“Miss Virginia” Shows the Dilemma Many Lower-Income Families Face on Schooling

Every once in awhile, a film comes along that you can’t stop thinking about long after the credits roll. Miss Virginia is such a movie. With superb acting and heart-wrenching emotion, it features the true story of Virginia Walden Ford, a Washington, DC, mom who simply wanted better education options for her child and who would not tolerate mediocrity and the status quo.

Any parent can relate to Walden Ford’s story, so get ready to feel her anger and sorrow followed by joy and triumph. It is a powerful new film that everyone should watch.

The DC Voucher Program

Walden Ford was instrumental in helping to launch the Washington, DC, voucher program, giving low-income children access to funding to exit unsafe and low-quality public schools in favor of private options. The film is rooted in her experience of craving choice and encountering bureaucratic obstacles.

When she removes her teenage son from a failing public school and enrolls him in a nearby private school, Walden Ford feels hope and optimism despite needing to clean toilets and scrub floors to try to pay the tuition. Her hard work isn’t enough to pay the bill, though, and she is forced to leave the private school and re-enroll her son in the district school, where his potential is squandered.

When Walden Ford learns that the DC schools spend twice the amount of money per pupil than the cost of her son’s private school, she refuses to believe the prevailing rhetoric that public schools are chronically underfunded, and she seeks to establish a local school voucher program that gives disadvantaged families the opportunity to opt-out of mandatory school assignments in favor of private options.

Indeed, these are the options that more well-off families, including the legislator who opposes Walden Ford’s initiative, exercise all the time. Education choice programs extend these options to all families regardless of zip code and socioeconomic status.

Cost-Effective Programs

The DC voucher program came under attack in recent years as previous assessments showed that achievement scores for voucher students were lower on average than district school students. But the most recent evaluation of the program, released last spring, showed no difference in achievement scores between voucher and public school students in DC while costing taxpayers about one-third the money.

Moreover, Corey DeAngelis, Director of School Choice at the Reason Foundation, has discovered that participants in the DC voucher program reported much safer learning environments. He writes:

Students that won the voucher lottery and attended a private school were over 35 percent more likely to report that their schools were very safe. And parents of voucher-using students were about 36 percent more likely to report that their children were in very safe schools.

Students in the DC voucher program also had higher overall satisfaction levels with their schools and significantly lower absenteeism.

Choosing safe and satisfying schools for their children is a key priority for many parents. Affluent families exercise this choice all the time, selecting private schools that focus on their children’s well-being or moving to communities with safer, better schools. Lower-income parents, like Walden Ford, want the same opportunity to choose safer, better schools. The DC voucher program and others like it across the country offer more parents greater choice and peace of mind.

Miss Virginia is a must-watch film. Click here for more information and viewing options. Be forewarned that I needed some tissues while watching, but it was well worth a few tears, and a few dollars, to learn more about this incredible woman, her remarkable story, and the promise of education choice for all families.

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“We” Should Not Regulate Homeschooling

The desire to control other people’s ideas and behaviors, particularly when they challenge widely-held beliefs and customs, is one of human nature’s most nefarious tendencies. Socrates was sentenced to death for stepping out of line; Galileo almost was. But such extreme examples are outnumbered by the many more common, pernicious acts of trying to control people by limiting their individual freedom and autonomy. Sometimes these acts target individuals who dare to be different, but often they target entire groups who simply live differently. On both the political right and left, efforts to control others emerge in different flavors of limiting freedom—often with “safety” as the rationale. Whether it’s calls for Muslim registries or homeschool registries, fear of freedom is the common denominator.

A recent example of this was an NPR story that aired last week with the headline, “How Should We Regulate Homeschooling?” Short answer: “We” shouldn’t.

Learning Outside of Schools Is Safe

The episode recycled common claims in favor of increased government control of homeschooling, citing rare instances in which a child could be abused or neglected through homeschooling because of a lack of government oversight. Of course, this concern ignores the rampant abuse children experience by school teachers and staff people in government schools across the country.The idea that officials, who can’t prevent widespread abuse from occurring in public schools, should regulate homeschooling is misguided.

Just last month, for example, two public school teachers in California pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting a student, a public school teacher in New Mexico was convicted of sexually assaulting a second grader after already being convicted of sexually assaulting two fourth graders, two public school employees in Virginia were charged with abusing six, nonverbal special needs students, and the San Diego Unified School District in California is being sued because one of its teachers pleaded guilty to repeated sexual abuse and intimidation of a student.

