I’ve been overwhelmed and gratified by the huge response to my Slate essay on secular, liberal homeschooling—especially Astra Taylor’s deeply thought rebuttal at N+1, which I highly recommend. Taylor maintains that her original piece was not prescriptive: that she does not believe progressive homeschooling is practical or right for all children, simply that considering its benefits—its child-centered ideology and disdain for testing—is a useful thought experiment when contemplating how to improve education broadly.
To me, the salient question is how we get from point A) a public school system that isn’t doing a good enough job educating many kids, especially the neediest, to point B) a public school system that is more equitable and higher quality. Does the increasing prominence of homeschooling—both in terms of raw numbers of families joining the movement and homeschooling’s growing role in the political debate over education—serve this purpose? I continue to believe it does not, because it is difficult to improve an institution without broad buy-in into it.
Furthermore, I’m concerned that the deep cynicism about public education reflected in Taylor’s original N+1 essay and other statements from progressive homeschoolers and unschoolers–in which schools are compared to prisons and public school educators are depicted as vicious enforcers of class and race hierarchies–only serves to lessen support for this crucial social institution.
I received dozens of emails since Slate published my piece, most from politically liberal parents eager to share stories of how homeschooling allows their own children to flourish through field trips, hands-on projects, and curricula molded to their quirky interests. Others told me they believe their child’s special physical, emotional, or intellectual needs can not be adequately served by schools; this is a wrenching challenge for millions of families with special-needs children, and one I should have acknowledged in my piece. (Later in this essay, I’ll address special education at greater length.)
But my Slate piece was not about the benefits or drawbacks of homeschooling for particular families or children. Rather, my piece was about the educational needs of society at-large. To clarify my own position, I do not think homeschooling should be illegal, and I acknowledge it may be the best option for a relatively small population of disabled and special-needs kids. My own belief is that when it comes to the typical child, however, homeschooling does not comport with crucial social justice values related to investing in the common good, and so I’d urge parents concerned with social justice—both broadly and in terms of their own children’s development—to think twice about making this choice.
The debate the article sparked, especially on the left, illuminates a deeper divide: What kind of liberalism does one subscribe to—one primarily concerned with the common good, or one primarily concerned with individual rights? Obviously a good society is made up of a careful, Rawlsian balancing of both these interests. But I believe American liberalism weighs private interests and “choice” too heavily, and that our society would be strengthened by more shared institutions and experiences, including in education.
Though just about 2 million children are homeschooled—compared to 55 million children in the public school system—homeschoolers are amazingly well organized, and have successfully lobbied many in the Republican Party to abandon their previous support for education spending and for federal and even state school improvement efforts. As secular progressives join the homeschooling movement in greater numbers, perhaps they will disassociate it somewhat from its outright hostility toward public education and efforts to improve it; one need not participate in a public institution to support it politically.
Yet as the political theorist Corey Robin deftly noted in our Twitter exchange about homeschooling, the social programs with the deepest support in the United States are those, like Medicare and Social Security, into which we all invest. In other Western democracies that have a history of greater public investment in education—and histories of greater respect for schooling and intellectual activity more generally—homeschooling and even private schooling is practically unheard of. Those cultural differences are why, as the New York Times reported last week, affluent, foreign-born parents in New York City enroll their children in public schools at nearly double the rate of native-born Americans in the same income bracket.
To respond directly to Taylor’s critique of my piece, I will admit to a romantic strain of thinking in some of my writing on public education. Looking back on the public schools I’ve chosen to report on over the past few years, from Newark to Queens to Denver, it’s true that I consistently visit excellent ones. In part, this is because I am eager to share best practices in the hope they can be replicated; in part, on an ideological level, I want to push back against “Waiting for Superman”-like thinking, in which charter schools are misrepresented as the only public schools helping low-income children transcend the economic conditions into which they were born.
That said, I try to stay vigilant about policing Pollyannaish tendencies in my work, knowing I come from a family of public school educators and that I had a generally positive public school experience in a district that was (and remains) in many ways unusual. To this end, my first long-form magazine feature about education entailed revisiting my hometown to confront an issue Taylor brings up in her rebuttal to my piece: the problematic history of de facto tracking by race and class in integrated public schools.
