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Government Homeschool Programs Just Another Alternative?
- The Third Great Lie
(This article, by Chris Cardiff, was originally published in the November-December 1996 issue of Home Education Magazine.)

Your check is in the mail.
I'll respect you in the morning.
We're from the government and we want to help you.

There they are - the three Great Lies of our time. While the first two don't have much to do with homeschooling, the third Great Lie is assuming greater significance as homeschooling continues its astonishing growth. Government schools have been forced to respond to this threat to their virtual monopoly on education by establishing their own homeschool programs.
Some families are grateful for these programs and rush to take advantage of them. There is no doubt that the state has constructed some good programs with attractive benefits for participating families - books, curriculum guidance, excellent resource teachers, reimbursement for materials, educational counseling, classes. And it's all free! Why not take advantage of it?
The short answer: because there is a serious down side to these programs, involving long-term political and economic implications for both your own family and all homeschooling families. The third Great Lie didn't gain its stature accidentally.
In California, these programs are called Independent Study Programs (ISPs) and they seem to be spreading like kudzu. Virtually unknown a few years ago, ISPs are offered in over a dozen school districts in my county (Santa Clara, California) now. Initially aimed at elementary age children, they are now spreading to high school age students.
Amid the rich diversity of homeschooling styles, philosophies, and methods, some homeschoolers defend government ISPs as just another alternative for families to consider. While it is true that they are another alternative, the nature of their genesis in government makes them fundamentally different from other homeschooling options. Their centralized command-and-control structure makes them politically dangerous and their ability to extort funding from the citizenry gives them powerful economic leverage.
These programs contain massive hidden costs and potential dangers to both participating *and non-participating* families. Economically, they undermine all aspects of independent (non-government) homeschooling: family homeschool businesses, local support groups, private ISPs, homeschool conferences. Politically, it's the age old strategy of "capture the kids," with our autonomy as parents at risk.
Economic Weapons
In the US, we spend more money on government education than any other program except Social Security. In California alone, this translates into approximately a $30 billion budget. Because this funding is taken from all citizens, it provides a grossly uneven economic playing field for other homeschooling alternatives who don't have the power to tax.
The guaranteed stream of taxpayer funding allows government ISPs to offer "free" services to educational consumers. Small local support groups are now competing for participants with an organization backed by enormous economic resources. And it's not just at the consumer level where the competition occurs. With their overwhelming economic clout, government ISPs can offer economic incentives to educational providers who might otherwise offer their services to the independent homeschool community. To illustrate, consider these examples:
* When the Cupertino, California school district introduced its innovative ISP a few years ago, they offered families up to $1,000 in reimbursements for educational materials and expenses. Hundreds of families responded to this offer. How many support groups or co-opts offer to reimburse participating families for expenses?
* Non-government ISPs in California charge between $100-$200 a year for a variety of educational services. Government ISPs offer similar and in some cases superior resources for "free."
* In our local support group, I coach a Math Olympiad team for homeschoolers for six months of the year at a cost of $18 for materials. Last year I was asked by one of the government ISPs in our area to provide the same service to their program. They offered to pay me $21/hour for my efforts. I could make $1,000-$2,000 for doing what I was already doing for free and at the same time participants wouldn't have to pay the $18 material fee.
* A similar choice was offered to another parent in our support group who loves art and was one of the principal art instructors for our weekly "Friday school." She now teaches art for homeschoolers through the government ISP and has significantly reduced her voluntary efforts with the support group.
Some families will make rational (short-term) economic decisions and choose to receive the "free" benefits available through taxpayer funded ISPs rather than paying for them in the private sector. While an understandable choice in the short-run, in the long-run it diminishes the growth of the private sector and consequently, the options available to us all (in economic terms, the government sector "crowds out" the private sector).
Historically, the economic tactics the educational establishment is starting to use on homeschooling bear an uncanny resemblance to the same ones employed in the mid-1800s when the existing system of universal private education in the US was supplanted (crowded out) by the current government-based system (for details, see "Education and the State" by E. G. West, an economic historian). As taxpayer funded education spread, government schools systematically undercut the private market on price as parents did the elementary economic calculation of asking themselves "why pay twice? I paid my taxes didn't I?"
Just Another Middle Class Entitlement Program
It's this kind of I-paid-my-taxes entitlement thinking that segues into the political consequences of these programs. While this characterization may shock some people, government provided education is just another middle class entitlement program. Educational benefits are given largely to middle class families based on funding taken from all taxpayers. Government ISPs are just one aspect of the second largest entitlement program in the world (ahead of Medicare but behind Social Security).
Once families become hooked on programs based on Other People's Money (OPM - it's addictive, just like the drug), it's not easy to wean them. The situation is analogous to the better publicized welfare dependency problem, but in this case families are on the educational dole. When enough people become dependent on these programs you have what politicians call a constituency.
With a vested economic interest in receiving government educational benefits through ISPs, homeschoolers participating in these programs become just another special interest group lobbying the government for their "fair share" of taxes. To illustrate this special interest group mentality consider these examples:
