Parents and Teachers Starting “Learning Pods” Are Done Waiting for Permission

The widespread “pandemic pods” that are emerging as back-to-school alternatives this fall are models of parental ingenuity, educator adaptability, and entrepreneurial agility.

These learning pods, or in-home microschools, involve small groups of families coming together to take turns facilitating a curriculum for their children in their homes, or pooling resources to hire a teacher or college student to lead instruction. They are a creative, spontaneous response to uncertain or undesirable school reopening plans that make at-home learning easier, more practical, and more enjoyable for more families.

These pods are also a prime example of what Adam Thierer calls “permissionless innovation,” where new solutions and discoveries are born without explicit regulatory blessings. In his book, Thierer explains: “The best solutions to complex social problems are almost always organic and ‘bottom-up’ in nature.”

The organic and bottom-up nature of the pandemic pod trend has the potential to dramatically reshape American education, now and into the future. Parents are reassuming control of their children’s education, opting out of centralized school systems, and challenging regulatory regimes.

New Hampshire Commissioner of Education, Frank Edelblut, sees these pods and microschools as promising signs of education transformation. “They are decentralizing education, moving away from a central bureaucracy,” he told me in a recent interview. “Parents and teachers are creating microschools that are reflective of the goals and aspirations of the families who engage in them,” he says.

At a time of such educational turmoil and societal disruption, parents, educators, and policymakers should embrace the idea of “permissionless innovation” regarding pods, encouraging enterprising individuals to experiment and create.

Entrepreneurs are already rising to the occasion, with startups such as SchoolHouse and Weekdays acting as managed marketplaces to connect educators and parents who are now forming pods and microschools. As Thierer writes: “For innovation and growth to blossom, entrepreneurs need a clear green light from policymakers that signals a general acceptance of risk-taking—especially risk-taking that challenges existing business models and traditional ways of doing things. That’s permissionless innovation in a nutshell…”

In some places, these pandemic pods are accepted and encouraged.

In New Hampshire, for instance, existing homeschooling law allows for these pods to emerge, even if their terminology and context are new. Parents submit a simple home education intent form and then customize a home learning plan in whatever way they choose, including forming pods and microschools. “This is totally legitimate in New Hampshire,” says Edelblut, who homeschooled his own children in the state. “Homeschooling law here says that parents are responsible for their child’s education, but they can work with other teachers and parents in homes or elsewhere in the community,” he says. Perhaps not surprisingly, New Hampshire is seeing surging interest in homeschooling this summer.

Pandemic pods show the remarkable ability of free individuals to self-organize to solve societal problems, without government interference. Lindsey Burke at the Heritage Foundation explains that these pods are civil society’s response to the pandemic and its impact on education. Burke recently hosted an online panel discussion to help parents and educators create more of these pods. She told me: “These pods show that parents are ready to and capable of directing their children’s education, and that while too many districts are still determining whether or not to reopen schools, parents aren’t waiting around any longer.”

Jason Bedrick of EdChoice, which co-hosted the pod-building webinar, agrees that these pods are a source of parental empowerment. He believes that pods are here to stay. According to Bedrick: “There’s a reason that microschooling was already taking off before the pandemic: they’re adaptable, affordable, and can provide a great deal of high-quality, personalized instruction. Most of the new ‘podders’ wouldn’t have considered this form of education but for the pandemic, but I anticipate that a significant portion of them will continue microschooling once the pandemic is over.”

Pandemic pods are positioned to dramatically redesign education. As parents realize that they are capable of guiding their children’s education, and can collaborate with others toward this end, they will be more skeptical of inefficient, coercive, one-size-fits-all government schooling. They will also demand that education dollars get redistributed more equitably, ensuring that all parents, regardless of income, have the opportunity to take advantage of pods, microschools, and similar educational options. As Burke says: “States need to work quickly to make sure children from low-income families in particular have the same chances to form pods or enroll in microschools, and should work to provide education savings accounts (ESAs) to all families immediately.”

Policymakers should work to expand education choice and encourage innovation, while parents, educators, and entrepreneurs continue to craft new and better education models. When it comes to creating pandemic pods, parents don’t need to raise their hands to ask for permission to do what is best for their children.

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Get Ready to Homeschool This Fall

As schools and districts across the country finalize back-to-school plans amidst the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, some parents are instead choosing independent homeschooling. My inbox has been filling lately with messages from parents who may never before have considered homeschooling but are worried about their children’s potential exposure to the virus at school. Others are turned off by social distancing requirements being implemented by many schools, such as wearing masks all day and limiting interactions with peers.

