Fangs and Freedom

By Ian Aikens | January 11, 2021

One of the few silver linings that has emerged from the pandemic is finally a significant number of parents are starting to take charge of their children’s education. Out of necessity more than choice, last year saw a notable drop in children “attending” government schools and an increase in homeschooling and pandemic PODs or micro-schools.

What exactly is a POD or micro-school? Actually, there are two different kinds: a self-directed POD and a learning support POD. Under a self-directed POD, parents unenroll their child from the existing traditional government school, charter school, magnet school, or private school. The parent is the teacher and is fully responsible for their child’s education and curriculum. This path is mostly associated with what folks call homeschooling. This differs from the learning support POD in that parents keep their child enrolled in their regular school but find a group of families for after-school activities and additional educational enrichment.

Like people, POD’s are as different as they come. The only thing they really have in common is that students gather together in small groups with adult supervision to learn, explore, and socialize. The parents come up with the rules and terms, which run the gamut for number of hours, fees, safety protocols, and just about everything parents can agree on for their children. They can be completely free or cost several hundred dollars per month. They offer significant flexibility to suit the parents’ and children’s needs and may gather for just 10-20 hours/week or just on certain days.

Just a little refresher here on New Hampshire homeschooling laws: school is compulsory for children aged 6-18, and parents must notify the school principal within 5 days of beginning homeschooling. There are no teacher qualifications and no immunization requirements, but state mandated subjects are science, math, language, government, history, health, reading, writing, spelling, history of the US and New Hampshire constitutions, and exposure to art and music. Parents must keep a portfolio of work samples for each student for two years and have each student evaluated annually. All things considered compared to other nanny states, intrusion is minimal in New Hampshire.

One interesting piece I read from a homeschooler demonstrates that there is no need to fear overzealous oversight by educational bureaucrats if you do your “homework” as a parent. When a new school administrator requested a list of books the parent was using for her children, the parent sent back a “Show Me” letter asking for the specific passage in the law where it states the parent must provide such a list. A few days later, the parent received a response from the school stating that she met the legal requirement to homeschool – without mentioning (wisely) the school list. Good for this parent – let the burden of proof for nonsense rest on the bureaucrats, not the taxpaying citizen.

How did we get to a point where a parent has to fear a school bureaucrat? Government schools have been around since the beginning of the country, but it might surprise you to know that such schools were mostly privately financed by fees paid by the parents – basically a user fee. True, local, county, and state governments did kick in some supplementary financing, especially for children whose parents couldn’t afford it. But, basically without being compulsory or free, almost every child was able to attend school.

Unfortunately, the busybodies weren’t content to leave well enough alone. Beginning in the 1840’s, a movement developed to make schools “free” by having parents and their neighbors pay for schools indirectly by taxes rather than directly by fees. (Just look at your most recent property tax bill and see how “free” they really are.) Tellingly, it was not the parents who led this movement but teachers and government officials. The most famous crusader was Horace Mann, the first secretary of the Massachusetts State Board of Education, who is now heralded as “the father of American public education.” While Mann and his ilk pitched the “good public investment” argument we’ve all heard ever since then, that was a smokescreen. It was really the teachers and bureaucrats pushing for their own self-interest for a greater certainty of employment, more security for their salaries being paid, and of course more control if government paid the bills rather than parents.

As no surprise to anyone, it’s all about control, and control is all about funding. If parents pay directly themselves, they pretty much have 100% say over their children’s education, but if schools are “free” because their neighbors are forced to pay, then control is gladly taken over by administrators, boards, councils, committees, and politicians. Well, we’re hardly going back to user fees for most parents after 170 years of “free” schools, but the idea of school choice has been gaining momentum in recent years, and last year’s dismal experience with remote learning is giving it a good boost.

If your neighbors are going to be forced to pay for your children’s education, why not direct that money right to the parents and let them pick the best school for their children? The taxpayers would be no worse off since tax extractions are still tax extractions, but the children would get a break for a change because their own parents know them better and are better guardians than strangers and, worse still, bureaucrats with their own agenda.

