Recently my five-year-old said he wanted to do “dragon math.” What’s that? He decided to dress up like a dragon and work on a Dimensions Math book. He concentrated hard on this for two hours and finished the book, which he’d started the previous day. I didn’t try to force him to do this; indeed, several times I reminded him that he could stop whenever he wanted. He chose to keep going. I did sweeten the pot by promising I’d put together a scavenger hunt once he finished the book.
As I’ve written, my family decided to homeschool rather than put our five-year-old in a local public school. We have no regrets. It’s w
orking well for my wife and me, and our son loves it. Although, due to the pandemic, we’re still not doing as many social events as we used to, I expect (or hope!) things will get mostly back to normal within a few months.
There is one thing that bothers me about the arrangement. My family is forced to pay a considerable amount of money to the local public schools, which we don’t use, on top of what we spend to educate our child ourselves. That’s not fair, and the system robs many families—especially lower-income families—of the ability to explore innovative education alternatives. My proposed solution is universal tax credits for education.
I won’t even try to calculate my family’s financial losses from forgone income as we divert some time from billable hours to homeschooling. My family is doing fine financially, and we made the conscious choice to trade off some income for more family time. It is the best decision we ever made. But it does rankle me that we have to pay double for our decision. And for families struggling harder to make ends meet, it is an option that may remain beyond reach.
I do calculate how much my family spends on education supplies and related expenses. That Dimensions Math book I mentioned cost $12. An entire year of Dimensions Math, depending on the level and whether you buy the teacher’s guides, costs between $48 and $122. Recently I ordered some Perler beads to work on decimal places. That cost $29.93. We spent $95 for access to Generation Genius science videos (totally worth it), $118 on Beast Academy math books, $87.27 on Brain Quest workbooks, $16.90 on fraction tiles, $18.91 on Spanish books, $170 on a museum membership, and on and on.
Now, it is possible to effectively homeschool on the cheap. There are thousands of hours of high-quality educational videos for free on the internet, starting with Khan Academy. My five-year-old has been watching a TedEd series on how to think like a coder, a surprising choice at that age but I’m cool with it. Core Knowledge offers scores of free ebooks on literature, history, and science. Project Gutenberg offers over 60,000 free out-of-copyright ebooks. This is just a tiny sampling of the free resources available (with a computer and an internet connection), and this is before families even step foot in the local library. So it is certainly possible to spend far less on homeschooling than what my family spends. (For those interested, I set up a Resources page at my IndySchooler site.)
But I like to be well-stocked, try different stuff out, and buy materials in multi-year sets. Starting last Fall, my family has spent $1,789.17 on homeschool expenses. (This doesn’t include the costs of computers and internet service.) I’m not complaining about the expense—we chose to buy these things and had the resources for it. But I am complaining about the fact that my family also is forced to pay for the materials used down the street at the public schools that we’ll never use.
Here’s how tax credits would fix the problem. Families who homeschool or send their kids to private schools would get to keep all of their money that otherwise would go to public schools. A big chunk of that comes from property taxes, which people pay directly or indirectly through their rent. Tax credits are not subsidies. They simply let people keep that portion of their own money that otherwise would fund public schools.
A limited system of tax credits would extend only to families who homeschool or use private schools. Universal tax credits would go further and give every taxpayer the option of directing their education-related tax dollars to their educational program of choice. The reform could even let people direct those dollars to low-income homeschooling families. Government would have to set up and enforce some rules to prevent fraud (such as kick-back schemes). So I’m not claiming that such a system would work perfectly, but I do think on the whole it could work very well to empower families to take charge of their children’s education.
My family can afford to pay double to homeschool and to endure the unfairness of paying for schools we don’t use. Some families can’t afford it, at least not easily. It’s time to stop empowering the education bureaucrats and teacher’s unions and start empowering Colorado families.
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