Fortunately, research shows low infection rates for children, who seem to avoid the virus’s worst outcomes. New findings out of Germany, where schools have been reopened for several weeks, also suggest low infection rates for young people. Despite these encouraging signs, more parents are looking for schooling alternatives. As The New York Times reported recently, “a growing number of families are thinking about home schooling this fall.”

Here are six tips for parents considering homeschooling for this academic year:

1. Investigate Local Homeschooling Requirements

Many school districts recognize what a challenging time this is for families and are offering flexible back-to-school options, such as continuing with distance learning or allowing for part-time, in-person attendance. Some parents might find that these options work for them, and they can continue with remote learning tied to the child’s school. Other parents, however, may choose to go off on their own, separating from their school or district. In this case, parents will need to comply with local homeschooling regulations, which in most states involves registering as an independent homeschooler with local or state officials.

Connect with homeschoolers near you. Grassroots homeschooling groups and networks have reported surging interest during the pandemic, and these resources will provide the most relevant, up-to-date support and information. Search for Facebook groups in your area (by state, city or region), or Google homeschooling resources in your location. Nearby homeschoolers will be able to share the nitty-gritty on how to register and report as a homeschooling family, as well as offer guidance on curriculum, approach, learning tools and nearby classes and activities.

2. Consider Your Educational Goals and Approach

Some parents may see homeschooling this fall as a temporary measure and plan to re-enroll their children in school once the pandemic ends. These parents may feel most comfortable following a standard curriculum that reflects typical grade level expectations. Other parents may opt for an eclectic approach, blending some formal curriculum with a variety of informal resources and learning tools. Still others may want to use this time to “deschool,” or move away from a schooled mindset of education toward an unschooled approach where a child’s interests and curiosity drive much of the learning.

Independent homeschooling allows for maximum freedom and flexibility, so you can decide how structured or unstructured you want your homeschooling experience to be.

3. Discover Curriculum and Learning Tools

There are so many curriculum offerings and educational tools to choose from that it can feel daunting. The pandemic itself has led to many more free online learning resources. Here is some curriculum guidance by grade cohort:

For preschoolers and kindergarteners, play should be the foundation of your homeschooling environment. Allow your child’s incessant questioning to guide learning, and read lots of books together. Here is a good list of books as your children are just beginning to identify sight words, sound out words and read simple stories. And here are some great books for early independent readers. The But Why? Podcast from Vermont Public Radio is an excellent resource and an enjoyable listen for both parents and kids. Sparkle Stories also offers a wonderful collection of original audio stories for young children.

For elementary ages (PreK-6), the Brain Quest workbooks by grade level offer abundant activities that are aligned with state curriculum standards so your child can stay on track with daily learning. Free, online tools, such as Prodigy Math for math learning, Duolingo for foreign language learning and MIT’s Scratch and Scratch Jr. for introductory computer programming, are playful and interactive educational platforms. Outschool offers thousands of low-cost, online classes for children of all ages. Classes are taught live by educators over Zoom and you can search by subject, age and day/time.

Many of the above-mentioned resources will also work well for middle school age children (typically grades 5-8), but there are some other resources for this group. Khan Academy is the leader in free, online learning videos in a variety of subjects, and is especially known for its math programming that is used in many schools throughout the U.S. Parents and kids can track progress and identify strengths and weaknesses. Khan Academy has also added new features and functionality as a result of the pandemic, including daily learning schedules for children ages 2 to 18. NoRedInk, is a free, online writing curriculum with a paid premium option that provides writing and grammar lessons for middle schoolers and above. Additionally, here is a good list of middle-grade fiction books to encourage your kids to read.

For high school age learners, Khan Academy continues to be a good resource for free, advanced math instruction and practice, and here are some suggested books for high schoolers to read. While some high school age students may want to take classes through a local community college, others may want to enroll in a full-time, diploma-issuing, accredited online high school, such as Arizona State University Prep Digital.

Some high school homeschoolers may benefit from year-long, online courses in a variety of subjects. Thinkwell offers classes for homeschoolers taught by acclaimed professors in subjects ranging from high school and Advanced Placement mathematics and science to American Government, Economics and even public speaking. Blue Tent Online also offers year-long, online high school and Advanced Placement math and science courses for homeschoolers, as well as high school and Advanced Placement English classes.

Teenagers may want to use this time to build skills in an area of interest or develop knowledge related to a career goal. Classes and certifications offered by prestigious colleges and universities through EdX and Coursera (many of which are free), are worth exploring. Teenagers may also consider becoming entrepreneurs, developing a business around a personal passion or unmet need in their neighborhood.

