National Public Education

Homeschooling and Truancy

Secretary of Education John King

John King, the new Secretary of Education, recently said that he had some reservations about the value of homeschooling.  He commented that he felt that these students did not have the “range of options” that were best for all students, and that they sometimes did not get the kind of “rapid instructional experience” that students in schools received.  (I gather he means that home-schooled students often are allowed to learn at their own pace, so do not practice the ability to learn quickly very often.)  As always, these comments brought forth outrage from the fans of homeschooling, who point out how well home-schooled students do on academic tests and the like.

Readers of this column will know that I find both sides of this argument problematic. Secretary King may be right or wrong on the educational experience of home-schooled students, but that is not the main problem with homeschooling.  As I have discussed recently concerning Charters, the issue with these government-supported semi-private schemes is not the success of failure of the individual students, but the overall success of the public program.  Looking just at how well students do on tests or other aspects of their education would be like looking just at the individual success of some baseball players on a team.  That they may be doing well is not the same as whether the team is doing well.  It is quite possible that you can have a star player on a weak team, or vice versa.  What we want to know in public education policy is whether the entire program is succeeding or not, since that is what we are paying for, not just whether some students are doing well.

A good way to approach the topic of how we should determine that overall success of the public school system is to think back to other laws that we set up over the years to regulate the schools, such as the truancy laws.  Every state has had rules and regulations about the compulsory nature of public education for quite a while.  When I was a child I remember being told that the truant officer would catch me if I played hooky and would bring me back to school or even to jail, and when I first started teaching I knew of several families that were frequently in trouble with the local truant authorities.  Punishments often involved fines, the loss of the student’s driver’s license, and referrals to juvenile court.

Why do we have such laws?  Clearly it is because the goal of the school system is not just to teach some students well, but to teach them all well.  That is the only way we are going to create a better society, and that is the ultimate goal of the entire school system.  The reason everyone, not just the parents of school-age children, pays for the schools is that we all benefit from this program through its effect on such matters as crime, health and worker productivity.  As I never tire of saying, public education is not just about the education of the students, but the effect of that education on the population in general, the ones who are paying for it.  To measure that effect you clearly have to look at all the children, not just the ones in school.  You have to count the ones not in school, too.  So it only makes sense to try to get everyone into school so you can maximize the good educational outcomes.  Hence we have laws that require everyone to attend school.

In the past, then, we seem to have fully understood that the goal of public school is not just good test scores for individuals, but the overall effect of the program on our society.  The truancy laws demonstrate that we once understood these fundamental attributes of public education.  What has happened today, though, is that we seem to have forgotten this.  We now argue only about those test scores, or other aspects of the learning experience, and ignore the public benefit that we ought to be worried about.

There is no doubt that home schooling is very similar to truancy.  True, it is a form of truancy that is now acceptable in many states, but it is still essentially the same as the truancy of years past.  When I would talk with parents who kept their kids home 40 years ago they would say the same things that home-schooling parents say today – that their kids do better at home.  Why, then, is this acceptable now but wasn’t then?

You cannot argue that it is acceptable now because the results for each child are better.  That’s like saying that certain players on a team are doing well; it doesn’t address the overall success of the team or the program.  That certain individuals do well can never be the reason we adopt a public program.  If it’s public, it has to be judged by its effect on the entire population; that’s who is paying for it, so that’s who has to benefit from it.  The question should not be how those home-schooled students are doing; it should be how all the other students are doing.  That’s the question that public education seeks to answer.

Just to clarify – I have no problem with families wanting to educate their children outside of the public school system.  They are free to choose this.  We have to accept, though, that this means they are choosing a private system of education.  That’s their whole point.  It’s their own private needs that they are satisfying.  There is nothing public about it.  There are many good private schools, and you can even start one yourself if you comply with the usual regulations for a private school.  There is nothing wrong with educating one’s own children in a private way.

The problem is that the states have then turned around and said that these private arrangements ought to be funded by the public school system.  They are using public money to support a non-public program;  a program that not only does not contribute in any way to the success of the public schools, but which actually undermines the success of that system, as the truancy laws have long pointed out.  Taking students out of the public school system does not necessarily harm the students, but it does always harm the public who is paying for that system.  It lessens the societal benefits from that system, and these benefits are at the core of the reasons we have a public school system in the first place.

So, much as I agree with Secretary King on most matters, I would like him look at bit more deeply into public support for homeschooling.  It doesn’t make sense, regardless of how successful it may be for the students involved.  It doesn’t work as a public program.

Peter Dodington

September 24, 2016