- - Monday, August 2, 2021

We all pay taxes that support the “free” system of schools in our states.  But facing massive drops in enrollments, public schools are marketing a new kind of “free” educational program: homeschooling.

Say what?

The shutdowns forced all of us to “homeschool,” at least for a while, and so many families have found that they actually like being with their kids and learning together.  Now, with millions of “pandemic” homeschoolers showing no signs of going back, public schools are desperately trying to woo millions of parents back to the schools they were shut out of last year.  

School districts are so desperate to recapture enrollment numbers, which determine school funding, that they have swallowed hard their usual distaste for homeschooling and are co-opting the term in what can only be described as deceptive and misleading marketing slogans.

“Homeschool with us!” they say. “We have all the curriculum, computers, and support resources you need. And best of all,” they proclaim, “it’s free!”

The pandemic pushed education innovation like never before, as learning pods, creative co-ops, and Zoom learning became household words.  A year and a half into the pandemic, the shock to the education system continues to reverberate. Recent US Census Bureau numbers indicate that, of all American households with school-age children, as many as 18 percent have at least one homeschooled child.  Everyone seems to have had enough experience to realize that either they can be like most homeschoolers—which is pretty good—or they at least can’t do any worse than the public schools.  And given the maelstrom of additional controversy surrounding public education currently—including continuing mask requirements, critical race theory, and Title IX transgender policies—it’s not a high bar.

But calling public school programs at home ‘homeschooling’ is just oxymoronic. 

There is a huge difference between homeschooling and public school at home (aka zoom-schooling) – the biggest being that with homeschooling, parents are in charge. In contrast, with zoom school, the kids sit in front of a computer instead of at a desk with a mask and social distancing.  I like how my colleague, Dan Beasley, explained the difference between homeschooling and public school at home being advertised in Maryland.

In a public school at home program, he wrote, “parents take on a limited role as a cheerleader, while in a private homeschool setting, the parent is the architect of the educational program, and often the primary teacher.” 

In West Virginia, a flyer sent to parents in Greenbriar County, West Virginia, advertises that they are “proud to offer a new, free, at-home, educational experience … join us to learn how your homeschool student can benefit… .”  In the capital county of Kanawha, West Virginia, the letter reads: “We noticed your interest in homeschooling…we can provide all of the curriculum and technology to homeschool your child for free….you and your child have the flexibility to take the courses you want….”

Such “public school at home” programs are not altogether new. At HSLDA, we have followed the rise of “virtual public schools” for years.  These public programs advertise free equipment and materials as long as you agree to follow the rules, including logging in daily, following a state-approved fixed curriculum, and spending time online with a public-school teacher.

These programs work for some people, but over the years, we have seen thousands turn from these relatively rigid (even if conducted “at home”) public school programs to the freedom of homeschooling.  The essence of homeschooling is that it’s parent-led, not school-led. With homeschooling, parents have the freedom to choose from all sorts of structured or unstructured curriculum to band together with a few, lots, or no other families to form learning co-ops and to create an educational program that works best for each child.   Parents can find virtually any private homeschool group to provide social interaction, sports, and supplemental programs like robotics clubs, archery, or fine arts. And when homeschooling is done this way, it supports freedom for all.

My colleague, Jim Mason’s seminal article on the “Civic Virtue Of Private Home Education,” explains why the private and parent-directed nature of homeschooling is so important.

“Homeschooling freedom as we know it today,” he wrote, “has not been the product of top-down management. Instead, in true free market fashion, it is the product of thousands of parents making millions of tiny decisions (and some huge ones) motivated by their own children’s well-being— Adam Smith’s invisible hand at work.”

With millions of children not coming back to their local public schools, the attempt to backfill the financial loss will likely become more intrusive and insistent.  People need to realize that choosing to leave the public system may cost them more (not necessarily a lot more), but freedom is worth it.  It’s this freedom that I, along with my fellow attorneys and staff at HSLDA, zealously protect, and why I encourage my fellow would-be homeschoolers to think carefully before jumping back into a public school-directed program.  

With government shekels come government shackles.  The free money may seem tempting, but is it really free? With a little hard work, encouragement, creativity, patience, homeschooling is a gift that you can give your child to benefit them for years to come.

• Michael Donnelly is senior counsel at HSLDA, the largest homeschool advocacy group in the US.

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