4. Explore Neighborhood Resources

Most homeschoolers will tell you that the pandemic has caused just as much disruption in their lives and learning as it has for everyone else. Being disconnected from the people, places and things of our communities has been tough on all of us. Typically, homeschoolers spend much of their time outside of their homes gathering with friends, learning from teachers and mentors in the community, engaging in classes and extracurricular activities, visiting libraries and museums and so on. According to recent research by Daniel Hamlin at the University of Oklahoma: “Relative to public school students, homeschooled students are between two and three times more likely to visit an art gallery, museum, or historical site; visit a library; or attend an event sponsored by a community, religious, or ethnic group. Homeschooled students are also approximately 1.5 times more likely to visit a zoo, aquarium, or bookstore during the course of a month.”

This fall will likely be a very different homeschooling experience, as classes are more limited or non-existent, and libraries, museums and similar organizations operate with social distancing restrictions. Still, it’s worth seeing what in-person daytime programming and resources will be available near you. Again, connecting with local homeschooling networks through Facebook and elsewhere can help.

5. Collaborate With Others

Many parents are working from home during the pandemic, and may continue to do so indefinitely, which can make learning at home this fall more practical but also challenging. While many parents work and homeschool too, it can take some flexibility and planning. Viewing your role as a facilitator rather than a curriculum-enforcer, collaborating with other local parents and neighbors, relying on babysitters and being creative with your fall learning plan will make homeschooling in 2020 more feasible and fulfilling.

Some parents are connecting with others in their neighborhood to form small homeschool microschools this fall. As Good Morning America recently reported, the microschool movement is growing during the pandemic. Microschools are usually home-based, multi-age learning communities with no more than a dozen children that are facilitated by one or more instructors and/or parent guides. Parents may take turns teaching and supervising a small group of children in their homes, or they may band together to hire a teacher or college student to help. A modern take on homeschool co-ops, microschools can make homeschooling this fall a reality for more families who are eager for this option.

6. Enjoy This Moment!

This is an unprecedented time and a historic moment for our children. They will tell stories to their children and grandchildren about what it was like to live and learn through the 2020 pandemic. Experimenting with homeschooling this fall can offer some certainty and continuity in what is otherwise a tumultuous time. This doesn’t have to be a long-term commitment. Enjoy this time at home with your children, watch their curiosity and creativity grow and don’t feel pressure to replicate school-at-home. Learning and schooling are very different things.

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"Pandemic Pods" Make Homeschooling Easier For Parents and Profitable for Teachers

This tumultuous back-to-school season has parents and teachers alike scrambling to make sense of the madness: from ever-changing district directives to COVID-19 response protocols. Some school systems have announced that the academic year will start with remote-learning-only. Others are pursuing partial reopening options with both online and in-person instruction. Still others are planning to fully reopen for in-person learning.

Amid this chaos, parents and teachers are increasingly opting out of the conventional classroom entirely to find or create schooling alternatives this fall.

Parents have been vocal about their back-to-school concerns, with growing numbers of them choosing to homeschool this fall rather than contending with remote learning options or confronting viral exposure and dystopian social distancing measures in schools.

But it’s not just parents who have back-to-school worries. Many teachers, too, don’t want to go back and are upset at reopening plans.

Teachers’ unions are now battling districts over these plans. In Florida, where schools are scheduled to fully reopen for in-person learning next month, the state’s largest teachers’ union sued the governor and education commissioner this week. The Florida union is asking for smaller class sizes and more protective gear for teachers.

More parents and teachers are choosing to avoid this bureaucratic mess altogether and are pursuing their own educational solutions.

Entrepreneurial Educators Build A Better Way

Some parents are hiring tutors to augment their homeschooling experience this fall, and entrepreneurial teachers are serving that need and cashing in on the opportunity. One high school English teacher in Illinois, who asked to remain anonymous, told me that she made $49,000 a year teaching 9th grade and AP English, but several families have approached her for private tutoring and she realizes she can make more money as a private tutor, with fewer hours and more flexibility.

In addition to homeschooling, some parents are forming pandemic “pods,” or home-based microschools that allow a handful of families to take turns teaching their children or pool resources to hire a teacher or college student. The Wall Street Journal reports that these pods are sprouting throughout the country, fueled by parental unrest at school reopening plans and facilitated by informal Facebook groups connecting local families.

Recognizing this mounting demand for schooling alternatives this fall, entrepreneurial educators are helping to create more options for families. In Maryland, longtime educators Steven Eno and Ned Courtemanche created Impact Connections, a microschool enabler connecting educators and parents and providing learning support.