Child abuse is horrific, regardless of where it takes place; but the idea that government officials, who can’t prevent widespread abuse from occurring in public schools, should regulate homeschooling is misguided. Many parents choose to homeschool because they believe that learning outside of schooling provides a safer, more nurturing, and more academically rigorous educational environment for their children. The top motivator of homeschooling families, according to the most recent data from the US Department of Education, is “concern about the environment of other schools.” Being regulated by the flawed government institution you are fleeing is statism at its worst.

Homeschooling Is Growing

Brian Ray, Ph.D., director of the National Home Education Research Institute, offered strong counterpoints in the otherwise lopsided NPR interview, reminding listeners that homeschooling is a form of private education that should be exempt from government control and offering favorable data on the wellbeing, achievement, and outcomes of homeschooled students.

Homeschooling continues to be a popular option for an increasingly diverse group of families. As its numbers swell to nearly two million US children, the homeschooling population is growing demographically, geographically, socioeconomically, and ideologically heterogeneous. Homeschooling families often reject the standardized, one-size-fits-all curriculum frameworks and pedagogy of public schools and instead customize an educational approach that works best for their child and family.

With its expansion from the margins to the mainstream over the past several decades, and the abundance of homeschooling resources and tools now available, modern homeschooling encompasses an array of different educational philosophies and practices, from school-at-home methods to unschooling to hybrid homeschooling. This diversity of philosophy and practice is a feature to be celebrated, not a failing to be regulated.

The collective “we” should not exert control over individual freedom or try to dominate difference. “We” should just leave everyone alone.

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#GIRLBOSS Author Left School, Built $100 Million Company

I love reading books about successful entrepreneurs and how they got there. Generally, these entrepreneurs share common qualities of ingenuity, hard work, and determination to turn opportunity into a thriving enterprise. I recently finished Sophia Amoruso’s book, #GIRLBOSS, and was blown away by this young woman’s accomplishments. She went from selling vintage used clothing on eBay to running a 350-person, $100 million apparel company, Nasty Gal, in eight years. Wow.

I had heard about this bestselling book when it was first published in 2014. Likely in a sleep-deprived stupor with my littlest newborn at the time, I didn’t get a chance to read it until it appeared in our Little Free Library in our front yard a few weeks ago. It’s a fascinating, fast-paced book that is hard to put down.

The first page offers a chronology of Amoruso’s life, including this detail from 2000: “I hate high school, and am sent to a psychiatrist who diagnoses me with depression and ADD. I try the white pills. I try the blue pills. I decide that if this is what it’s going to take to like high school, forget it. I throw the pills away and decide to homeschool.”

I often write about how conventional forced schooling can stifle creativity, exuberance, and human flourishing. It prioritizes conformity over self-determination. Square pegs don’t fit well into round holes, and the hole of standardized schooling is growing increasingly narrow and deep. Amoruso refused to be squished into that hole.

Later in her book, Amoruso shares more details about her schooling experience. She writes:

The pure mechanics of the traditional school system were spirit crushing. I felt it was the Man’s way of training America’s youth to endure a lifetime repeating the behaviors taught in school, but in an office environment. I felt like a prisoner. I woke up at the same every day and sat in the same chairs five days a week. I had no more autonomy than a Pavlovian dog.

We should listen to the entrepreneurs. Questioning the status quo is often what makes them highly successful. They don’t tolerate how things are and instead work toward creating what could be. They dream and they do, fueled by the human drive to explore and invent. Amoruso continues:

It’s unfortunate that school is so often regarded as a one-size-fits-all kind of deal. And if it doesn’t fit, you’re treated as if there is something wrong with you; so it is you, not the system, which is failing. Now, I’m not trying to give every slacker a free pass to cut class and head straight to Burger King, but I do think we should acknowledge that school isn’t for everyone. So, #GIRLBOSS, if you suck at school, don’t let it kill your spirit. It does not mean that you are stupid or worthless, or that you are never going to succeed at anything. It just means that your talents lie elsewhere, so take the opportunity to seek out what you are good at, and find a place where you can flourish.

How many young entrepreneurs are sitting in one-size-fits-all classrooms today being told to conform, to bury their creativity and hide their originality? How many are being forced to squeeze into a pre-cut round hole? How many are made to feel stupid? How many of these talented individuals are losing their inner spark, and how many of us will lose from the enterprises, masterpieces, and inventions they may never build?

Freeing these young people from conventional classrooms will help them to pioneer the unconventional goods and services that drive human progress and improve our lives.

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The Miracle of the Market

At this time of year especially, the wide variety of individual human preferences and interests becomes abundantly clear. My children’s Christmas lists display this diversity: Molly (13) wants a doughnut pan to feed her baking passion, Jack (11) wants anything tech-related, Abby (9) wants drawing supplies, and Sam (6) wants Lego pieces and stuffed animals. How do the elves satisfy these assorted preferences? It’s the miracle of the market.

