personalities and strengths. Time is spent more productively. Students are able to avoid the negative socialization that is almost inherent in public school. That's why home schoolers tend to be more mature than public school children.
With home schooling, parents are able to control the curriculum, and avoid the political indoctrination present in public schools. It strengthens family ties, allows the family to move without creating traumas, and allows more time to travel, study music, play sports, and go to libraries and museums.
These are advantages that most parents want for their children. But the drawback of home schooling is that it doesn't take advantage of the division of labor. Why wouldn't parents be better off paying others to educate their children in a similar manner? Most would, and where there's demand, there's usually supply.
So a conundrum presents itself. Why, for the most part, aren't these educational services available outside the home? In no state is there anything like an active, competitive market for elementary educational services. We have no trouble purchasing other services like car repair or clothes cleaning on the market. Yet the search for a good educational environment is a constant source of frustration for just about everyone with school-age kids.
Many libertarians attempt to point to the very existence of the public school system as a hindrance to quality education. But that explanation doesn't suffice. Active private markets can usually exist alongside government provision, even when the government service is free.
For example, the existence of the post office doesn't mean we are hamstrung in sending packages from place to place. If we don't like post office service, we can choose another carrier. Because there are so few restrictions, there is no shortage of companies willing to deliver packages for a fee. In the educational market, there are surprisingly few options for private, affordable, consumer-responsive educational services.
The reason is legal restriction. Thanks to federal pressure, all states presume to define what does and does not constitute a "school" and an "education." They do this through compulsory education laws, the very existence of which implies a state supervisory role as well as the use of coercion. To the extent that market-based schools step outside the approved boundaries, they set themselves up for legal entanglements and harassment.
For example, in no state in this country may a mother decide, without government permission, to set up a for-profit school in her home and have neighborhood parents pay her for educational services of their own choosing to the exclusion of other forms of schooling. Both the service provider and the willing parents would risk visits by social workers and school officials, and then, possibly, incarceration. That's true even in the freest states.
In a free market, this would be the mainstream means of purchasing educational services, especially at the elementary level. Classrooms would be small and largely neighborhood based. Fees would be low. Stay-home moms would have a great entrepreneurial opportunity to bring in some extra income. The reason such an environment does not exist is because compulsory schooling laws prevent it from developing in the first place.
What can be done to foster a market in schools? Compulsory education laws must be repealed. Only this radical step would introduce genuine market forces into the education industry. This would be a great victory for parents and children. But for the educational bureaucrat, it would be a nightmare, even if the public school system were left exactly as it is now.
Some say this would amount to government giving up its central source of privilege in the educational sector. That is precisely why it is the best and most profitable avenue for reform. In the meantime, home schooling may not be a perfect solution, but, like tax shelters, it thrives because it is able to meet a market demand by exploiting loopholes in the law.
Just as importantly, home schooling sends a message to the elites that there are some things, namely children, that are not owned or controlled by the government. Until compulsory schooling laws are completely scrapped, it will continue to be a crucial means for providing the quality education that public schools have failed to provide.
Mark Brandly teaches Economics at Ball State University
Cite This Article
Brandly, Mark. "Why Home Schooling Thrives." The Free Market 15, no. 8 (August 1997).