“COVID-19 exposed so many of the shortcomings we already knew about in education but also presented new opportunities to step up and help parents and their kids,” Eno told me in a recent interview. “Microschools offer a powerful, and largely untapped, opportunity to educate our kids in the COVID era and beyond. The best microschools offer highly-personalized instruction that is free of curricular red tape for a fraction of the price…,” he says.

The legality of these pandemic pods and microschools is sometimes unclear. As a new model that blends features of homeschool co-ops with small, private schools, regulations in many places haven’t caught up. Additionally, the sheer numbers of parents choosing not to send their kids back to school this fall, and the pandemic’s overall disruption, may make enforcement of any existing regulations more difficult.

This presents an ideal moment for what Adam Thierer calls “evasive entrepreneurship,” where entrepreneurs push boundaries and challenge existing systems. Thierer writes in his book, Evasive Entrepreneurs:

Increasingly today, evasive entrepreneurs–innovators who don’t always conform to social or legal norms–are using new technological capabilities to circumvent traditional regulatory systems, or at least to put pressure on public policymakers to reform or selectively enforce laws and regulations that are outmoded, inefficient, or illogical. Evasive entrepreneurs rely on a strategy of permissionless innovation in both the business world and the political arena. They push back against ‘the Permission Society,’ or the convoluted labyrinth of permits and red tape that often encumber entrepreneurial activities. In essence, evasive entrepreneurs live out the adage that ‘it is easier to ask for forgiveness than it is to get permission’ by creating exciting new products and services without necessarily receiving the blessing of public officials before doing so.

Not Just For The Wealthy

Criticism over these private education options has surged over the past few weeks, as commentators claim that homeschooling and pandemic pods will widen gaps between higher- and lower-income families. An op-ed in The New York Times this week decried these private pods, saying “they will exacerbate inequities, racial segregation and the opportunity gap within schools.” These criticisms ignore the fact that some parents create no-cost pods in which they take turns educating their children in a co-op format, and as an article in today’s New York Times points out, “the population of home-schoolers — before the pandemic — was less affluent than average.” Homeschooling, and its current “podding” variation, are not just for the wealthy.

Moreover, if education funding supported students rather than school bureaucracies, more families would get access to an array of education options–including these new models and ones that have yet to be invented. Taxpayers spend about $700 billion each year on US K-12 education. If that money was redistributed to families in the form of education savings accounts (ESAs), vouchers, tax-credit scholarship programs, and other education choice mechanisms, parents would have many more options beyond an assigned district school.

Corey DeAngelis, Director of School Choice at the Reason Foundation, has written and spoken much about this, stating: “More families would have access to these alternatives if education funding followed children to wherever they receive their educations. Teachers could also benefit from such a system, which would likely offer them smaller class sizes, more autonomy, and higher salaries.”

The COVID-19 pandemic is disrupting many of the systems and structures that have prevented choice and innovation in the past. Frustrated parents, along with entrepreneurial educators, have the opportunity to experiment with new models of teaching and learning, and education choice policies will make these new models accessible to any family that wants them.

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Back to School? “No Thanks” Say Millions of New Homeschooling Parents

Next month marks the beginning of the 2020/2021 academic year in several US states, and pressure is mounting to reopen schools even as the COVID-19 pandemic persists. Florida, for example, is now considered the nation’s No. 1 hot spot for the virus; yet on Monday, the state’s education commissioner issued an executive order mandating that all Florida schools open in August with in-person learning and their full suite of student services.

Many parents are balking at back-to-school, choosing instead to homeschool their children this fall.

Gratefully, this virus seems to be sparing most children, and prominent medical organizations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics have urged schools to reopen this fall with in-person learning. For some parents, fear of the virus itself is a primary consideration in delaying a child’s return to school, especially if the child has direct contact with individuals who are most vulnerable to COVID-19’s worst effects.

But for many parents, it’s not the virus they are avoiding by keeping their children home—it’s the response to the virus.

In May, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued school reopening guidelines that called for:

  • Strict social distancing tactics
  • All-day mask wearing for most students and teachers
  • Staggered attendance
  • Daily health checks
  • No gym or cafetaria use
  • Restricted playground access and limited toy-sharing, and
  • Tight controls on visitors to school buildings, including parents.

School districts across the country quickly adopted the CDC’s guidelines, devising their reopening plans accordingly. Once parents got wind of what the upcoming school-year would look like, including the real possibility that at any time schools could be shut down again due to virus spikes, they started exploring other options.

