January-February 2011 Selected Content
Taking Charge - Larry and Susan Kaseman
Beware of Privatization of Education: It Reduces Our Homeschooling Freedoms
Privatization of education means transferring taxpayers' dollars designated for public education to private institutions, corporations, and/or individuals instead of to public schools. Examples include 1) voucher programs in which tax dollars in the form of vouchers are given to parents who then use the vouchers to enroll their children in private schools, 2) virtual charter schools in which tax dollars are given to private corporations like K12 Inc. to provide curriculum and services to public school students who study in their homes, 3) programs in which corporations take over failing public schools or school districts that do not meet government standards, and 4) money given by school districts to homeschooling parents to cover homeschooling expenses in exchange for the parents' agreeing to comply with public school standards and state-mandated testing.
During the legislative session beginning in January 2011, legislation to promote the privatization of education is likely to be introduced in many states and pushed more strongly than in the past. (Reasons are discussed below.) Therefore, it is important to understand how privatization of education threatens homeschooling freedoms and what we can do to minimize the damage it would cause.
In addition, in general, homeschoolers have looked to Republicans to be more supportive of homeschooling than Democrats. The Republicans now control the US House of Representatives and have more power in the US Senate. More importantly in terms of legislation concerning education, Republicans now control many state legislatures and governors' offices. As a result, it is tempting to think that homeschoolers have a lot less to be concerned about from government action, especially in state legislatures. However, we can't afford to assume that what Republicans would do in the area of education would not threaten our homeschooling freedoms. Instead, we need to continue to be vigilant and be prepared to oppose legislation that would threaten our homeschooling freedoms.
This column will explore why pressure to privatize education is likely to increase, how privatization of education and legislation to give homeschoolers benefits or reduce state regulation of homeschooling would undermine, and what we can do to minimize the damage.
Why Pressure to Privatize Education Is Likely to Increase
Generally speaking, Republicans favor privatization of education. They also tend to oppose unions, including teachers unions, who, in turn, oppose privatization of education. Republicans are likely to push for increased privatization of education in state legislatures they gained control of in the November, 2010 elections. Of course, not all Republicans support privatization of education, and true conservatives generally would not.
Privatization of education will also be promoted as a way to save money and balance state budgets. Supporters of privatization of education argue that it is a more effective and efficient approach to education and costs less for a variety of reasons. For example, non-union, non-certified private school teachers can be paid lower salaries than public school teachers. Virtual charter schools can be operated for much less money than brick-and-mortar public schools. Homeschooling is much less expensive than conventional public schooling. Reducing the costs of public education is especially important in the current economy when many states are facing large budget deficits. Although the federal government can operate at a deficit, legislatures in 40 of the 50 states are required by either statute or the state constitution or both to pass a balanced budget. Since public education accounts for a large percentage of state budgets, there will be a lot of pressure to reduce spending for education.
How Privatization of Education Would Affect Homeschoolers
Privatization of education reduces the freedom that private schools (including homeschools) have to choose their curriculum, approach to education, qualifications required of teachers, etc. This is because the government must account to the public for how it spends the tax dollars it collects. To hold schools accountable, state legislatures have created an elaborate system of regulations, standards, required testing and reporting of test scores, etc. The system carries with it the knowledge, skills, and attitudes that the state legislature and public school agencies have decided to require. Any school that accepts tax dollars has to comply with this system, thereby losing its freedom to choose an education for its students consistent with its own principles and beliefs, which may differ in important ways from those of the dominant culture and the public school system.
Put another way, public schools receive government funds and have to comply with state statutes and regulations. They are controlled by the government. States employ various ways of controlling schools and holding them accountable such as requiring that all teachers be certified by the state and reviewing their budgets. In the past few decades, states have relied increasingly on adopting state standards and requiring that public schools administer state-mandated standardized tests and report the scores to the state.
Before privatization, private schools only received very small amounts of tax money for school lunches and sometimes bussing. They were generally free to operate independently of the government, choosing their own standards, deciding which tests, if any, to administer and what to do with the scores, determining what qualifications they wanted teachers to have rather than hiring only teachers certified by the state, teaching the principles and beliefs they chose rather than automatically following those chosen by the state, etc. But when private schools (including homeschools) receive money from the government through vouchers, grants, reimbursements, etc., the government has to hold them accountable for the use of that money because the government is accountable for the expenditure of all tax money. It has to regulate private schools. Thus, private schools (including homeschools) that accept public money are at risk of losing their freedom and independence of state control. They are forced to become very similar to public schools.
It is important to realize that this loss of freedom hits homeschoolers much harder than it hits conventional school students. Many if not most conventional private schools are already very similar to public schools in the knowledge, skills, and attitudes they teach and require of their students. They already rely on standards very similar to those of the public schools, require similar (if not identical) standardized tests, hire many state-certified teachers, etc. The schools that would be hit hard by the loss of freedom because of privatization are the small independent private schools, most of whom differ from public schools in significant ways, and homeschools. As we homeschoolers are well aware, most homeschools are very different from public schools, and those that are similar are so because they choose to be, not because they are forced to be.