* When the state revoked the $1,000 stipend at the Cupertino, California ISP, participants were outraged. Letters were written and calls were made to various state agencies and legislators. Homeschoolers of one statewide organization convened to discuss ways and means of getting it restored (it wasn't).
* More recently, charter schools in California and Michigan catering to homeschools have been disqualified from receiving state funding. Protest marches and legal battles have erupted as homeschoolers demand their share of ADA funding from the state.
* Homeschoolers lobbying to participate in government school extra-curricular activities like sports or music fall into this same category - a special interest group lobbying for government handouts.
Recapturing Homeschooling Families
So, what motivates the government school system to lure families back by offering "freebies" to homeschoolers? Why do they want families that have demonstrated that they are perfectly capable of educating their own children to return to the government system? Why, in a system that's chronically over-crowded (if you listen to the teacher unions) and incapable of providing a decent education (if you listen to the system critics) are they using resources developing new programs to serve homeschoolers?
Ideologues on one side would suggest that they want to capture the kids so they can brainwash them. Ideologues on another side would suggest that they want to provide the best education possible for all children. And while both of these explanations are possible (and are doubtless contributing factors), a simpler and more comprehensive one suggests itself.
In the words of the famous bank robber, Willie Sutton, it's because "that's where they keep the money." Remember that $30 billion just in California? With approximately one-third of a *trillion* dollars flowing through the entire system, people at all levels of the taxpayer funding food chain have enormous vested financial interests in the status quo.
When families leave the system, funding does too. In California, funding is around $5,000 per child. The estimated 50,000 children homeschooling in California represent $250,000,000 - a quarter of a billion dollars - that will not be going into the government system. From a funding standpoint, it makes a lot of sense for an ISP to offer a $1,000 stipend to homeschoolers to return to the system. The program still comes out a clear $4,000 winner.
Think of this vast sea of dollars as a food chain. The guppies in this financial food chain are the homeschooling families. Closer to the top is the educational bureaucracy. Bureaucrats are not rewarded for solving a problem - they are rewarded with higher status, perks, and budget when a problem becomes a crisis. Homeschoolers, by our very success, threaten the entire notion of a centralized command-and-control education system.
The sharks at the top of the food chain are the teacher unions. While there will always be a need for good teachers, the same cannot be said for teacher unions. Unions recognize the threat homeschoolers pose to them. For the last few years, the largest union in the country, the National Education Association (NEA), has passed resolutions calling for the abolishment of homeschooling as we know it.
The NEA would allow homeschooling to continue, but only under the direction of state-certified teachers. Coincidentally, programs are already in place to administer total government oversight of homeschoolers. With a small administrative tweak, government ISPs would exactly match the NEA's model for government control of all homeschoolers. Having seduced most homeschoolers into these programs, it's a small step to make attendance mandatory for all homeschoolers.
In fact, the California Department of Education (DOE) is already trying to implement this model by herding all homeschoolers into government ISPs. For the last few years, the legal counsel for the DOE issued an "opinion" to all school districts that homeschooling is illegal in California unless done under the control of a state-certified teacher.
It was just such a letter as this that prompted the Lucia Mar school district in January to threaten all 33 homeschooling families in their district with a Truancy Board hearing unless they joined the newly formed government ISP. While the district eventually backed down, this was a truly harrowing experience for the families involved.
Truancy Boards in California were armed with subpoena powers last year by the state legislature. Almost immediately, in Visalia, a Board had the parents of five families (*not* homeschoolers) publicly arrested for failure to appear before them in connection with their children's alleged truancy. The arrests were "designed to be embarrassing. Officers served warrants at parents' workplaces and led them out in handcuffs in front of co-workers." (Fresno Bee, 11/6/95).
The New Homeschooling Fracture Line
Many homeschool publications and organizations hail it as a victory when homeschoolers are allowed to participate in extracurricular activities like sports or music at government educational institutions. However, there is nothing offered in these institutional settings that has not been duplicated by some enterprising homeschooling group or family somewhere in the private sector. Sports leagues, choirs, spelling bees, geography bees, journalism, "school" pictures and yearbooks, science fairs, field trips - even formal classroom instruction have all been offered by homeschooling groups in Santa Clara county.
There is a new fracture line forming within the homeschooling community. On one side are those homeschooling families who choose to participate in government ISPs or extracurricular activities offered through their local government school. These homeschoolers will be advocates at the political level for retaining and expanding the benefits they receive.
On the other side of the fissure are homeschooling families choosing to remain independent, refusing to be coopted by the government school system. These homeschoolers will continue fanning the sparks of vitality and the spirit of volunteerism inherent in the homeschooling community.
Homeschooling families need to take a principled stand against participation in government ISPs in order to safeguard our long-term freedom and independence as an educational alternative. We need to expose the third Great Lie as it relates to homeschooling. This is difficult to do in the face of the overwhelming economic advantage wielded by the education establishment and it will not be surprising to see many families yield to the temptation of a "free lunch." To truly break the cycle of educational dependency, this economic power must be returned to the people from whom it was taken. Only then will the homeschooling movement realize its full potential.
Copyright 1996, Chris Cardiff

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