Stealth educational choice?

I just finished writing a review of two books about homeschooling (I’ll post a link when it’s published), and this morning I read an intriguing piece in The Atlantic entitled “The Homeschool Diaries.” I’ve mentioned before that we decided to homeschool our three children for just a year when we moved to Utah – also, we thought, for just a year – during my husband’s visiting professorship at the University of Utah law school.

Well, we ended up homeschooling for six years, and we stayed in Utah for fourteen. (Indeed, I’m writing this post from our cabin in Utah, where I’m surrounded by suitcases and boxes. After meeting with some students in Salt Lake this afternoon, I’m off to Palo Alto.)

The Atlantic article captures much of what I loved about homeschooling: the opportunity to pick curriculum, and just as importantly to discard curriculum that didn’t work; the integration of “school” with surroundings (art history in museums, geology in national parks); and simply the way, to quote the author, “we could easily build our home life around learning in a way that would be fun for the whole family.”

Here’s the article. Read it and enjoy:

But writing the review and reading this article raised a question that strikes me much more forcefully since I’ve spent years as a “real” school teacher and now  as an education blogger.

How, and why, did we get away with it?

Voters defeated vouchers in conservative Utah; a prominent educational choice advocate just lost his race to remain Indiana’s superintendent of schools; and charter school supporters barely eked out 2012 victories in Georgia and Washington. Yet between the early 1980s and the late 1990s, homeschoolers managed to overturn an almost entirely hostile array of state laws and regulations and render their version of educational choice not only legal, but mostly lightly governed, in all 50 states. Over the past three decades the number of homeschooled children has grown by at least 7 percent a year and exceeds the number of children attending charter schools. According to Vanderbilt education professor Joseph Murphy’s 2012 survey of the professional  literature on homeschooling, Homeschooling in America (one of the books that I’m reviewing), “when life cycle numbers are compiled, we discover that fully 6-12% of all students will have been educated at home at some time in their K-12 educational careers.”

When I write about charter schools, I inevitably receive critical comments. That’s fine – indeed, that’s what this blog is all about. But why has homeschooling fared so much more successfully in the public square than other forms of educational choice?

It’s a sincere question. I’d love to know what you think.








  1. Steven Asay

    I believe that home schooling flies low. Vouchers and charter schools both are very much in the public eye and require someone to talk to somebody to get approval. But homeschoolers just keep the kids at home. There are groups that form up, but they are usually private. There are some schools that bring a group of homeschoolers together for a part of the day, but they are not chartered and seem to be run more like a cooperative. I know a number of kids that have been homeschooled. I just hope that the parents are staying on top of what is happening in schools so that their kids are able to stay on top of things when they finish.

  2. Carolyn Sharette

    It’s all about the money I am afraid. All the opposition to charter schools centers around the fact that many in the education field believe all the taxpayer dollars for education are rightfully theirs and they should, and must control each and every one. Here I refer to large and powerful lobbies and unions – UEA, NEA, School Board Associations, etc. They are adamant that the taxpayer dollar earmarked for education must go through their hands and be controlled by their organizations.

    Hence, when charters come in an “divert” the money away from their control (how they see it) they cannot accept it and it is their #1 agenda item to stop it. Vouchers are even worse in their mind than charters because charters are at least “public school”, making those dollars that flow to charter schools subject to all the ridiculousness, beauracratic red tape, and constraints as it is in the districts. But with vouchers the money goes to schools that are largely outside of all that “control” and that is the primary objection.

    Homeschool barely gets the blood pressure up at all because they are not getting any of the money, and the homeschool movement decreases class sizes for the teachers. So why would they complain?

    The unions and organizations that make up public education have only one primary objective – consolidating the control and funding of public education – which is a multibillion dollar business. This may sound harsh, but I have been in public education in Utah for 10 years, and in spite of really great academic outcomes for kids, we have had about a total of 3 people interested enough in what we are doing from the public ed side to visit our schools and ask how we are succeeding. This is evidence that for public ed people, it simply is NOT about student academic success (which should be their #1 priority, receiving all their time and attention). Another way I know that their focus is not on student success is because helping students achieve isn’t rocket science and we should be seeing MUCH higher reading levels among our 3rd graders, much higher math scores in all grades in Utah. This could quite easily be accomplished if our education sector was truly concerned about those things.

    Let me say here I am not talking about teachers when I talk about the power centers of the public education establishment. Teachers work hard (most of them) and are really not involved in the bigger picture. Unfortunately, too many of them are not as effective as they could be because their leaders will not lead, provide effective training and systems of accountability for them.

    But I wander from the topic – homeschool is not on the radar of the public school power centers because it doesn’t threaten their revenue stream – the protection of which is their #1 agenda item.

    • Mary McConnell

      You confirm my own guess, which is that homeschoolers do not threaten the revenue stream. Although there are competing numbers out there about fiscal impact, most studies indicate that homeschooling means more resources for public schools. Those parents still pay property taxes, and the per capita revenue loss is less than the additional cost these students would add.

