If there is one thing homeschool families have in common, it’s the desire to be left alone about their education choices. Parents go to great sacrificial lengths to homeschool, including paying all expenses out of pocket, often doing so on a single salary. Homeschoolers get used to doing things in their own way, in their own time, on their own dime.
Homeschool families have a unique set of concerns when it comes to policy debates about education. Many have already opted out of a classroom setting due to special or unique needs or talents of their children, religious or philosophical beliefs, or lack of education options in their area.
Many homeschool families rightfully greet the prospect of education choice with a heavy dose of skepticism. “Education choice” means allowing some of a state’s education money to follow the student to the education method or school of their choice (including homeschool), usually in the form of Education Savings Accounts (ESAs).
In Idaho, the ESA debate is in full swing as legislators consider allowing parents to control some of a student’s education dollars. For homeschool families the opposition to any iteration of education choice comes down to one primary concern: government control. After all, prior to the early 1980’s, homeschooling was treated as a crime in many states. Homeschoolers have spent decades crawling out from the thumb of government hegemony. ESAs are viewed as a Trojan Horse that will allow the state to reassert influence over homeschooling. No matter how good the bill looks, ESA opponents embrace the slippery slope fallacy and assert that an inevitable chain of bad things will happen in rapid succession, leading to homeschooling’s demise. The fundamental appeal of this argument is fear.
As homeschoolers, we would be the last people to defend every iteration of an “education choice” bill. Money is not the ticket to a homeschooler’s heart—freedom is. But money is a neutral tool that may produce greater control or freedom depending on the criteria attached to its use.
In the case of any proposed education choice bill, we must resist the urge to view them all equally. Interestingly, conservative homeschoolers sometimes line up with far-left socialists and union members in opposition to education choice, albeit for very different reasons. In either case, categorical opposition to ESAs is always rooted in fear-based arguments: ESAs will destroy public education. ESAs will destroy homeschooling. ESAs will destroy the religious freedom of private schools. ESAs will leave rural students without options.
Could a poorly designed ESA program result in one or more of those outcomes? Yes. Just as a knife may be used to prepare a delicious meal or to grievously wound a person, ESAs are neutral tools that must be wielded thoughtfully by policymakers. It is dishonest to ignore causal links and evidence to present a false dilemma that ESAs are categorically good or bad regardless of how they are set up.
The truth is there are “right” ways and dangerous ways to set up ESA programs. As Idaho recognizes, it is parents who “have the fundamental right and duty to make decisions concerning their [children’s] education.” An appropriate and effective ESA program should serve to enhance this right and duty in an “opt-in” manner. Although it should ideally be available to all Idaho families, sometimes ESAs are narrowly tailored to low-income or special needs students only. A lack of universality or policy perfection in a pilot ESA bill is not a principled reason for outright rejection.
The purpose of education choice is to give parents the means to choose the education method that best suits the needs of their individual child, not to bring the child under the regulation and purview of the state. It should be simple, clear, understandable, and place as much of the decision-making power as possible with parents. It should explicitly forbid state control over curriculum or religious choices of parents and include protective language for private schools and homeschool families.
If these criteria are met, it would be needlessly cruel to oppose a policy that would fling wide the doors of opportunity for families who are unable to homeschool for financial reasons, especially when the entire program is “opt-in” and requires no additional funding for students transferring out of public school. Parents who have any reservations can continue homeschooling on their own dime outside of the program. Meanwhile, the ranks of Idaho’s homeschoolers will increase, meaning more families will be prepared to defend against future government intrusion.
The reality is that state governments can and do exert regulatory control over homeschoolers whether government money is involved or not. In Washington, for example, parents must be “qualified” as defined by the state, file an annual declaration with the school district where they reside, teach 11 required subjects, have their children tested or evaluated annually by a “qualified” individual, and keep records of academic progress. All these rules exist without homeschoolers receiving one cent of government money. In fact, legislators often propose amendments to Washington’s homeschool law to enhance government control or lower the age that homeschool parents must begin reporting about their children to the state.
Lack of government money does not protect homeschool families from state regulation. Vigilance and defense against government overreach is a pervasive role that all homeschool parents must accept if they value their academic freedom.
We urge homeschool parents not to prioritize a hypothetical risk about the problems a poorly-designed ESA program may create over the very real crisis that a well-designed ESA program can solve. The possibility that the state might, at some point, exert more control over homeschooling through some future version of a corrupted ESA program is less pressing than the fact that parents are presently compelled by the government to submit their children to an education that may not be best for them, unless they are wealthy enough to opt out.
A well-designed ESA program is not a threat to homeschoolers and is a godsend to kids who are trapped in failing or unresponsive schools. It is unreasonable to oppose every version of a policy that would enable these kids to have the kinds of opportunities our homeschooled children already enjoy on the fear that, someday, if a series of bad things happen in succession, we might lose some of our homeschool freedom.