Homeschool Information Library
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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
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.
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
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
* 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
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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