FEE’s founder, Leonard Read, wrote about this miracle in his classic 1958 essay, “I, Pencil.” Writing cleverly from the pencil’s perspective, Read explains that even something as seemingly simple as a pencil is an extraordinary human creation involving countless decentralized, spontaneous actions prompted and facilitated by a free, global marketplace. The 18th-century philosopher, Adam Smith, described this unplanned process of social cooperation as the “Invisible Hand,” leading to collective human progress and abundance when each individual pursues his or her own interests. Read writes:

I, Pencil, simple though I appear to be, merit your wonder and awe, a claim I shall attempt to prove. In fact, if you can understand me—no, that’s too much to ask of anyone—if you can become aware of the miraculousness which I symbolize, you can help save the freedom mankind is so unhappily losing. I have a profound lesson to teach. And I can teach this lesson better than can an automobile or an airplane or a mechanical dishwasher because—well, because I am seemingly so simple.

Simple? Yet, not a single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me.

There is no central planner, no mastermind, as Read says, capable of making a simple pencil. Instead, there are the loggers who harvest the cedar from the Pacific Northwest and the innumerable actions that go into the loggers’ work, including the manufacture of their saws and machinery, the growing of hemp for their ropes, and even the cups of coffee they drink. All of these spontaneous actions contribute to the production of a simple pencil—and that’s only for its wood. Read then describes the graphite from Sri Lanka, the wax from Mexico, the miners of zinc and copper to create the small metal piece that attaches the eraser, which is made with rapeseed oil from the Dutch East Indies.

Read concludes:

There isn’t a single person in all these millions, including the president of the pencil company, who contributes more than a tiny, infinitesimal bit of know-how. From the standpoint of know-how the only difference between the miner of graphite in Ceylon and the logger in Oregon is in the type of know-how…Their motivation is other than me. Perhaps it is something like this: Each of these millions sees that he can thus exchange his tiny know-how for the goods and services he needs or wants. I may or may not be among these items.

More profound than the dispersed and unplanned creation of the simple pencil is, as Read explains, the fact that it is accomplished without coercion through the uniquely human act of peaceful, voluntary exchange. Read writes:

For, if one is aware that these know-hows will naturally, yes, automatically, arrange themselves into creative and productive patterns in response to human necessity and demand— that is, in the absence of governmental or any other coercive master-minding—then one will possess an absolutely essential ingredient for freedom: a faith in free people. Freedom is impossible without this faith.

There are many miracles that get celebrated at this time of year, but one we shouldn’t forget is the miracle of the market and the power of free, voluntary exchange to unleash human creativity and inventiveness. Let’s take to heart Read’s words:

Permit these creative know-hows freely to flow. Have faith that free men and women will respond to the Invisible Hand. This faith will be confirmed. I, Pencil, seemingly simple though I am, offer the miracle of my creation as testimony that this is a practical faith, as practical as the sun, the rain, a cedar tree, the good earth.

Happy Holidays!

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Closing the Choice Gap In US Education

We hear a lot about education achievement gaps, learning gaps and opportunity gaps between different groups of students, typically based on socioeconomic status, race or ethnicity. Generally speaking, the achievement gap describes persistent differences in academic proficiency. The learning gap reveals discrepancies between what children are expected to know at a certain stage and what they actually know. And the opportunity gap explains how differences in resources, backgrounds, and circumstances can lead to different outcomes, such as college attainment rates. These are all important gaps to consider and strive to close, but one glaring gap is missing: the choice gap.

The Choice Gap

The reality is that many families have limited choices about where and how to educate their children. They may not like their assigned district school, but homeschooling may be undesirable or unrealistic and private school is often too expensive or unavailable. In some states, lower-and middle-income families may be able to take advantage of emerging education choice mechanisms, such as education savings accounts and tax-credit scholarship programs, that give them access to funds to use for private education options, but for many lower- and middle-income families, private alternatives are out of reach.

The choice gap is particularly clear and concerning when surveys show that selecting private options is the preferred choice for many parents. According to EdChoice’s 2019 Schooling in America Survey:

More than four out of five students attend a public district school, but less than half of public school teachers and less than a third of current school parents would prefer to send their children to a district school.

For Shaylanna Hendricks Graham, the lack of private options for her two children, ages seven and five, is frustrating. I wrote about Graham in my book Unschooled where she described why she and her husband made the decision not to enroll their children in school and to homeschool them instead. “There is a clear disadvantage for children of color and it can be damaging emotionally and psychologically for many children of color,” Graham explained.