I’ll bet even if only 80% of what all levels of government spend on each child were to be paid to parents, government schools would see a mass exodus, and a whole new crop of educational options would open up for all children, not just the children of the elite. Since private, voluntary schools have a record of stretching dollars a lot further than government schools, 80% might be more than enough for most parents, but even if they had to dig into their own pocketbooks, most parents would be willing to do it because the desire to have your children succeed in life is universal. Funding “the children” rather than schools, institutions, and school districts would be a better way to accomplish that much overused term “the public good.”

Needless to say, the educational-industrial complex industry is not about to give up its stranglehold on “the children.” The teachers’ unions, bureaucrats, and politicians have fought the very notion of school choice for decades, and they’re not going down without a fight. Even charter schools, which are still government schools, have been targeted by the teachers’ unions and politicians for years because they have more independence and flexibility in how they operate. The fierce opposition has increased lately, despite the existence of charter school lotteries because demand by parents exceeds the supply. That alone should demonstrate what the real motives are of those with vested interests.

Since the pandemic started, the supporters of continuing this educational monopoly have really gone on the warpath. Here are but a few examples from all over the country. The Oregon Department of Education opposed school re-openings because “multi-family learning groups may slow the process of returning to school by creating more opportunities for spread among students and families.” The Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators lobbied to make it illegal for families to enroll in virtual charter schools during the lockdown because the school districts would be losing money. Then there was the Denver Board of Education which was “deeply concerned about POD long-term negative implication for public education and social justice.” And who can forget the teachers’ rallies in the fall with their mock body bags and signs proclaiming Not One Case? Never mind that New York City’s top health officials declared that “the public schools are among the safest public places around.”

As always, wealthier parents have turned to other alternatives like PODs, private schools, and tutors to take care of their kids while the children of parents on the lower end of the economic ladder are languishing at home with inferior online classes. Really showing their fangs this time, the unions, bureaucrats, and politicians rail about “equity,” “inclusiveness,” and “privilege,” but what alternatives have they presented? None – their hypocrisy is breath-taking. Not only do they not care what happens to the kids from poor families – they resent and oppose those who do escape their clutches. So that all will be equal, they prefer a race to the bottom.

While the funding conundrum will force many middle-class families back to the government school system after the pandemic has faded, I’m hoping a significant number will never return. Hopefully the extra money parents have to dig into their pockets for is worth the extra control they gained over their children’s education. Maybe they will have discovered that “free” wasn’t such a bargain after all.

References:

Clopton, Jennifer. (2020, August 14). Parents Turn to ‘Pods’ for School During Pandemic. Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/lung/news/20200814/parents-turn-to-pods-for-school-during-pandemic

DeAngelis, Corey. (2020, September 2). Pa must fund students, not school districts. Retrieved from https://www.inquirer.com/opinion/commentary/philadelphia-virtual-learning-school-choice-coronavirus-pandemic-20200902.html

Friedman, Milton and Friedman, Rose. (1980). Free to Choose. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.

Gerstenfeld, Adam. (2019, February 7). What Is A Charter School Lottery? Retrieved from https://www.publiccharters.org/latest-news/2019/02/07/what-charter-school-lottery

Rojas Weiss, Sabrina. (2020, August 11). How to Pod: These Parents Are Going Small to Stay Safe. Retrieved from https://www.sheknows.com/parenting/articles/2300187/how-to-form-pods-microschools/

Seaborne, Shay. (2010, December 15). The “Show Me Letter”. Retrieved from https://www.thehomeschoolmom.com/the-show-me-letter/

Time4Learning. New Hampshire Homeschool Laws & Requirements. Retrieved from https://www.time4learning.com/homeschooling/new-hampshire/laws-requirements.html/

Tuccille, J.D. (2020, November 4). Bureaucrats Declare War on Learning Pods. They’ll Lose. Retrieved from https://reason.com/2020/11/04/bureaucrats-declare-war-on-learning-pods-theyll-lose/

Welch, Matt. (2020, November 16). NYC’s school leaders fail poor children even as they cry about ‘equity’. Retrieved from https://nypost.com/2020/11/16/nycs-school-leaders-fail-poor-children-as-they-cry-about-equity/

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