Does homeschooling violate liberal values?

My real-life friend Upswim has started a blog called Bad Homeschooler. She doesn’t mean that in an ironic way, like, “Oooh, I don’t have a Latin curriculum for my six-year-old, I’m a bad homeschooler.” She means that she doesn’t like or approve of homeschooling even now that she’s doing it herself.

Upswim’s blog is totally funny, and worth reading for that alone. But I also appreciate her critique of homeschooling. (So far. She’s only up to “Why I hate homeschooling #2;” maybe #4 or #5 is going to be “But what about socialization?!”) She’s engaging with questions about conflicts between homeschooling and liberal ideals about equality, which I think is (a) important and (b) rare. (Or at least it’s rarely done well, as the comments section here regrettably demonstrates.)

Do we have a responsibility to work towards equal educational opportunity for all children, and if so, do we violate it by removing our family from the public system? Even liberal homeschoolers don’t really seem to engage with this question much. Partly I think it’s because there’s such a strong libertarian streak in homeschooling communities, even on the left wing. But also, liberal philosophical arguments for homeschooling tend to be based on a critique of schools as rigid and stifling institutions – perhaps leading to the conclusion that trying to fix the schools is futile, because no matter how you enrich them they’ll still be institutions.

On all sides of the political spectrum of homeschoolers, I tend to see an unrealistically rosy view of families. Parents care more about their kids than anyone else ever could, and parents know what’s best for their kids’ education. Yeah. I know too many parents who use crack to buy into this one; disillusionment about the awesomeness of families is an occupational hazard for me. There will always be parents who are disengaged and/or incompetent and/or malevolent. We will always need a default educational system that is not dependent on parents knowing or caring about what is best for their children, and it needs to be as good as we can make it because those kids are already starting out with two and a half strikes against them, and they deserve a chance.

So are we hurting the chance for better public education by not taking part? The argument, as I’ve seen it made, is that families with smart, capable children and dedicated, involved parents are essential to a workable school system. If such families withdraw in favor of homeschooling or private schools, the public system is left with the hardest kids to educate, and without the benefit of active parents to volunteer at school and to be gadflies for school improvement.

I can see some legitimacy to that argument. I’ve given it a lot of thought. It falls down, for me, for three reasons:

  1. Advocates don’t take it far enough. I don’t see anyone arguing that people who happen to live in districts where the public schools are fine have an obligation to move to the inner city and enroll their kids in the worst school they can find, or arguing for a system of universal busing. But even looking solely within a single urban system, in most cases it seems that the inclusion of small numbers of motivated and capable families doesn’t produce across-the-board improvement; instead it results in a two-tiered system. There may be a few high-quality neighborhood schools with great programs and many dismal schools with nothing – even when resources are ostensibly equalized because the schools are in the same district. Alternatively, demand among well-off, well-educated families may lead to the creation of small programs that filter for kids with high ability (magnets, gifted classes) or motivated and involved parents (charter schools), again producing parallel and unequal systems.

    Not even the staunchest public school advocate has suggested that we have the responsibility to send Alex to our assigned neighborhood school, at which half the teachers don’t have basic teaching certifications, test scores are dismal, and the disciplinary environment is based on the premise that the kids are criminals in training. We’d get a pass on “supporting public education” if we moved to one of the rare city neighborhoods with great and majority white public elementary schools, or if we beat the lottery and scored a spot at the Green School or a similar small progressive charter with passionately involved parents. I’m at a loss to see how, in either of those places, we’d be improving the lot of children in Baltimore’s other public schools – the failing ones.

  2. I think advocates overestimate the degree to which schools – especially dysfunctional ones – want to be reformed by parents. From what I understand, schools are delighted to have parent volunteers fundraise, make copies, correct homework, and listen to children read. These are all totally worthwhile and valuable activities; I don’t mean to slight them. But as a parent working within the system, could I de-emphasize standardized testing? Could I restore play-based kindergarten? Could a parent institute a comprehensive phonics curriculum in a whole language classroom? Could a parent arrange for evolution to be taught well in a Texas high school, or comprehensive sex education?

    If your problems with the school system are big ones, not small ones, you are not going to be able to enact transformative change by working within the system as a parent volunteer. You will definitely be able to improve the experience of individual children. But that’s quite different from saying that you should be expected to work within the system to change it.

  3. Most importantly, I keep coming down to the idea that my 35-pound five-year-old is supposed to be my agent of social change. That she should dedicate six hours a day for thirteen years to improving public education. (Her own personal benefit appears, to some, to be optional. In the comment thread linked in the second paragraph, more than one poster suggested that if a public school’s academics are hopelessly inadequate, parents should leave their children in and plan to remediate the gaps after school.) Honestly, if I felt strongly that individuals have the responsibility to improve failing public schools through their personal involvement, then I would think it ought to be my job, not my kid’s job.

    As I’ve said, I’m skeptical of the idea that it would improve the public school system if my family enrolled. But even if it did… I still think that we owe Alex the best education for her, not the best education for someone else. And for our family, in our current situation, in the Baltimore City School system, that’s homeschooling.

Re-reading this, I think I come off as negative about public schools in a way that I’m afraid is going to hurt people’s feelings. The vast majority of my friends and family use public schools, and their kids are awesome, and as far as I can tell their kids are getting good educations. I think that there are many good reasons to use public schools. I just don’t think that my family has a social responsibility to use them too.

