Washington should spare school choice its suffocating embrace.
For the first time in the 38-year history of the U.S. Department of Education, the secretary of Education recently hosted a delegation of homeschooling advocates and legal defenders.
The cordial nature of the occasion was no surprise; Secretary Betsy DeVos was a friend of homeschooling during her years as a private-sector advocate for school vouchers and public charter schools. Notably, in a 2013 interview with Philanthropy Magazine, she said, “Homeschooling represents another perfectly valid educational option. We’ve seen more and more people opt for homeschooling, including in urban areas. What you’re seeing are parents who are fed up with their lack of power to do anything about where their kids are assigned to go to school. To the extent that homeschooling puts parents back in charge of their kids’ education, more power to them.”
DeVos’s take on homeschooling contrasts sharply with that of her predecessor in the final year of the Obama administration, John King, who fretted that homeschooled children “aren’t getting the range of options that are good for all kids.” That kind of government-knows-best attitude partially explains so many families are becoming home educators and expanding their options independently via homeschool co-ops and other independent arrangements.
What did the delegation from the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) want from a new secretary who is philosophically simpatico? In short, just for her to leave homeschooling alone. No need to extend federal school-choice funding via vouchers or the like, which the Trump administration has been actively calling for.
In an analysis of a bill filed earlier in 2017 by two House Republicans seeking to convert all federal school aid to vouchers and include homeschool students among the school-choice beneficiaries, Will Estrada, a federal relations specialist for HSLDA, pinpointed the peril in enacting legislation purporting to guarantee a “federal right to homeschool.”
That which “could be created by a favorable Congress could be regulated by a future, hostile Congress,” Estrada wrote. “It is far better (and more constitutionally sound) for education decisions — and homeschool freedom — to be protected at the state level. We ask our friends at the federal level to simply leave homeschooling families alone.”
With federal vouchers for homeschooling, Washington, D.C. soon would be registering and tracking homeschooled children, as well as deciding how much could (or should) be spent on their instruction. Eventually, the feds would help to shape the content of their curricula as well.
HSLDA doesn’t presume to speak for private schools, but the same rationale for eschewing federal vouchers applies to the private sector in general. Even though the Constitution confers no authority over education to the federal government, the feds have become heavily invested in schools and colleges since the 1960s, and everywhere federal dollars have gone, controls have followed. Federal vouchers undoubtedly would bring federal regulations to participating private schools.
Meanwhile, more than half the states have set up their own private school-choice programs — including vouchers, tax-credit scholarships, and education savings accounts — that empower parents to find opportunities for their children. The states have been free to innovate and learn from each other while expanding choice because the feds have not intruded.
Although the Trump administration did not endorse the bill to convert all federal aid to private school and homeschool vouchers, it has tucked a $250 million pilot voucher program in its proposed budget for fiscal year 2018. The plea of the homeschool community may also be applicable here.
As for charter schools, which offer parents a form of school choice, federal subsidization is not completely outrageous. After all, these schools remain within the orb of public school districts, even though their managers enjoy a good bit of operational autonomy, so long as they live up to their contractual obligations.
That said, DeVos, herself a past supporter of several Michigan charter schools, has offered some trenchant observations on the charter movement’s evolving from the creative spirit of the early pioneers 25 years ago to an increasingly rule-setting, bureaucratized model now. In a June 13 address at a National Alliance for Public Charter Schools conference in Washington, DeVos said an unnamed critic offered a fair assessment in writing that “many who call themselves ‘reformers’ have instead become just another breed of bureaucrats, a new education establishment.”
DeVos also said 500-page charter-school applications are “not progress.” Indeed, they are “fundamentally at odds with why parents demanded charters in the first place.”
Fair enough. But it is also reasonable to ask how the Trump administration’s proposal to increase federal spending on charter schools by $168 million is likely to reduce bureaucratization of this one-time new frontier of school choice and innovation. History suggests the opposite is much more likely to occur.
As an alternative, the homeschool idea of Washington, DC abandoning the education arena entirely has much merit. In the words of the 1967 pop hit, “Please release me, let me go.” Let charters bubble up from local parents and teachers who have a vision of creating schools from fresh inspiration and hard work. And rather than being federally subsidized, let them compete fairly with private and parochial schools also offering choices for families wanting out of government-dominated education.
Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons