January 31, 2020

My Feelings about National School Choice Week: It's Complicated

This past week was designated as National School Choice Week (NSCW), an event held annually in January since 2011. According to the NSCW website, the sponsoring organization "is a nonpartisan, nonpolitical, independent public awareness effort" that is "not associated with any legislative lobbying or advocacy." It "recognizes all K-12 options, including traditional public schools, public charter schools, public magnet schools, private schools, online academies, and homeschooling," and encourages supporters to hold local school choice celebrations to "raise public awareness of the different K-12 education options available to children and families while also spotlighting the benefits of school choice." The NSCW foundation reports that more than 40,000 distinct local celebrations occurred in 2019.

As an unabashed advocate of homeschooling, people have regularly asked me how I celebrate NSCW, assuming that I've been on board with the initiative since its advent. I did order a supply kit one year, though I didn't end up planning an event. The truth is that my honest answer regarding my feelings about NSCW is, "It's complicated."

On the one hand, I truly appreciate the NSCW effort that highlights a reality too few parents understand: government-sponsored, state schooling (i.e., public school) is far from the only viable educational option in this country. Non-government options actually have a long history of success - in particular, America was founded almost exclusively by homeschoolers of one sort or another - but the powerful, vociferous public school lobby has clung to its bully pulpit since the early 20th century, doing everything it can to marginalize every other option. As a result, many parents today still don't realize they have choices - but efforts such as NSCW help to dispel that myth.

I also appreciate NSCW's position of trusting "parents to make the best choices for their individual children." Indeed, I am a strong proponent of parental rights, holding unwaveringly to the view that no one other than a child's parents have a legitimate right to an opinion about how that child is educated. Loving extended family members (and, perhaps, a few very close friends) might - with a parent's express permission - offer their thoughts and ideas. But the ultimate authority for making decisions about a child's educational endeavors is in the hands of his/her parents (with the understanding - from my worldview perspective - that parents will answer to God for the choices they make). If friends and family disagree with a parent's choice, they must submit to the will of the parent and keep their mouths shut going forward. And it should go without saying that - absent a proven case of extreme neglect that results in a loss of custody - governmental bureaucrats have absolutely no right to an opinion.

Because of this, I really do agree that every parent is free to choose any educational path for his/her children - even when another parent's choice would never be my own. However, I'm uncomfortable giving full-throated support to NSCW since it does include government school options (especially traditional public schools, but also public charter schools and public magnet schools) among those it promotes. In my view, state-sponsored schooling - especially traditional public school - already has plenty of support by virtue of having forcibly muscled out most other options through the first three-quarters of the 20th century. It doesn't need anyone else's voice. And, in fact, it's not really a choice due to compulsory school attendance laws (i.e., unless a parent chooses another option, attending state-sponsored school is mandatory, not a choice). So efforts to promote choice should emphasize options that are not taxpayer-supported - or, at the very least, those beyond the conventional public schools - rather than giving equal weight to all.

My second concern rests in the fact that - though the NSCW itself asserts that it is "not associated with any legislative lobbying or advocacy" - discussions of school choice almost always morph into endorsement in one way or another of vouchers - i.e., an initiative promoting the idea that private schools and homeschooling parents should be given taxpayer funds to pay for non-public school options. Of course, government school advocates vehemently oppose vouchers, claiming that voucher programs (even those going to charter or magnet public schools) "steal" money from (traditional) public schools. That argument is nothing but a a red herring; in fact, it's the public school scheme as a whole which does the stealing. But I do know that the aphorism "he who pays gets the say" is true. Thus, if government entities "give" private schools and homeschooling parents "government money" (i.e., money that comes from other taxpayers), the government will have a legitimate right to regulate the use of those funds. In other words, if private educational endeavors accept voucher money, bureaucrats can (and will) begin to pass rules about how the money can be spent - i.e., what can and cannot be taught. Thus, the real problem with voucher money is that it is a governmental Trojan Horse, inevitably leading to a loss of academic freedom - a narrowing of real choice - for homeschoolers and private schools.

That said, I do understand why some who choose private schools and some homeschoolers find the idea of vouchers appealing. These good folks look at all the state and federal aid given to public schools (of all iterations), knowing that they were mandated to contribute (via taxation) to the funding despite their own kids not attending public schools and regardless of the fact that they often have moral objections to the content and/or approaches used in those schools. They pay on top of that to cover private school tuition or homeschooling expenses, so the idea of vouchers - "getting some of my money back" - sounds good. And they try to justify their position by asserting (all evidence about the nature of government to the contrary) that bureaucrats "would never" add regulation in exchange for the money.

The answer to the money problem is not, however, government "giving" money to parents or private schools. Instead, government shouldn't be taking our money to begin with, and it's time that advocates for non-public school options begin lobbying for a new paradigm. Rather than government taking money from us to "support public schools" and then "giving" some of it back (with strings) in the form of vouchers, it would be better if those who do not use public schools (i.e., any schooling option supported by taxpayer dollars) were simply exempted from paying school taxes all together (and this should apply as well to those who have no children). We could then use what would have gone to support government schools to cover our own children's educational expenses - without any regulation since government would never have touched the money.

The only people who should be mandated to pay into the school system are those who use it, with others contributing voluntarily if they so choose. This idea will surely make public school advocates' heads explode. They will scream that public schools will never have enough money if school taxes don't apply to everyone - but they already scream about not having enough now. The fact is that the way the factory school system operates means there will never be enough money in the eyes of its supporters. So we can't worry about that. What we need is justice - i.e., the ability of those who do not use and do not agree with state-sponsored schooling to opt out of paying for it.

My concern about open-ended school choice initiatives is that most people still aren't thinking outside the box like that. The furtherest some will go is talk of vouchers rather than true freedom - and I am too much of a realist about the nature of government to ever support that.

Hence the reasons my feelings about NSCW are complicated. I support parental rights even for those who choose differently for their kids than I ever would...and even though I urge anyone who asks to put private, independent home education at the top of the list. But I don't think public (i.e., compulsory) school really needs a seat at the choice table. I absolutely support the proliferation of options...but I absolutely oppose voucher schemes of all stripes and don't ever want my support of the former seen as endorsement of the latter.

I may at some point decide to host a NSCW event. I was watching a New York-based morning show this week and noticed a very large contingent of kids and adults hugging the outdoor rope line and holding signs promoting "National Catholic Schools Week." Clearly, they were using NSCW to celebrate their particular choice - i.e., for Catholic schools. So if I do hold my own event, it would geared specifically to promote private homeschooling - not all choice in general - in order to encourage those interested in learning more about what that means, and I'd be sure to explain my caveats to the larger initiative.

That said, I do encourage all parents to fully investigate all the options - to not default to traditional public school (or public school in general) just because it's the biggest and loudest kid on the block. Even though compulsory school attendance laws are abominable - that's a topic for another post - it is a parent's responsibility to see that his/her children are educated, not according to current state-school norms but, rather, in keeping with what the parent knows to be best for the children's ultimate good and long-term well-being. Whatever you choose, be absolutely sure - without compromise for convenience - that it comports with your parental convictions and values.

No comments:

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...