For Florida mother, Rachael Cohen, these social distancing expectations and pandemic response measures prompted her to commit to homeschooling her three children, ages 13, 8, and 5, this fall.

“Mandated masks, as well as rigid and arbitrary rules and requirements regarding the use and location of their bodies, will serve to dehumanize, disconnect, and intimidate students,” Cohen told me in a recent interview.

She is endeavoring to expand schooling alternatives in her area and is currently working to create a self-directed learning community for local homeschoolers that emphasizes nature-based, experiential education. “There is quite a lot of interest,” she says.

According to a recent USA Today/Ipsos poll, 60 percent of parents surveyed said they will likely choose at-home learning this fall rather than send their children to school even if the schools reopen for in-person learning. Thirty percent of parents surveyed said they were “very likely” to keep their children home.

While some of these parents may opt for an online version of school-at-home tied to their district, many states are seeing a surge in the number of parents withdrawing their children from school in favor of independent homeschooling. From coast to coast, and everywhere in between, more parents are opting out of conventional schooling this year, citing onerous social distancing requirements as a primary reason.

Indeed, so many parents submitted notices of intent to homeschool in North Carolina last week that it crashed the state’s nonpublic education website.

Other parents are choosing to delay their children’s school enrollment, with school districts across the country reporting lower than average kindergarten registration numbers this summer.

School officials are cracking down in response.

Concerned about declining enrollments and parents reassuming control over their children’s education, some school districts are reportedly trying to block parents from removing their children from school for homeschooling.

In England, it’s even worse. Government officials there are so worried about parents refusing to send their children back to school this fall that the education secretary just announced fines for all families who keep their children home in violation of compulsory schooling laws. “We do have to get back into compulsory education and obviously fines sit alongside as part of that,” English secretary Gavin Williamson announced.

When school officials resort to force in order to ensure compliance, it should prompt parents to look more closely at their child’s overall learning environment. Parents have the utmost interest in ensuring their children’s well-being, both physically and emotionally, and their concerns and choices should be respected and honored.

After several months of learning at home with their children, parents may not be so willing to comply with district directives and may prefer other, more individualized education options. Pushed into homeschooling this spring by the pandemic, many parents are now going willingly, and eagerly, down this increasingly popular educational path.

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5 Things I Learned Debating the Harvard Prof Who Called for a “Presumptive Ban” on Homeschooling

On Monday, I debated the Harvard professor who proposes a “presumptive ban” on homeschooling. Thousands of viewers tuned in to watch the live, online discussion hosted by the Cato Institute. With 1,000 submitted audience questions, the 90-minute webinar only scratched the surface of the issue about who is presumed to know what is best for children: parents or the state. Here is the replay link in case you missed it.

Last week, I outlined much of my argument against Harvard Law School professor Elizabeth Bartholet that I incorporated into our debate, but here are five takeaways from Monday’s discussion:

1. There Are People Who Believe the State Should Be Your Co-Parent

While this event was framed as a discussion about homeschooling, including whether and how to regulate the practice, it is clear that homeschooling is just a strawman. The real issue focuses on the role of government in people’s lives, and in particular in the lives of families and children. In her 80-page Arizona Law Review article that sparked this controversy, Professor Bartholet makes it clear that she is seeking a reinterpretation of the US Constitution, which she calls “outdated and inadequate,” to move from its existing focus on negative rights, or individuals being free from state intervention, to positive rights where the state takes a much more active role in citizens’ lives.

During Monday’s discussion, Professor Bartholet explained that “some parents can’t be trusted to not abuse and neglect their children,” and that is why “kids are going to be way better off if both parent and state are involved.” She said her argument focuses on “the state having the right to assert the rights of the child to both education and protection.” Finally, Professor Bartholet said that it’s important to “have the state have some say in protecting children and in trying to raise them so that the children have a decent chance at a future and also are likely to participate in some positive, meaningful ways in the larger society.”

It’s true that the state has a role in protecting children from harm, but does it really have a role in “trying to raise them”? And if the state does have a role in raising children to be competent adults, then the fact that two-thirds of US schoolchildren are not reading proficiently, and more than three-quarters are not proficient in civics, should cause us to be skeptical about the state’s ability to ensure competence.

I made the point on Monday that we already have an established government system to protect children from abuse and neglect. The mission of Child Protective Services (CPS) is to investigate suspected child abuse and punish perpetrators. CPS is plagued with problems and must be dramatically reformed, but the key is to improve the current government system meant to protect children rather than singling out homeschoolers for additional regulation and government oversight. This is particularly true when there is no compelling evidence that homeschooling parents are more likely to abuse their children than non-homeschooling parents, and some research to suggest that homeschooling parents are actually less likely to abuse their children.