We wanted to shelter our children from having that experience in school. We also wanted to make sure that they learned the true history and origin of our ancestors and the great impact that our African ancestors had in the history of the world.

She added:

Schools systematically treat our brown children as if they are less-than and less deserving than the rest and it is our intention that our brown children have a much more positive life experience.

I recently checked in with Graham, who lives in Boston. She said that homeschooling has become challenging, particularly as she tries to meet her children’s varying needs and give them enough social and academic enrichment, while also running a small consulting business. This reflects a wider trend among homeschooling families. The recent EdChoice survey mentioned above found overall satisfaction with homeschooling decreased by 10 percent since last year. After looking into local private school options with price-tags of over $35,000 a year, the couple realized that was more than they could pay, especially for two children.

Entrepreneurs Creating New Alternatives

Ideally, says Graham, she would prefer a more affordable, private hybrid homeschool program or micro-school that would allow her to continue the homeschooling lifestyle that she and her husband cherish, while also offering consistent, high-quality opportunities for her children to play and learn outside the home.

A model that allows for drop-off, offers enriching classes or opportunities for development in areas, as well as the freedom for the children to choose how they want to spend their day, would be a dream come true,

Graham says. “We would be happy to pay $7,000 for a program like this,” she adds.

Low-cost micro-schools, hybrid homeschooling programs and other affordable private options would help to close the choice gap. Tuition that is a fraction of the cost of a traditional private school in a given location would expand choices for many parents and kids. Entrepreneurs will be the ones to successfully create and scale affordable alternatives to conventional K-12 schooling.Education choice programs and similar public policy efforts can also help to narrow the choice gap for lower- and middle-income families, but entrepreneurs are showing that they can accelerate the process.

Acton Academy has been expanding its low-cost private education model nationwide, with classes occurring in homes and other intimate settings to simulate the multi-age, “one-room schoolhouse” atmosphere. Prenda is a rapidly-growing network of micro-schools in Arizona that also runs on a hybrid model and costs families about $5,000 per year.

While policymakers may continue to make headway with education choice programs, entrepreneurs will be the ones to successfully create and scale affordable alternatives to conventional K-12 schooling, closing the choice gap and perhaps the others as well.

If you are interested in learning more about a large-scale entrepreneurial project I am currently working on to fill this choice gap, please reach out.

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Rose Wilder Lane: Pioneer of Educational Freedom

My eight-year-old daughter Abby recently started reading Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder. It was prompted, in part, by watching the Little House on the Prairie television episodes with her great-aunt. Coincidentally, I have been reading more lately about some of the key women in history who promoted the ideals of individual freedom, limited government, non-coercion, and voluntary cooperation through trade. Rose Wilder Lane is one of these women. She was born on this day in 1886.

Liberty Should Always Trump Coercion

The daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder and Almanzo Wilder, baby Rose is the child many of us remember from the ninth Little House book, The First Four Years. Perhaps those years of growing up on the prairie instilled in Lane a sense of rugged individualism and self-reliance that ultimately found their way into her writings throughout the 20th century. By the late 1920s, she was said to be one of the highest-paid women writers in the US. She became an outspoken critic of Roosevelt’s New Deal, Social Security, and other government programs she felt disempowered individuals and gave greater authority to the state.

In her 1943 book The Discovery of Freedom, Lane makes a compelling case for individual freedom and limited government power. She traces the roots of compulsion in many areas of life, including education, and explains why liberty should always trump coercion. She writes:

American schooling is now compulsory, enforced by the police and controlled by the State (that is, by the politicians in office) and paid for by compulsory taxes. The inevitable result is to postpone a child’s growing-up. He passes from the authority of his parents to the authority of the police. He has no control of his time and no responsibility for its use until he is sixteen years old. His actual situation does not require him to develop self-reliance, self-discipline and responsibility; that is, he has no actual experience of freedom in his youth. (pp. 259-60).

Lane goes on to say that this type of American education, imported from Prussia by 19th-century education reformers, “is ideal for the German state, whose subjects are not expected ever to know freedom,” but it is “not the best preparation for inheriting the leadership of the World Revolution for freedom” (p. 260). She laments the “substitution of compulsory State education for the former American free education,” saying that formerly “American children went to school because they wanted to go, or because their parents sent them,” not because it was mandated of parents under a legal threat of force (p. 258).

As Abby digs into the Little House series (which Lane was instrumental in helping to create to catalog the experiences of her parents), I learn alongside my daughter, fascinated by the life and works of baby Rose, who would grow up to become a pioneer of liberty.

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