Privatization of education inevitably results in private schools being regulated by the government and required to adopt state standards in education, administer state-mandated standardized tests to their students, and report their scores to the government. Since homeschools are private schools, pressure will increase for homeschools to adopt state standards and state-mandated tests.
Some people may argue that at least a few private schools will refuse to accept government funding, just as most homeschoolers currently do not accept such money, and that these schools should be allowed to maintain their freedom from state regulation and be able to choose their own curriculum, etc. Granted they certainly should be allowed to maintain their freedom. However, being realistic about how much power large institutions wield in our society and about how little the rights of minorities, especially small minorities, are respected, it would be unwise to assume that legislatures and the educational establishment would recognize and honor the rights of private schools that did not accept government funds. Instead, minorities get swept up into larger agendas. The same requirements would probably be applied to private schools, including homeschools, that do not accept tax dollars. In addition, what can happen all too easily is that legislators who want to change how education is done either don't understand how their proposed legislation would hurt us or they see that hurt as a small price to pay for changing education or getting after the teachers unions or lowering the cost of education.
Similarly, homeschoolers can't assume that as long as they as individuals refuse to accept government money or favors, they won't be required to comply with state regulations written for homeschoolers who do accept them. Legislators and state regulators are highly unlikely to develop and expect public officials to enforce two separate sets of regulations for homeschoolers, one for those who accept tax credits or tax deductions or reimbursements for educational expenses or who play on public school sports teams or participate in other public school activities and the other for homeschoolers who don't. If legislation is passed or regulations are developed to hold homeschoolers accountable because some homeschoolers are receiving government money, those statutes or regulations will no doubt apply to all homeschoolers, not just those getting the money.
To be sure, this loss of freedom may not happen overnight. It is part of a larger trend in public and private education in the US that might take a while to develop. But if we aren't aware of the trend and working to oppose it now, we will have much less chance of maintaining our freedoms in the future when the situation gets much more serious.
Why Legislation Offering Homeschoolers Tax Credits, Grants or Reimbursement for Educational Expenses, and Other Favors Is Likely and Is a Bad Idea
As part of the push to increase privatization of education, reduce the tax money spent on public education, and balance state budgets, pressure is likely to increase on homeschoolers and potential homeschoolers to accept tax money and/or favors from the government. Such offers would be directed primarily at students currently enrolled in public schools with the idea that they would save the government money because it's much less expensive to give parents a relatively small amount of money to homeschool than to educate their children in the public schools. For example, many homeschoolers would consider $2,500 per child per year a generous grant to cover homeschooling expenses, while in Wisconsin, school districts spend on average over $13,000 per child per year. (Note that this is different, and in some ways the opposite of, school districts that offer money to current homeschoolers who are willing to enroll in the public schools while continuing to homeschool so that the district can count them as enrolled students and, to continue to use the same figures as an example, add $13,000 in tax dollars to its budget for that year. However, the principle is the same. In either case, the school district collects $13,000 in tax dollars for each current public school student who decides to homeschool or for each current homeschooler who enrolls in the district. The district then gives the student's family $2,500, thereby gaining $10,500 while having very little contact with or responsibility for the student who is now homeschooling.)
Again, the real losers are homeschoolers. There is no such thing as a free lunch. As explained above, the government has to hold accountable any individual or institution to which it gives tax dollars. Therefore, we need to resist such offers, tempting as they may be, in order to maintain our homeschooling freedoms. And as explained above, increased regulations placed on homeschoolers who accept tax dollars are very likely to be applied to all homeschoolers. Of course, homeschooling freedoms vary from state to state based on the laws in each state and so the degree of loss will also vary.
Why Legislation to Reduce Homeschooling Regulation Is a Bad Idea
Some homeschoolers understandably object to unreasonable homeschooling regulations in their state. They might think that since the Republicans are in control of one or both houses of their state legislature and perhaps also the governor's office, now would be a good time to introduce legislation to reduce state regulation of homeschooling. Or legislators may want to help homeschoolers and/or gain their support and/or encourage more parents to homeschool and therefore may introduce such legislation. However, to maintain our homeschooling freedoms, we need to NOT ask our representatives to introduce such legislation, DISCOURAGE other homeschoolers from requesting such legislation, DISCOURAGE our legislators from introducing such legislation, and OPPOSE it if it is introduced. Among the reasons:
• Legislation is always risky. It is very difficult to control because it is easy for legislators to introduce amendments that result in major changes in a bill. Legislation is especially risky for small minorities like homeschoolers who do not have strong support among a majority of legislators, who do not have a lot of money or powerful lobbyists, who may be seen as a threat to the public school system and to conventional private schools, and who may be misunderstood by some legislators and members of the general public. If homeschooling legislation were introduced, no matter how supportive of homeschooling the initial bill is, opponents of homeschooling could use the opportunity to increase rather than decrease regulation of homeschooling. (See our column "Convincing Others We Don't Want Homeschooling Legislation," HEM, Nov-Dec 1999 http://www.homeedmag.com/HEM/166/nd_clmn_tch.html)
• Favors come with strings attached no matter which political party is in power.
