Home School for Home Rule

October 1st, 2013

Along the scale of political viewpoints, I firmly believe in taking things issue by issue, using the constitution as the ‘midline’ point. After all, you can’t get too far to the left or right without falling afoul of the Supreme Court. True, the context of a legislative question or life decision may change from one decade to the next. This drives the Court to look at the events surrounding legislation from the original intent of the law under review. In effect, they need to ‘read the minds’ of the ‘framers’. My current interest in compulsory education stems from my recent visit to Europe and the Middle East. There, I was able to have a fresh look at issues of increasing income disparity harming the children of working parents frequently losing their residences as it affected education. Furthermore, even for stable families, the UK offered stories that clearly outlined the terrible effects of bullying in the schools by those ‘on top’ of the classroom hierarchy depriving those ‘at bottom’ of educational benefits. Back here at home, I am again looking at local issues of property taxes which are insufficient to cover education for huge numbers of children.

Compulsory education in the USA was a remarkable step which not only guaranteed that children could not become a full-time source of labor, but would aquire the basic skills necessary to step out into the wider world and improve their place within it. Public schools served us particularly well during the years following the turbulent years of integration during the 1960s. However, with the increased diversity of students today with regard to both culture and aptitude, our overcrowded classrooms have a price tag which is unacceptably high for their quite mediocre results. At the time of this writing, the government statistical data was unavailable due to the partial shutdown of the government. However, the wikipedia citation comes from that data pool as well and tells us primary and secondary education comes to some 500 billion dollars annually and that home schooling is done by only 1.7 percent of families in this nation.

As a former educator, it is important to recall that I chose to work within the private sector because it did the best job of serving developmentally disabled individuals. There were (and are) a number of outstanding programs in the public sector, but their funding and staffing are in constant flux. In the private sector, we received tuition for children who were not able to be accommodated successfully in public schools and were expected to ‘do better’ by them. Education is a complex equation and we appear to lack the flexibility to examine all of the ‘integers’ involved in our public school systems today.

After twenty-five years of experience in New York City, I am well acquainted with the arguments reverberating in the communities about how to afford the price tag of local schools based upon revenues from property taxes from an ever-changing landscape of population shifts. No one would argue the benefits of living in an educated society whether or not residents even have children in the educational system. Still, how can property owners continue bearing such a tax burden throughout the entire tenure of their land ownership, even into old age and infirmity? With the elderly often forced to sell their homes due to maintenance costs plus tax burdens that can’t be met on a retirement income, the stability of residential neighborhoods in which children and grandchildren are raised, suffers greatly.

One example of the taxation problem is the institution of something called a ‘view tax‘ in New England states. Many people sought out property in scenic areas and bore the added costs and time involved in commuting during their working lives. Many of these properties are small and difficult to maintain in the harsh climate of the Northeastern portion of the USA. I lived there for four years of icy winters and wet springs, called ‘mud season’. Home maintenance was extremely challenging and costly, as were heating costs. The lush ‘views’ didn’t pay for themselves so the additional costs for property ownership in these outer regions is a ridiculous notion, bitterly resented in those areas. In addition to the fairness issue of arbitrarily adding a tax for the presumed desirability of an area, we have to ask how many generations of children a single home-owner is required to fund in one lifetime. With a constant influx of new residents and their children into urban areas, the overcrowding of our schools continues to degrade the quality of education, while costs increase for longer term occupants. Smaller classes (such as 35 children!) can only be maintained by pairing increased funding with cuts in the areas of education being funded, such as important subjects like art, music, languages and sports.

The quality of education is also threatened around the world by bullying and stratification between the upper and lower portions of classroom power hierarchies (yes, children have them too!). This is extremely hard to deal with and leads to the graduation of damaged children heading away from one battle-field into another, i.e. whatever employment settings they are qualified to seek.

The answer that satisfies all of these issues, while also allowing for a reduction in property taxes, is the old-fashioned one of ‘home schooling’. Many debates have been held about voucher systems which drain funds from public classrooms. This refers to the funding of attendance at charter schools, which is not the same as home schooling arrangements. Charter schools are state approved with a set curriculum and prescribed teacher qualifications. Vouchers for the costs set aside for every publicly educated child go to these extrinsic programs and may require parents to add additional monies to meet the tuition costs of such enrichment. Some are religious schools that may offer scholarships as well from private funding sources.