Additionally, and perhaps most disturbingly, this argument for more state involvement in the lives of homeschoolers ignores the fact that children are routinely abused in government schools by government educators, as well as by school peers. If the government can’t even protect children enrolled in its own heavily regulated and surveilled schools, then how can it possibly argue for the right to regulate and monitor those families who opt out?

2. Random Home Visits Will Be a Weapon of the State

Of all the recommendations included in the Harvard professor’s proposed presumptive ban on homeschooling, the one that caused the most uproar among both homeschoolers and libertarians was the call for regular home visits of homeschooling families, with no evidence of wrongdoing.

In my remarks during Monday’s debate, I included a quote from a Hispanic homeschooling mother in Connecticut who was particularly angry and concerned about imposing home visits on homeschooling families. (According to federal data, Hispanics make up about one-quarter of the overall US homeschooling population, mirroring their representation in the general US K-12 school-age population.) She made the important point that minority families are increasingly choosing homeschooling to escape discrimination and an inadequate academic environment in local schools. She also pointed out that, tragically, it is often minorities who are most seriously impacted by these seemingly well-meaning government regulations. Writing to me about Professor Bartholet’s recommendation, she said:

“To state that they want to have surveillance into our homes by having government officials visit, and have parents show proof of their qualified experience to be a parent to their own child is yet another way for local and federal government to do what they have done to native Americans, blacks, the Japanese, Hispanics, etc in the past. Her proposal would once again interfere and hinder a certain population from progressing forward.”

Anyone who cares about liberty and a restrained government should be deeply troubled by the idea of periodic home visits by government agents on law-abiding citizens.

3. Private Education Is in Danger

Despite the landmark 1925 US Supreme Court decision that ruled it unconstitutional to ban private schools, there remains lingering support for limiting or abolishing private education and forcing all children to attend government schools. Homeschooling is just one form of private education.

In her law review article, Professor Bartholet recommends “private school reform,” suggesting that private schools may have similar issues to homeschooling but saying that this topic is “beyond the scope” of her article. Still, she concludes her article by stating that “to the degree public schools are seriously deficient, our society should work on improving them, rather than simply allowing some parents to escape.”

The government should work to improve its own schools, where academic deficiencies and abuse are pervasive. But it should have no role in deciding whether or not parents are allowed to escape.

4. State Standardized Testing Begs the Question: Whose Standard?

Some advocates of homeschooling regulation suggest that requiring regular standardized testing of homeschoolers would be a reasonable compromise. In her law review article, Professor Bartholet recommends: “Testing of homeschoolers on a regular basis, at least annually, to assess educational progress, with tests selected and administered by public school authorities; permission to continue homeschooling conditioned on adequate performance, with low scores triggering an order to enroll in school.”

During Monday’s debate, I asked the question: By whose standard are we judging homeschoolers’ academic performance? Is it by the standard of the government schools, where so many children are failing to meet the very academic standards the government has created? I pointed out that many parents choose homeschooling because they disapprove of the standards set by government schools. For example, in recent years schools have pushed literacy expectations to younger and younger children, with kindergarteners now being required to read. If they fail to meet this arbitrary standard, many children are labeled with a reading deficiency when it could just be that they are not yet developmentally ready to read.

Indeed, as The New York Times reported in 2015: “Once mainly concentrated among religious families as well as parents who wanted to release their children from the strictures of traditional classrooms, home schooling is now attracting parents who want to escape the testing and curriculums that have come along with the Common Core, new academic standards that have been adopted by more than 40 states.”

A key benefit of homeschooling is avoiding standardization in learning and allowing for a much more individualized education. And it seems to be working. Most of the research on homeschooling families conducted over the past several decades, including a recent literature review by Dr. Lindsey Burke of the Heritage Foundation, finds positive academic outcomes of homeschooling children.

5. Homeschoolers Will Win

There are very few movements today that bring together such a diverse group of people as homeschooling does. Families of all political persuasions, from all corners of the country, reflecting many different races, ethnicities, classes, cultures, values, and ideologies, and representing a multitude of different learning philosophies and approaches choose homeschooling for the educational freedom and flexibility it provides. Homeschoolers may not agree on much, but preserving the freedom to raise and educate their children as they choose is a unifying priority. In times of division, homeschoolers offer hope and optimism that liberty will prevail.