• If homeschoolers in a state align themselves with one party and homeschooling regulation becomes a partisan issue, homeschooling regulation could be increased when the opposing party gains power, which is bound to happen sooner or later. To protect our homeschooling freedoms, it is important for homeschooling to remain nonpartisan and for homeschoolers to communicate and work with legislators from all political parties. (See our column "Keeping Homeschooling Nonpartisan," HEM, Nov-Dec 2008 http://homeedmag.com/HEM/256/takingcharge.html.)
What We Can Do
We can be and remain independent homeschoolers who value our own and other families' homeschooling freedoms. We can refuse to accept money from local school districts, tax credits, tax deductions, and other favors from the federal or state government or our local school district.
We can inform other homeschoolers about ways that privatization of education threatens our homeschooling freedoms. This can be done through informal conversations, homeschooling organizations, support groups, email lists, etc.,
Let legislators know we don't want any legislation that would give homeschoolers favors, including tax credits or tax deductions, less state regulation of homeschooling, permission for homeschoolers to play on public school sports teams, more virtual charter schools, etc.
We can develop fact sheets and information bulletins to educate other homeschoolers and the general public about legislation that would threaten our homeschooling freedoms.
Here are some reasons to oppose privatization of education, vouchers, virtual charter schools, etc. that you may want to include in your materials. Choose the ones that will be most likely to convince your audience:
• Privatization undermines the basic freedom and independence of private schools, including homeschools. See above for reasons why. (Note: This point is central but may be more difficult to communicate and may not convince many people. However, it is important to communicate it to homeschoolers and people associated with independent conventional private schools.)
• If privatization of education worked well, it would be growing much more quickly than it is. Virtual charter schools and voucher programs have not taken off and grown the way promoters claim. Early experiments in having a corporation or private university take over a public school that was failing haven't been stunningly successful. Such experiences raise serious questions about the wisdom and effectiveness of privatization of education.
• It would be better to address the question of how to support families and make them stronger than to spend increasing amounts of money on public education through either public schools or privatization. For more information, see Diane Ravitch's article in The New York Review of Books, November 11, 2010, pp. 22-24. She reviews a large number of studies and concludes, "There is a relative consensus: teachers account for around 10-20 percent of [student] achievement outcomes " Nonschool factors such as "students' backgrounds, families, and other factors beyond the control of schools and teachers" account for the lion's share. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2010/nov/11/myth-charter-schools/
• There are better ways to reduce expenditures for public education and improve academic achievement which would also solve several other systemic problems facing public school and our society in general. For example, a great deal of money could be saved by reducing or eliminating many of the early childhood education programs including four-year-old kindergarten and full day five-year-old kindergarten. Increased the tax deductions for dependent children and/or tax credits for families that would allow parents can spend more time with their children instead of being forced to work more hours for pay outside the home during the early years would strengthen families. Shortening the school day and the school year would allow children more time with their families, more time for independent learning, and more time for sleep that studies show they need more of. In other words, it would be better to address the question of how to support families and make them stronger than to spend increasing amounts of money on public education through either public schools or privatization.
We can work to maintain the distinction between homeschools and virtual public charter schools. Homeschooling parents take responsibility for their children's educations and do not accept tax dollars to pay for that education. On the other hand, parents of virtual public charter school students have turned the central elements of their education over to the state and are accepting tax dollars, state standards, and state-mandated standardized tests and accountability, and state principles and beliefs.
We can continue to work in basic ways to maintain homeschooling freedoms. For example, we can refuse to do more than the minimum required by statutes governing homeschooling in our state. We can stay out of court unless it's absolutely necessary and work to prevent any legislation concerning homeschooling from being introduced. For more, see our column "Eight Principles for New and Experienced Homeschoolers," HEM, Sept-Oct 2005 http://www.homeedmag.com/HEM/225/sotch.html
For background on so-called conservatives willing to trade homeschooling freedoms for government dollars, see our columns: "How William Bennett's Public E-Schools Affect Homeschooling," HEM, Nov-Dec 2002 http://www.homeedmag.com/HEM/196/ndtch.html and
"Who Is Pat Lines and Why Is She Writing About Homeschooling?" HEM, Nov-Dec 2003 http://www.homeedmag.com/HEM/206/ndtch.html.
Legislation to increase the privatization of education is likely to be introduced and pushed soon in many state legislatures. Opposing such legislation, especially bills that would grant favors to homeschoolers, will increase the chances that homeschoolers will not be required to adopt state standards and teach the information, skills, and attitudes of the public schools.
© 2011, Larry and Susan Kaseman