Home schooling leaves curriculum, teaching staff, materials and location entirely up to small groups of like-minded parents. It costs little in terms of public funding. Basically, a public school principal advises parents on the minimum requirements needed to prove their child has met the public standard for graduation year by year. Periodic meetings may involve the administration of tests and/or reviews of portfolios containing the work products of students such as reports and projects completed by the home-schooled child. This kind of arrangement actually leaves school boards with more funding per child still being served in the public sector. Another option is to reduce taxes when school attendance declines. If home schooling decreases the burden on the public and charter school sectors, it serves as a safety valve improving the quality of education for all children.

In addition to permitting reduced class size within the public sector, children with behavioral or learning challenges may be also be better served within publicly funded programs. They can then offer special therapists and classroom teachers who are currently overburdened by children falling behind as they get older in the system. During my own tenure as a special educator, the mandate to provide special assistance only kicked in after a child fell two years behind his peer group in achievements. The state and, in particular, some of their charter school programs, may best serve particular groups of children in need of remediation services. Reduced overall educational costs may eventually allow the more timely offering of interventions to cover special needs children.

The investment of time and planning for home-schooled children is far from minimal, a factor to be considered carefully by participants. The freedom of determining curriculum content, determining the best sources of information, desirable teacher credentials for consultation services and specific teaching strategies for each child takes a significant amount of time and attention. Organizing physical space for tuition and finding parties for supervision during periods of unstructured learning hours is equally challenging. The benefits for communities are undeniable. Many parent groups offer their own expertise in many fields of interest. Other specialists can be located by parents to develop or approve course content and recommend assignments for students to pursue privately. Many extremely well-qualified teachers choose to enter other career paths or are on sabbaticals/maternity leaves etc. These people can be interviewed by parent groups and hired one or two days per week to offer instruction in new concepts that are hard to acquire independently (e.g. math). Parents can then supervise the children in expanding upon those days of instruction in self-tuition exercises while the teacher moves on to other home study groups. It may lead to an entirely new category of teaching specialties, particularly when addressing multi-lingual groups of students.

Students with particular aptitudes and talents will likely be identified early in this model so that a larger concentration upon those talents might be offered on a child by child basis. Another benefit is that school textbooks are largely selected by central boards of educators and prepared by a very few companies in the USA. This restrictiveness is relieved by the wider array of information that can be selected or solicited from experts for each home grouping. Eventually, home instruction manuals may proliferate and ease the burden of inner city parents hoping to obtain specialized curriculum materials for their home school enterprises.

Imagine the market for educators able to work with world experts in various fields and condense their information into volumes suitable for understanding by children at different ages. This seems to be a win-win scenario for the public and private sectors. It does not encroach upon the charter schools with their approved content, which may seem too narrowly focused for some families.

One area which must be considered in home-schooling is the planning of activities to allow students to interact with the children educated in public and private school sectors. These are the individuals with whom they will socialize as adults. This can be done through registering for specific classes which are hard to offer ‘in-home’ such as those requiring science laboratories or orchestral groups in music studies. Sports is another obvious area as are religious studies. School trips are standard for most institutions and home schooled children might be able to pay fees to go along on some of these highly educational excursions.

The educational environment of a home schooling program can address, with increased flexibility, family groupings with diverse work schedules. Children of medical specialists or employees of 24-hour factory operations may have unusual working hours. This can require after school care which under-employed parents can offer more economically than standard day-care providers. Even sleep-overs for variable shift workers might be possible.

Diet and exercise is another area of concern with parents best supplying meals for children and breaks being offered daily. Younger children may need naps. Locations may change in the course of a week where parents job-share, leaving one home open half a week and another in the remaining days. Parents are reminded however, to ensure the health status of all children in a home-study group. Some homes may provide separate quarters for children who are unwell or recently vaccinated and ‘shedding’ virus. Standards of educational staffing and environmental needs should be agreed upon at the outset by all participants in writing. Building codes must not be violated in terms of the numbers of occupants in a room.

The sky is the limit in the realm of education. It should not require a ‘view tax’ since we all share the same sky in every part of the globe. The more options available to parents, the greater the pride in outcome for all concerned. The fairer the tax structure supporting education, the better for our communities. Tax breaks for home-schoolers might also be of some small assistance to communities in which overcrowding of classes requires encouragement for this option to be offered.

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