Freedom isn’t lost in one fell authoritarian swoop. It happens slowly, and by degrees.
An unexpected outcome of the Covid-19 years is that the need for school choice and educational freedom have become more apparent than ever. But if legislators do not proceed cautiously, the freedom and flexibility that non-public education alternatives offer, specifically in the case of homeschooling, could be erased by misguided policies.
Over the past two years, parents have watched from their living rooms as public schools failed their children. They’ve seen school boards implement unscientific health policies, and have been appalled at divisive curricula being taught to young kids. As a result, more families than ever before are pursuing other options besides government-run schools.
But the one feature of public schools that keeps appealing to the vast majority of parents is that our tax dollars already pay for public education, so there is no upfront cost. Any other educational venue requires families to pay upfront. So, in regard to school choice, the number-one question legislators seek to answer is how to make the financial burden less onerous.
The most popular solution—especially in Congress—is to hand out money. But in the case of homeschooling, the popular solution is incredibly dangerous. When legislators create policies that would give federal funds to homeschooling families, even when trying to assist those families, they threaten the very foundation that makes homeschooling successful. There is no such thing as federal dollars that come with no strings attached.
The policies most proposed on Capitol Hill are ESAs (“education savings accounts”) and “money follows the child” plans. Both sound benign. Many families already have an education savings account in the form of a 529, in which they have put their own money to be used at a later date on education expenses. As to the latter, it makes sense to have already spent tax dollars follow a child to whatever school they attend, be it public, private, or at home.
But ESAs are not true savings accounts. With an ESA, the government collects the taxes designated for public education, then redistributes those dollars to families who choose not to attend public schools.
Because the money flows through the government, the government then gets to decide how it is spent—for example, what types of school, curriculum, and tutoring programs. The same is true for “money follows the child” bills. The government would still collect taxes meant for public schools, but it would just broaden what those taxes can be spent on. The government, and not families, would still have the final say in what is considered an “approved educational expense.”
When bureaucrats are empowered to decide what is acceptable, education freedom is threatened. Many families—including those who are Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and Sikh—choose to homeschool because they want to include religious material in their learning. Others have children with learning disabilities who require special tutoring services.
The flexibility of homeschooling has given rise to a plethora of education methods that allow parents to address these specific concerns. These methods range from interest-driven learning like Montessori (focused on hands-on, collaborative play) and Finland’s forest kindergarten, where children spend up to 95 percent of their time learning outdoors, to more traditional textbook learning. Which one person, bureaucrat or otherwise, is equipped to say that this wide variety of learning methods all fit into the “approved educational expense” box?
Government policies to fund education open the door to other regulations: lists of curricula that families have to use, mandatory homeschool registration, and even mandatory home inspections. There have been attempts to implement all of these at the state level. The pressure would be intensified if the federal government started regulating home education as well.
The corrosive nature of these public funding schemes can be seen in California. Currently, California, believe it or not, is one of the best states to homeschool in. Homeschool families register as private schools, and private schools are not subject to the same testing and curriculum requirements as the public options.
But any school in California registered as a charter school, not a private school, receives funds to be used for approved expenses. The lure of supposed free money is powerful, and many families have used this provision to register their “homeschool” as a charter school in order to receive government funds. The result is that California has seen an increase in public-school-at-home families and a decrease of true home-based education families free from the state’s regulations.
Abuse of California’s charter school provision has also led to attempts at increased regulation in the state. In recent legislative sessions, state legislators have introduced bills to provide more oversight over these “homeschool” charter schools. Private school families fear this regulation push could target them next.
Because parents know and love their children better than any government bureaucrat
can, society thrives when parents are empowered to make the best choices for their
children. And that’s why homeschooling works: free from overregulation, families are
able to direct their children’s education in a way that best suits the child’s individual
needs, rather than follow a one-size-fits-all model.
Policies that allow maximum freedom for home education are policies that help create successful, flourishing kids and families. The better approach does not take money from families that are already homeschooling. Tax credits, true savings accounts like 529s, and making homeschool parents eligible for the teacher tax deduction are all ways legislators can help ease the financial cost of school choice without increasing government regulation.
The 529 plans vary state by state, but can allow families up to $10,000 per year per beneficiary for tuition at any public or private elementary or secondary school. Their success is well known and helps homeschool families without the risks associated with ESAs.
The very reason so many families are leaving the public schools is that they want less government regulation, more parental choice, and more ability to do what is best for their children and families. Keep homeschooling free from federal funding and intervention and let families thrive.