But the fact of the matter is, if there’s one reason to feel romantic about American public education, it’s that the public school system is required to educate all children, regardless of disability-status, behavioral problems, or whether or not they have parents actively engaged in their child’s education. Here is Section One of Title XI of the New York State Constitution:
The legislature shall provide for the maintenance and support of a system of free common schools, wherein all the children of this state may be educated.
The history of American public education is a history of efforts to make good on the Common School movement’s promise of universal, quality education. The Education and Secondary Education Act, signed into law by President Johnson in 1965, gave the federal government a new, aggressive role in supplementary funding for the education of disadvantaged children. When Congress passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in 1975, it prevented states and districts from excluding special-needs children from public education.
It would be a farce to claim all public schools are doing a good-enough job at serving special-needs kids. But at least within the public system, parents have legal recourse when they believe their children are not being adequately served. In New York City, for example, there’s a fantastic organization called Advocates for Children that provides disabled kids, low-income kids, foster kids, and other disadvantaged populations with attorneys to represent their interests in confrontations with the public schools.
This is in marked contrast to the homeschooling cooperatives and radical “free schools” I discuss in my Slate piece, in which “problem” children may be completely excluded. In the Brooklyn preschool cooperative Sonia Songha joined, “things got ugly” after the teacher suggested one child needed an individual aide, a common service public schools provide to kids on the autism spectrum, for example, or who are hearing-impaired. As parents in the co-op fought over whether to hire and how to fund an aide, two families pulled out.
And while the private Albany Free School Taylor visits in her N+1 essay is a fascinating (though, as Taylor admits, un-scalable) experiment in social-justice oriented education, it is not required to educate all children. Taylor writes:
At the time of my visit the staff had just dismissed a student for the first time in the school’s history. The boy, 10 years old and extremely large for his age, was angry and aggressive, intimidating and hitting his classmates without provocation. His peers knew his home life was tough, but their empathy didn’t deter him from terrorizing them. The whole community—teachers and students—held a meeting and, after discussing the issue at length, voted to have him leave.
Public school teachers and students are not allowed to vote any child out of a school.
Last spring I reported from Providence, Rhode Island and met Betsy Blanchette, a public school psychologist who specializes in working with children on the autism spectrum. Because the state of Rhode Island is required to provide free services to all disabled kids, Blanchette spends her day shuttling between up to six schools, some of them private schools, where she meets with students for counseling and with parents and teachers to design plans to educate special-needs children.
In 2010, Blanchette won an award as educator of the year from the Asperger’s Association of New England. She was nominated by the parents of a high-functioning autistic first-grader whose small private school had become overwhelmed by his needs. Reluctantly, the parents approached the Providence public schools for help; Blanchette was assigned to the case. She began meeting with the boy once a week to work on basic social skills, like how to interpret physical mannerisms or stay calm if a teacher “redirects”—changes directions for an activity mid-stream, a very confusing thing for a child on the autism-spectrum to understand, since they tend to be highly-literal and rules-oriented. Blanchette encouraged the family to enroll their son in public school, and then convinced the district to hire a full-time aide to attend class alongside the boy. Today he is in a fifth-grade inclusion classroom and doing well.
In this case, only the public school system had the expertise, resources, and legal responsibility to serve this particular child. And at the end of the day, that’s why homeschooling is severely limited as an education reform thought-experiment. Because the vast majority of two-income and single-parent families will never be able to homeschool or afford private school, we need to pursue educational equality within the confines of the public school system we have—a system that is constantly struggling, in a legally-accountable way, to balance the needs of individual children with the needs of the community at-large. The more of us engage in this struggle, by enrolling our kids in public schools and supporting public schools politically, the better these institutions will be.
Update: I forgot to mention that a few homeschoolers wrote to me saying they also believe investing in the common good is very important, so despite pulling their kids out of public schools, they have them volunteer, visit cultural institutions, and do other activities related to giving back. This is great, but again, this is the private liberalism of piecemeal philanthropy, not the sort of public liberalism I support, in which we build strong, shared social institutions capable of systemically addressing poverty.
Update 2: Yes, of course the choice of where to live, in terms of moving to a "better" school district, severely impacts educational equality and buy-in to the common good, as well–and is far more common than homeschooling. Click here and here to learn about ways to lessen the negative impact of residential segregation on schooling.
Update 3: A really smart response to the debate, from my friend Sara Mead.