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9 Responses to Does homeschooling violate liberal values?

  1. Vicki says:

    The other obvious question there is, Why you and not me?

    All else being equal, a person who is raising a couple of kids (that’s you) has more to deal with than one who isn’t (me), whether because she doesn’t have children or because they’re grown. So why isn’t this argument being thrown at all the people who don’t have children in the public schools because we don’t have children of relevant ages?

    It’s not as though we don’t need a good school system, if we believe in the future of the society or at least want competent medical care when we’re old.

    (My anti-spam word was “smile”)

  2. Farrar says:

    Great post. A couple of musings…

    In response to #1 – That’s so true about the two-tiered schools and school systems. And if we returned to neighborhood schools, there’s problems there too. The excellent public school I attended as a high schooler is essentially closing shop as we speak because the whole district is returning to “neighborhood” schools. The local NAACP there has been up in arms protesting because it’s a defacto move to resegregate the schools (which I totally agree it is). On the other hand, having schools of choice allows some schools to be better and helps create a different type of two-tiered system, which I see living in DC all the time. It’s so complex and throwing a few homeschoolers into the system just doesn’t change those dynamics.

    As to #2 – I totally agree. I tried to work in the public schools when I was a teacher, but even as a teacher you are disempowered to make positive changes on any significant level. The amount of Kafkaesque bureaucracy you deal with on a daily basis can boggle the mind. The power structures in public schools are woefully out of whack from almost any other kind of successful system. They’re nothing like a business, but also nothing like a nonprofit. I think parents *can* make changes to some aspects of the school. There’s a city school many people cite in Chicago where a local group of parents overhauled a “failing” school and turned it into a better one. They found grant money and put their time into it and managed to change the lunch menu, the physical space, the play areas, and the extracurriculars (they added a full afterschool program). Those things are great and more power to them for fixing them in a way that sound amazing. However, if you’re like me and you see a problem with the curricula, the testing, the one size fits all mentality, the hiring and firing methods for teachers, etc. then you’re out of luck. Those things cannot be changed without political change. Sure, you can vote or be involved in campaigns, but you can do that as a homeschooler or even without any kids. So I don’t think there’s any way me or even all the other involved people I know, could ever make a difference in these things I find important.

    Sorry for the rambling… Sometimes I get too wordy without meaning to…

  3. tinderbox says:

    Farrar, don’t apologize for rambling – I appreciate your perspective.

    I don’t know what the solution is to the problem of urban public schools. I don’t think schools of choice are necessarily a bad thing – my sister lives in Boston, which has moved entirely to a choice-based system, and it seems to be working well there. She had several good options to pick from, for her daughter. And in Baltimore there seems to be increasing interest in staying in the city and using the public system now that there are a variety of charters – although getting in a good one can be hard and stressful. Friends of mine were 150th on the waiting list for the public Montessori charter. *150th.*

    Good options for some kids is definitely better than good options for no kids. But we still need to be striving for good options for ALL kids, and yeah, it’s hard to know how to get there from here.

  4. Ailbhe says:

    Yeah, the stuff I want to change I can change better when I’m not also trying to undo the damage it’s doing/will have done to my own children. I’m too tired to go into it in great detail, but I am a big-changes-need-to-happen person, not a they-need-more-classroom-assistants person.

    But I think free public schooling with free school meals is something every society ought to aim at, because some people are growing up in homes like I did, where that stuff could change lives.

  5. Castiron says:

    I’ve often pondered the fact that all the private schools in my town that are run by churches seem to be conservative — why isn’t there a UU or an ELCA Lutheran private school? I wonder if it’s due to the same underlying idea, that more liberal churches see public school as a social good, while conservative churches are more willing to say “we don’t like how these schools handle our kids, so we’re bailing from them”. And maybe the reason you don’t see the liberal churches doing private schools (even though individuals in those churches might homeschool) is that for a private school, you need a lot more people to support the idea and fund it, while to homeschool, you only need the parents to decide to do it?

  6. I’ve been sitting and letting these thoughts percolate for a few days now. I even had a really long response written out and decided to trash it in favor of the condensed version.

    My husband and I both witnessed first-hand the amount of damage that the public school system can do to the “smart, capable children” and that is the biggest reason why we decided that educating at home would be the best option for our children. So far, I feel like that was the best decision we could have made. I also believe that it is unreasonable to assume that equal opportunity in education will ever come by trying to force everyone into a one-size-fits-all system. All men may have been created equal, but it doesn’t mean we all learn the same way or that there is only one right way to become educated.

    I am glad that the public school system exists for those who choose to use it. I am even more glad that I still get to choose whether or not I will use the public school system. And I wish that more people would realize that it should be an active choice, made for each family and each child, rather than something that is predetermined based on political leaning, social standing, religion, or any other reason.

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  9. Callie says:

    What wonderful comments. Most of what I would say was said by the 6 previous. The one thing I have to add, is, in our community, there is a core group, of which I am one, that is committed to “equal educational opportunities” for all. We are homeschool moms determined to make homeschooling in our community an option for anyone. It may ultimately it will look like co schooling for some people. I think one of the most critical things is the simplest. It is spreading the knowledge that homeschooling is easier than it looks and is a viable option. My ultimate point is that, though we’ve checked out of the system, we can still work to help solve the problem.

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