Our School Choice Is None

Last week was National School Choice Week and the sponsoring group noted that 2,159 homeschool groups held events for it. Now, there’s no doubt that homeschooling is a choice, but for me and other homeschoolers I know, it was not a choice of schools, it was a choice for our families to avoid the rat race of schools: its busy work and pressure for labels, grades, class status, and homework. Our choice was not to go to school and to not turn our home into a school—and that’s a choice I never read about in the school choice literature. The choice must be among types of school—from self-imposed school at home to full-fledged boarding school—so it is a mandatory selection rather than a genuine choice. Can there really be a choice if you can’t refuse the offer?

We chose to live and learn with our children, but to have this action described as a private consumer choice, like choosing a Waldorf school instead of a Montessori school, misses the point that our refusal to turn our homes into schools has deeper consequences and meaning. We are exercising our right as citizens to create a family life that works for our own personal goals—our pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness. We refuse, as much as we can, to participate in society’s conspicuous consumption of schooling, but we embrace learning for our children and ourselves. We use school when we need to, if at all.

We don’t want to be constrained by the either-you’re-in-or-you’re-out philosophy of schooling—especially the notion that anything learned outside of school is of dubious value at best and that the more school learning you consume means that you are a better, more worthy person than those who consume less schooling. American schools must lose their binary, either/or philosophy and embrace a multidimensional, both/and philosophy to make this change for all citizens, not just children. This means allowing different philosophies, schedules, and ways of learning to co-exist without prejudice so that where you go to school and how you are educated are not held against you as it currently is.

For instance—and this is one reason why vouchers are such thin gruel to me as a response to school reform—what’s the point in giving someone a voucher that probably won’t cover their preferred school’s tuition? Or, as is more likely in rural and poor urban neighborhoods, what if there is not another school near you where you want to use your voucher dollars or exercise your choice?

Further, homeschoolers, and unschoolers in particular, don’t always use standard textbooks and educational programs for learning and this puts them in a bind when town and school officials review their educational purchases. The educational value of a television is just not as acceptable to school officials (and, probably, most parents) as purchasing a phonics textbook is.

In the 1990s there was an enterprising superintendent in Uxbridge, MA who supported all types of learning in his district and he extended vouchers to homeschoolers. When it was seen that homeschoolers were using that money to purchase video players, music lessons, instruments, and other items that anyone who wants to learn at home would find useful, the superintendent was put on the hot seat, the state Department of Education claimed those things were not proper educational expenses, and another opportunity to conceive of learning as more than just school classes was lost.

To my knowledge homeschoolers still do not receive funding from any state or federal agency in order to be able to teach their children at home. Though some homeschoolers would welcome such financial aid, others—and I’m one—do not due to all the strings that come attached to such money and the ease and swiftness with which it can be taken away, as the homeschooling families in Uxbridge, MA learned years ago.

Such is the dichotomy of living and learning that schools make of our lives. By homeschooling, I hope our actions can awaken people to a conception of education that goes beyond the compulsory credentialing of children and towards a conception of public education as a life-long, chosen support, like a public library, that helps everyone seek or create a life worth living and work worth doing.