My last two posts have been reprints of articles I wrote years ago for Growing Without Schooling. Before I put my old issues back in the box, I want to revisit one more piece (from Issue 83) that was part of a larger discussion on the topic Are Homeschoolers Abandoning Schools?
A lot has changed since the question was discussed in GWS in the 1990s. Charter schools, rapid growth of homeschoolers, an explosion of technology that’s brought computers and the internet into the classroom and the classroom into the home via virtual schools. Many public schools now invite homeschoolers to participate in curricular and extracurricular programming. Homeschooling itself is in a period of major flux, with hybrid models popping up all over the place. Still, the question of whether homeschoolers are abandoning public schools persists.
I wrote my GWS piece not long after my eldest child had spent a year in public kindergarten. When I enrolled her there was no ambivalence, only excitement. I soon discovered that parental input on matters of curriculum or classroom maintenance was not only unwelcome, it was taboo. I made the strategic error of bringing my concerns to the school principal rather than attempting to resolve them with the teacher or through the PTA, for which I volunteered. I was labeled a troublemaker. A small contingent of other concerned parents were likewise ostracized. Although we were not officially working together we were called a “splinter group.” Most of us left after that year, two families for homeschooling, others for private school.
We did, quite literally, abandon public school, but did we abandon something larger? Did we abandon social responsibility? One argument says that parents like us who care deeply about our kids’ education should stay in public school and fight to improve it for the sake of all. I wrote this in GWS: “My first responsibility is to myself and my family, and if I did not exercise my right to choose what I feel is the best path for my children’s education, I would not be doing my job as a parent.”
I still feel that way. The key issue in that statement is that I chose homeschooling because I felt it was the best path for my children’s education. Yes, I came to it as a disgruntled public school parent, but I ultimately chose it because I thought it would be best for my family. While my choice to homeschool was a personal one, it was part of a larger movement that has helped change the ways people look at education. By contributing to diversity in forms of and approaches to the education of our children, homeschooling enriches the educational landscape.
The problems I encountered in my daughter’s public school happened in a district known to be one of the best in my state. Sadly, the children I saw being singled out for punishment, judgment, and labels that would follow them through their whole schooling experiences were children for whom the structured environment of public school was simply not a good fit. There weren’t a lot of children of color in that elite public school district, but unfortunately, based on my observations those kids were more likely to receive discipline and reprimands for common indiscretions like cutting in line or grabbing a toy from another child. I found that horrifying to witness, but unfortunately not surprising in a society steeped in institutionalized racism. In recent years, I’m reading more about how African-American families are choosing to homeschool, in large part because of the systemic racism in public schools.
There’s also the argument that public school is the great equalizer, an idea that persists even though everyone knows that school districts in poor communities do not provide the same level of quality and support for their students as those in affluent communities. Despite the clear data that standardized test scores are skewed by social class, they continue to be held up as a legitimate way to judge the intelligence and ability of young people. Does this mean we should pour as many resources as possible into public schools, including the current push for universal preschool? Not necessarily. Addressing income inequality, providing material support for new parents, closing the gender pay gap, and providing basic rights like health care would do far more to help children. As this paper from the Brookings Institute about preschool education points out, “…family support in the form of putting more money in the pockets of low-income parents produces substantially larger gains in children’s school achievement per dollar of expenditure than a year of preschool, participation in Head Start, or class size reduction in the early grades.”
Regardless of the educational path we choose for our children (especially if we’re fortunate enough to have those choices), regardless of whether we have children, we should all be concerned about children. The question Are Homeschoolers Abandoning Schools? isn’t so important. What is important is that we care about children and families. For me, that means supporting just economic and social policies while exercising my parental right to homeschool. In the 1990s I closed my piece in GWS with this, and it feels fitting to use it again: “By joining the growing population of homeschooling families we are adding our voices to those who are trying to redefine our society’s ideas about education and schooling, and we are raising happy, confident, interested individuals who have much to offer the world.”