      Interestingly, homeschool curriculum is now a multi-billion business, too . . . and a good place for “real” school teachers to look for creative ideas.

    • Yak_Herder

      While I respect her position, I can not claim to agree with Carolyn’s characterization of public education (or unions for that matter).

      Full disclosure: I teach in the public school system. I am not now, nor have I ever been a member of a union.

      This argument is certainly rooted in money, but I don’t share in the view that it comes down to “control issues”. It’s about doing an “about face” on a decision that was made generations ago. Our forefathers determined that providing EVERYONE with an opportunity to learn, regardless of their individual ability to pay for it, was a worthy goal and our country has benefited greatly. Once a commitment to that ideal (“freely” educating all) was made, the public education began to be built and the associated taxes to pay for it were established. It was a rough fight back then, can you imagine the shenanigans that would go on if the proposal was being considered today?

      Public education is a huge expense and we’ve probably all thought of what a wonderful world it would be if we could spend that money elsewhere, but we all benefit from it. We benefit first from our own education and we benefit second from living among others who are educated.

      Public education in Utah is woefully underfunded. It has been for decades. That fact is so painfully apparent that I don’t even feel a need to provide evidence. We all know it to be true. We’re unwilling to pry open our wallets and then complain about the results. Opportunists with agendas of their own stir the dissent, deliberately creating an atmosphere in which the schools are said to be failing, further exacerbating the problem.

      I know public schools could be better. I spend my days trying my best to do that very thing. Not every reform effort that comes along is wise, but I sincerely hope the effort to improve things never ends. I’m not getting rich doing this. I don’t know of anyone who is. I understand the decision to “opt out” of the system. Moreover, I even champion that right. What I don’t understand, and have a very hard time living with, are those individuals who feel they can “opt out” of their responsibility to pay for it.

      If we focused as much effort and attention on figuring out how we can be more involved rather than shirk responsibility and do less, we’d actually get somewhere. In my world, we would ALL be home-schooled and public education would be seen in it’s proper role, an excellent resource to parents, helping them to fulfill their responsibility to educate their children.

      We don’t need to create new systems and competing organizations to achieve that. We simply need to use the one we have.

      • Mary McConnell

        Just a note – homeschoolers can’t opt out of paying for education. No one can.

      • Stephanie Sawyer

        I think Carolyn’s point was spot on; no public school entity feels too threatened by home-schoolers, since the public system is still getting their money. Same with private schools. Parents of students in private and parochial schools are paying twice – for the public school and for the private.
        Fact is, while Utah may be dead last in per-pupil funding by state, it’s not really correlative with anything quantitative, like graduation rates or NCLB AYP or AP pass rates, so I’m not sure why this always comes up as a negative. If funding were the panacea so many make it out to be, I would think we would see some sort of correlative measure with graduation rates in DC and New York, which have the highest per-pupil funding but not much to show for it.

        I don’t think anyone disagrees that there is a public benefit to public schooling, but I don’t think if you win the dollars-per-student contest you’re necessarily getting a corresponding return on investment.
        Where Carolyn really nails it is in her attribution of the issues at the school level stemming from the top-down bureaucracy of the district. And the districts take their cue from the state, and the state seems to fall for every reform effort that is not necessarily wise, as you acknowledge. How else would we have come up with logic-defying ideas like “reading is about comprehension, not sounding out words, so let’s ditch phonics,” as if the ability to decode a word isn’t a necessary step to comprehension via fluency. How else would we have been teaching that “writing should be caught not taught,” as if understanding the structure of language is not a stepping stone on the way to good writing? And why are we fighting the equivalent of the phonics vs. whole language wars anew with traditional vs. constructivist mathematics?

        Fact is, the local school takes the heat for the poor decisions by the powers-that-be at the district and state levels. I think this is where the frustration with the public school itself is coming from. Regular people don’t know who those high-level administrators are, so they blame who they immediately deal with – the school and the classroom teachers.

        Teachers don’t want to rock the boat; they fear for their jobs if they don’t jump in lock-step to the latest fad.
        To me, this is the saddest part of the whole sorry process. I know I’ve drifted off-topic here, but until the teachers at the school level are willing to do what they know is right versus what will preserve their jobs, this is the catch-22 we will be seeing over and over and over.

        And maybe this is also why no one really blames the home-schoolers for taking matters into their own hands.

      • Yak_Herder

        I have long held the opinion that the problems in education will NOT be solved by throwing more money at them. However, I also maintain that starving education of needed funds creates problems. In Utah, we are simply not meeting that minimum.

        We complain that public education is not up to snuff and in the next breath acknowledge that teacher in Utah are paid substantially less than teachers elsewhere. We talk about obtaining better results through lower class sizes and turn right around and have the largest class sizes in the nation. We talk about what a great job we do with the sparse funds but look the other way when we talk about adopting measurable indicators that will offer real comparisons. We compound the problem by administering state tests that are a poor evaluation of what is taught. We then completely lose our minds and start talking about paying teachers based on the results of those tests.

