Let’s Home School Them All
By Dave Swenson
Public education is under assault from a wide range of sources. There are those who believe public schools waste money, coddle ineffective teachers, create more educational problems than they solve, and churn out marginally functional adults. There are ardent reformers like Arne Duncan, President Obama’s Education Secretary, who according to Gregg Palast, mostly advocates, “testing instead of teaching." And if remedial “… triage isn't enough, then attack their teachers.”
Like CEOs on quarterly dividends rampages who cut staff to boost the near term bottom lines, the detractors of the modern public education system want it trimmed of all unproductive dead wood. Shape up or ship out, and that means kids as well as teachers. Fewer bad teachers and bad kids and by definition the system will be better. Deprive the teachers’ unions of bargaining power, add a little organizational discipline coupled with the right amount of corporate leadership principles, drop music and art, and public education can be reformed to best serve our economy.
So we test and punish to clear the public education system of dysfunction. But a system that is test-based and which rewards teachers and administrators for test improvements is asking for trouble. There will be cheating, and it won’t be the kids doing it. Further, good teachers have a conundrum. If they spend their days dealing most effectively with their kids’ most pressing educational needs, they sacrifice class test scores. If they focus on the basics of passing the standardized tests, lots of their kids don’t get the learning attention they need.
There of course have always been alternatives to public education. We have private schools that cater to those who by religious conviction or wealth prefer to be educated with their own kind. According to the U.S. Department of Education, though, their shares have declined consistently from a peak of 11 percent of school age kids in 1985 to an estimated 9.4 percent in 2010.
Gains have been made among the home-school crowd over the last decade. Where in 1997 1.7 percent of all children ages 5 through 17 were homeschooled, by 2007 that number had skyrocketed to, wait for it, 2.9 percent. Nearly three out of 100 school aged children were taught either totally or partially in the home. I say partially because about a fifth of home-schooled children still must rely in part on existing schools to supplement them – they are quasi-home-schooled.
Indeed, home-schoolers are a select group. White children are five times more likely to be home-schooled than black children. Girls are 46 percent more likely to be home-schooled than boys, for reasons that are not obvious to me. Economies of scale kick in, too: the incidence for three or more children is twice that of a family with only one child. A two parent household is 3.6 times more likely to home-school than a single parent household, and two parent households with just one parent working are 3.8 times more likely to home-school than the case where both are working. Home-school incidences rise as household income rises, but then declines for the highest income groups (who are more able to sequester their children into private schools). Surprising, at least to me, the incidence of home schooling was roughly the same among households in which the parents did not possess a bachelor’s degree, but had at least some college or vocational training, as with those with a bachelor’s degree.
Iowa was recently visited by presidential aspirants Congresswoman Michelle Bachman, former businessman Herman Cain, and Congressman Ron Paul to speak at the annual Home-School Day at the state Capitol. All quite clumsily bemoaned the abysmal performance of our public systems in a state renowned for public education, and all touted the virtues of home-schools.
So, why not institute home-schooling for all Iowa children? Think of the tax savings!
Unfortunately, there are problems with the home-school-them-all calculus. Only a quarter of Iowa’s adults have a bachelor’s degree, and both parents are working in over 70 percent of the families with children. The home-school teacher pool is pretty paltry. So, home-schooling is only a viable option for a very small subset of Iowa families, it is certainly not a solution to any of Iowa’s pressing education issues, and it is an utter non-issue regarding education policy.
The better solution is to knock off the phony recriminations towards our public school teachers and their comparatively abysmal levels of compensation, get off of our collective and smug behinds for a change and get behind teachers instead, fully fund education instead of speculative economic development boondoggles, and acknowledge that our kids are getting the best education that we allow them to get.
You see, the problem is you, not the teachers.
It always was.
Dave Swenson is a long-time analyst of Iowa political, social, and economic issues. He is a staff research economist at Iowa State University and a community and regional economics analyst and educator. He also teaches planners (those nefarious agents of totalitarian control) how to do economic things in their profession at both Iowa State University and The University of Iowa.