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My Upcoming Debate with the Harvard Professor Who Wants a “Presumptive Ban” on Homeschooling

When I told my 13-year-old homeschooled daughter that I would be participating in an upcoming debate with the Harvard professor who recommends a “presumptive ban” on homeschooling, she asked incredulously, “Why would anyone want to prevent people from homeschooling?”

I told her that some people worry that children could be abused or neglected by parents who choose to homeschool, which is why in a recent Arizona Law Review article, Harvard Law School professor Elizabeth Bartholet called for a “presumptive ban” on the practice, allowing the state to grant permission to homeschool only after parents first prove that they are worthy of the task and after they also agree to other state interventions, such as regular home visits by government “mandated reporters” of child abuse and ensuring that their children still take at least some classes at their local government school.

My daughter was baffled. I asked her what she thinks my response to the professor should be in the upcoming discussion hosted by the Cato Institute on Monday, June 15th, that will be livestreamed to the public. She said that many of the young people who attend the self-directed learning center for homeschoolers where my daughter and her siblings take classes chose homeschooling to escape abuse in their previous school. Many of them were bullied by peers or otherwise unhappy there, and homeschooling has been a positive game-changer for them. “Maybe the professor doesn’t really know homeschoolers,” my daughter said. “You should explain to her what it’s really like.”

That is what I intend to do. My argument in favor of homeschooling and against “presumptive bans” and regulation hinges on three primary principles:

Principle 1: Today’s Homeschoolers Are Diverse, Engaged, and Competent

As my daughter suggested, opponents of homeschooling or those who believe in greater state authority over the practice may not really know a lot about today’s homeschoolers. Stereotypes of homeschoolers as isolated radicals were rarely true even a generation ago when homeschooling became legally recognized in all US states by the mid-1990s, and they are even less true now.

Twenty-first-century homeschoolers are increasingly reflective of the overall US population, demographically, geographically, ideologically, and socioeconomically. They choose homeschooling for a wide variety of reasons, but a top motivator cited by homeschooling parents in the most recent US Department of Education data on the topic is “concern about the environment of other schools, including safety, drugs, and negative peer pressure.” Only 16 percent of homeschooling parents in this nationally representative sample chose a “desire to provide religious instruction” as their top motivator. Much of the growth in homeschooling over the past decade has come from urban, secular families seeking a different, more custom-fit educational environment for their kids.

Homeschoolers are diverse in many ways, from their reasons for homeschooling, to the educational philosophies they embrace, to the curriculum they use (or don’t use). Homeschooling is also becoming much more racially and ethnically diverse, with federal data showing that one-quarter of the nearly two million US homeschoolers are Hispanic, which mirrors the population of Hispanic children in the overall US K-12 school-age population. Black homeschooling is also growing, with many African American parents choosing this education option for their children to “protect them from institutional racism and stereotyping.”

Additionally, recent research by Daniel Hamlin at the University of Oklahoma finds that homeschoolers are highly engaged in their communities with frequent opportunities to build “cultural capital” through regular visits to libraries, museums, and participation in cultural events. Hamlin states: “Relative to public school students, homeschooled students are between two and three times more likely to visit an art gallery, museum, or historical site; visit a library; or attend an event sponsored by a community, religious, or ethnic group. Homeschooled students are also approximately 1.5 times more likely to visit a zoo, aquarium, or bookstore during the course of a month.”

As the COVID-19 pandemic led to massive school shutdowns this spring, over 50 million US schoolchildren found themselves learning at home. Whether because of ongoing virus fears and concerns about school reopenings with strict social distancing requirements, or because they found learning at home more rewarding than they expected, many parents are seriously considering opting out of conventional schooling—at least in the short-term. A new poll by USA Today/Ipsos found that 60 percent of parents say they will likely choose at-home learning rather than sending their children to school in the fall even if they reopen.

Some of these parents may be glad to know that a recent literature review on homeschooling conducted by Lindsey Burke of the Heritage Foundation finds excellent academic outcomes for homeschooled students. She concludes that “the outcomes of those who homeschool, whether the result of homeschooling itself or other unobservable characteristics of families who homeschool such as greater parental involvement, shows positive academic outcomes for participants.”

The wide variety of reasons for and approaches to homeschooling means that subjecting homeschooling families to the education and oversight requirements of government schools, or requiring homeschoolers to take regular classes at these schools, imposes conformity on a population of families that is deeply heterogeneous. It may seem neat and easy to mandate government schooling regulations and expectations on families who opt out of this method, but it limits individuality, experimentation, and divergence. We may not like how different families choose to live and learn, but that is no excuse to intolerantly impose our own preferences on them through government force.