        Here’s an idea:
        Fund public schools in Utah at a median level and expect world class performance. We can do that. We get mediocre performance with minimal funding. Rather than complaining, maybe we should appreciate the bargain we’re getting. Expecting superior performance while providing inferior funding is simply not rational.

        Yes, parents of children in private and parochial schools are paying twice (for tuition) and that is their choice. But taxes for public education are for much more than just tuition. We continue to pay for the school system long after our children have graduated for a reason. Far more than tuition, we pay for the privilege of living in an educated society. If you’ve somehow lost perspective on the value of that, try living elsewhere without it for a bit.

        Public education is subjected to a regular parade of new ideas and programs. You don’t have to be a teacher for very long to see the pattern. Neither does it take long to figure out how to respond to them.

        The latest “great idea” in education: Grading Schools. While it may sound good at first blush, I can’t think of another recent “reform” that is more destructive or misleading. Maybe it is time for a blog on that.

  3. Stephanie Sawyer

    To your exit question, Mary: I think there is a tradition of homeschooling that predates our public schools. As a society, we went along with Catholic schools for the immigrants and so that door has been opened. In an age of hyper-regulation, we do see more challenges to homeschooling, but the homeschoolers still generally come out okay. I’m thinking of some challenge that came up in California, but was swatted down. Maybe. I’d have to do some research and I’m just not up to that right now!
    If I could afford the loss of my paycheck, I am sure I would be homeschooling our kids. I do to a certain extent anyway. The math and history (my major and minor) are lacking in my children’s education. I fill in where I can. It’s hardly as rigorous as I’d like, but I’ll supplement where I can.

    • Mary McConnell

      Math and history drove me to home school. My older daughter was falling increasingly behind in math, which worried me. When I started homeschooling her in fifth grade, I moved her back into a fourth grade textbook. Six months later she was finishing Algebra 1, and there was no looking back after that. She ended up taking IB Math/BC Calculus in high school and more advanced math in college, and majored in (math-rich) economics as well as government. I don’t think I deserve much, if any credit for this . . . except that I made her stick with topics until she mastered them, and do a lot of review problems. Harriet’s own snarky conclusion: “I can do math perfectly well if someone will explain it to me clearly, then let me do it in a quiet room without any little colored sticks.” My biggest contribution to my other daughter’s math education was forcing her to retake Algebra 1, when she was clearly floundering. She, too, went on to take a lot of higher math in high school and college for her science major.

      On the other hand, I did NOT succesed in getting my third child to like or work very hard at math (except statistics, which he loved). And my kids’ subsequent progress owes a huge debt to a series of first rate math teachers. One of the reasons I stopped homeschooling was that I really didn’t feel competent to teach calculus. I’d taken it too long ago, and my (since forgotten) mastery of the slide rule wasn’t going to help anyone master the TI-89.

      As for history, it was barely taught at all at the private school our kids attended in Chicago. I remember one parent telling us fervent, “thank God for Black History month. It’s the only history they get! Two of my three kids adored a homeschool curriculum essentially based on history, which was MY subject. My future scientist groused a little at the time, but ended up taking a bunch of history electives in college and loving them. Again, some great professors deserve more credit for that than I do.

      • Stephanie Sawyer

        The best-laid plans and good intentions and all… I think you deserve some of the credit for those successes with your children! You are the one who recognized where the gaps and shortfalls were, and understanding that math is scaffolded, you made them learn to grasp the level that was slowing them down.
        My older two are dealing with the common core math in public school, and I find that I have to occasionally step in to fill in some gaps because by immersing these kids in it (CCSM) at 8th and 9th grade without the requisite groundwork that was supposed to happen in elementary school, they have some gaps, but nothing too overwhelming.

        My youngest, however, is a victim of the Everday Math curriculum, an incoherent hodge-podge of all kinds of math concepts where nothing is done long enough to master, and the next segment has no relationship to the previous segment.
        I tell a story about my 4th-grade son: he had a homework assignment in which he was asked to convert 568 inches to feet. So being the procrastinator he is, he was working on this during the drive to school. He said to me, “I need to divide by 12, because inches in groups of 12 are feet.” I said, “Great, do it already.”

        The boy came back with, “I don’t know how. I only know up to 12 times 12. But wait, I think I can figure this out.”

        Seven agonizing minutes later, he came up with “It’s 47 feet 4 inches.” You know how he did this? He did iterated subtraction of 144 from the 568. He was tallying his 12’s somewhere else. He had to do an 11 once, because one of the results of his subtraction was 136. So basically, he made and put together a jigsaw puzzle that he could have done in less than a minute if he had known how to do long division.
        Needless to say, this irked me.
        That day we went home from school and learned long division! And he now has a Kumon workbook of long division to develop this skill to mastery.
        I suppose the proponents of constructivist math would call this a success, but I have to disagree. This was a ridiculous waste of time; he knew what to do, but couldn’t do it efficiently. He had to rely on the “personal strategies” that crop up all over the common core for math.
        I just have to wonder how many 4th-graders were able to do this problem without their parents helping them? And if the parents did try to help, they are just thinking, duh, divide by 12! But then finding out that a 4th grader (in Novemeber)can’t divide yet…

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