Greg Forster, Ph.D. | February 1, 2022
School choice makes homeschoolers and private schools more safe from government—not less
Greg Forster, Ph.D.
It’s important to be vigilant about making sure government keeps its meddling hands off homeschoolers and private schools. But it’s just as important to be smart, and not undermine family-controlled education with our efforts to protect it. Instead of talking about school choice programs in the abstract, guided only by ideology, we must look at the extensive real-world track record these programs have produced.
I understand the concerns some have about protecting homeschoolers from government interference. I have a lot of close relatives who homeschool, including a couple who have been professionally employed providing services to homeschoolers. While my own special-needs daughter currently receives services in a government school, my wife and I took a very serious look at homeschooling several times during the pandemic, including as recently as a month ago.
So as Oklahoma considers an Education Savings Account proposal that would support homeschooling as a legitimate form of choice, I know it’s important to be vigilant about making sure government keeps its meddling hands off homeschoolers. But it’s just as important to be smart, and not undermine the cause of homeschooling with our efforts to protect it. The real-life track record of school choice programs across the country shows that—surprising as this may be to some—the programs greatly strengthen families against government interference, rather than weakening them.
I will take second place in line to absolutely nobody when it comes to vigilance against ever-grasping government. When I was in high school, we had a “dress like you would have looked in the 60s” day. My friends put on shaggy wigs and tie-dye. I put on a Barry Goldwater “IN YOUR HEART, YOU KNOW HE’S RIGHT” button and walked down the hall scolding all my hippie friends: “Get a job!”
I know from experience that a lot of homeschoolers are actually more sympathetic to long hair and granola than to crew cuts and tax cuts. But you can’t tell me I’m not committed to keeping the government’s grubby hands off your freedom.
Homeschoolers and private schools must be vigilant whether a state has vouchers, empowerment accounts, or tax credits—or no school choice programs at all.
However, a commitment to freedom is one thing. Ignoring what actually happens in the real world because we have an abstract theory that tells us how things absolutely must happen is another. That’s exactly how movements for change, like homeschooling, can lose their way.
I’ve been a school choice advocate for 20 years, and from the beginning, I have always heard the same thing from champions of a certain abstract ideology: “School choice programs must inevitably become a back door for government to take control of education outside government schools!” And you know, I’m not sure if I have ever, even once, heard this concern expressed as something that could potentially happen—something we need to watch out for, something to be concerned about. It’s always something that must, must, must inevitably happen, like water flowing downhill, or two and two making four, or the French army surrendering. It’s almost as if people feel the need to reassure themselves that their ideology is unconditionally reliable as a guide to the facts.
Instead of talking about school choice programs in the abstract, guided only by ideology, let’s look at the extensive real-world track record these programs have produced. While the earliest school choice programs date to the 19th century, the modern school choice movement began with a voucher program in Milwaukee in 1990. Today, there are 76 programs in 32 states plus D.C. and Puerto Rico that support families choosing non-government educational options. These programs serve over 600,000 students.
There have been no instances of government taking control of the content of education through these programs. None. On the contrary, in every case, protection for the right of educators supported by these programs to teach whatever they want however they want has been resoundingly vindicated both politically and legally.
Every type of school choice program has the same unblemished track record. Some homeschoolers in Oklahoma have argued that a program providing school choice through the tax code would be safer than Education Savings Accounts (in Oklahoma they’re called Oklahoma Empowerment Accounts). I’m in favor of all school choice programs, but Education Savings Accounts are a better program design, and there’s no justification for seeing any difference when it comes to protecting the content of education.
More than that: Once these programs exist, they quickly become so politically strong that they are almost never reduced in size or subjected to any kind of additional regulations or requirements. The politicians typically try that stuff once, get beaten badly, run home and never try it again.
Why? Because once these programs exist, they create a huge new constituency to protect them. Once parents see their children liberated from the government school monopoly, they’re not about to let anyone mess with their children again.
They show up in droves at state Capitols. They show up angry. They bring their kids. And as legislators and staff walk to their offices, the kids hold up signs that say: “Please don’t take away my school!”
That stuff works. Nobody wants to be the legislator responsible for forcing all their colleagues to face an inundation of hundreds of angry parents —disproportionately lower-income and brown parents—and explain why they’re standing in the schoolhouse door. That’s just a factory assembly line for your opponents’ election ads against you.
Here in Wisconsin, a few years ago we elected a governor who is as much a stooge for the teacher unions as it’s possible to be. In his first year, he tried to impose a cap on the size of the state’s charter schools and school choice programs—not an attempt to control what the schools teach, just a cap on program size. We flooded the state Capitol with parents and kids, and he withdrew the proposal. We haven’t heard a peep from him since.
You will hear people say that there is nothing politicians love more than power. But the form of power most of them really care about is their own reelection. Once a school choice program exists, any threat to the program is a threat to every legislator’s next campaign.
And you know what? Once school choice programs generate that kind of political power defending family control over education, it doesn’t stay limited to fighting off attacks on school choice programs. It can be leveraged to protect families against all forms of incursion from the state.
Right now, totally separate from school choice programs, massive political threats to family control of education are looming on the horizon. From sexual ideology on down the line, radical movements have made it clear they intend to indoctrinate other people’s kids. The right to raise your children in accordance with the dictates of your own conscience is being set up for threats like it’s rarely seen in this country.
Homeschoolers and private schools are going to face these challenges whether there are school choice programs in their state or not. What they need most right now is an organized political constituency that is large enough and institutionalized enough and angry enough to fight back. They’re feeling increasingly vulnerable and anxious, because they don’t have that now—except in places that have big school choice programs, where the organizing has already been done, and many thousands more parents are part of non-government education than before choice programs existed.
Here in Wisconsin, nobody’s talking about imposing radical sexual ideology on homeschoolers and private schools. Nobody—not a peep of it anywhere. One trip to the woodshed was apparently enough.
Homeschoolers are right to be worried about government taking away their control of their own education. But that’s not a reason to oppose Education Savings Accounts that recognize homeschooling as a legitimate choice. It’s a rock-solid reason to support it. That would give these families the thing they most need to protect themselves from the state: political power.
Greg Forster, Ph.D.
Greg Forster (Ph.D., Yale University) is a Friedman Fellow with EdChoice. He has conducted numerous empirical studies on education issues, including school choice, accountability testing, graduation rates, student demographics, and special education. The author of nine books and the co-editor of six books, Dr. Forster has also written numerous articles in peer-reviewed academic journals, as well as in popular publications such as The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and the Chronicle of Higher Education. His latest book is Economics: A Student’s Guide (Crossway, 2019).