Principle 2: Parents Know Better Than the State

My husband and I chose homeschooling right from the beginning of our childrearing days, recognizing that it would provide a more expansive, interest-driven, academically challenging educational environment for our four children than would be possible in a conventional school. Instead of going to the same building every day, with the same static handful of teachers and the same age-segregated group of peers doing the same curriculum, our children are immersed in the people, places, and things of our city and, with the exception of this pandemic, spend much of their time outside of our home interacting with friends and mentors in our community. We rejected schooling from the start, but as my daughter suggests, many families use homeschooling as an exit ramp from an unsatisfactory or abusive schooling experience.

Peer abuse in the form of physical and emotional bullying is rampant in schools, and is one reason why some parents choose to withdraw their children from school for homeschooling. Data suggest that nearly half of children in grades four to 12 experience bullying at least once a month, and peer sexual assaults at school are alarmingly common. Depression and anxiety are rising among children and teens, and the youth suicide rate climbed 56 percent between 2007 and 2017. Researchers at Vanderbilt University found a strong seasonal relationship between youth suicide and school attendance, with suicidal acts and tendencies declining during the summer months and soaring at back-to-school time. This is an opposite pattern to adult suicide rates and tendencies, which peak in July and August.

Opponents of homeschooling point to rare examples of abuse or neglect by parents who identify (or who the state identifies) as homeschoolers to argue for heightened homeschool regulation. Yet, government schools are heavily regulated and surveilled, and abuse still regularly occurs there, and not only in the form of bullying.

Headlines abound of educators abusing children on school premises, and a 2004 US Department of Education study found that one in 10 children who attend a government school will be sexually abused by a government school employee by the time the child graduates from high school. Child abuse tragically happens in all types of settings, but some research suggests that homeschooled children are less likely to be abused than their schooled peers. This shouldn’t be surprising, as homeschooling parents are often choosing homeschooling, while making significant personal sacrifices, to ensure their child’s safety and well-being.

Child abuse is horrific and anyone convicted of this crime should be severely punished, but it is absurd to suggest that homeschooling parents need to be frequently monitored and evaluated by government officials who struggle to keep children safe within their own government institutions. Clean up your own house before telling others how to clean theirs.

Parents are not perfect and they do commit crimes, sometimes against their own children, just as educators sometimes commit crimes against the children in their schools. But if we are to grant power to families or to the state to protect children, we should side with families who have shown for millennia, well before governments were instituted, that they are capable of raising and educating their own children.

Principle 3: In America, We Have a Presumption of Innocence

Perhaps the most sinister aspect of proposals to presumptively ban or heavily regulate homeschoolers is the deep suspicion it betrays toward a group that chooses to live and learn differently. The suggestion is that because some tiny fraction of homeschooling parents could commit a crime against children then all homeschooling parents should be subject to increased scrutiny and surveillance. This says that homeschoolers should be presumed to be guilty until proven innocent, with frequent monitoring to ensure no wrongdoing.

We rightfully condemn racial profiling and other attempts to single out an entire group for increased suspicion out of concerns about the actions of a few. We should criticize efforts to monitor and control the beliefs and behaviors of people who live differently, valuing the pluralism of American culture. We must recognize the cost of trading individual liberty for some alleged security. It is a dangerous exchange.

If a parent, educator, or any person is suspected of abusing a child, then that individual should be arrested, charged, and tried. But to single out an entire group for pre-crime surveillance with no evidence of lawbreaking is wrong. Critics might argue that if homeschoolers have nothing to hide, they shouldn’t mind more state intrusion if it could protect children.

By this same logic, we should allow periodic police inspections of our homes to protect our neighborhoods and make sure none of us are thieves. If we have nothing to hide, we should allow the government to routinely read our emails and listen to our phone calls. We should be okay with stop-and-frisk. In a free society, we should not be okay with these violations of privacy that expand state power and make us less free and less safe.

The central question is what kind of society do we wish to live in? Do we want entire groups subject to special scrutiny and suspicion just because they are different? Do we want to accept a legal regime of guilty until proven innocent? Do we want government to serve families, or families to serve government? At the heart of a free society is tolerating difference and accepting diversity—in lifestyles, in beliefs, in values, and in parenting and educational practices.

Government schools have a lot to focus on, including reducing abuse in schools, raising reading scores, and getting more than 15 percent of students to be proficient in US history. Child advocates, educators, and policy makers should help these schoolchildren by making government schooling safer and more effective, while leaving homeschooling families alone.

Click here to register for Monday’s online discussion featuring Elizabeth Bartholet, Milton Gaither, Neal McCluskey, and me.

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