Ari Armstrong, Coronavirus, Education, Exclusives, Uncategorized

Armstrong: What the pandemic means for homeschooling in Colorado

The pandemic has changed how many people work, shop, socialize, and seek entertainment, and some of these shifts will become permanent. Some people even have moved to work remotely or to find a policy regime more to their liking.

Covid also has changed how many people educate their children. Of course many of the public schools went partly or completely to remote instruction for long stretches. And as schools open back up after Summer break many will require staff and students to wear masks.

More people than before have withdrawn from the public schools in favor of homeschooling. My family already had decided to homeschool before the pandemic hit, which was fortuitous timing. Others, driven by newfound flexibility with remote work, irritation with remote public-school programs, fear of the virus, or anger at school policies regarding the virus, began homeschooling because of the pandemic. That is the trend I want to explore here. One question I have is how much of that shift will “stick.”

What are the trends?

Fox31 reports, “According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the rate of households homeschooling reached 11% by September 2020. Six months prior, only 5.4% of families were registered for homeschooling. In our state, the latest data from the Colorado Department of Education shows the number of students homeschooling more than doubled last year to 15,773. In 2019, only 7,880 students were being homeschooled.”

But there’s something screwy about these figures, because the census and state data do not square. The census estimates that “homeschooling rates of households” in Colorado increased from 3.4% on May 5, 2020, to 8.7% on October 12, 2020. The census also reports that, as of 2019, Colorado had over two million households. So the census shows radically higher rates of homeschooling than state data show. And bear in mind that the state reports individual students, and many households have more than one student. So what in the heck is going on?

The problem arises from the meaning of the term “homeschooling.” It seems like that should be obvious, but it’s not. If you ask people whether they’re “homeschooling,” as the census does, people probably will say they’re homeschooling if they…wait for it…school at home.

But, officially, Colorado tracks “home-based education” programs in compliance with Colorado statute 22-33-104.5. Many people who think of themselves as “homeschooling” actually are enrolled in private “umbrella” (remote) schools or even in online public schools. Some families working remotely through their local public school also might think of themselves as “homeschooling.” (For details about Colorado law, see my previous column on the topic.)

The census tried to sort things out: “A clarification was added to the school enrollment question to make sure households were reporting true homeschooling rather than virtual learning through a public or private school.” The census asked if children were “homeschooled, that is not enrolled in public or private school.” This probably winnowed out most families using virtual programs set up by their regular public school. But obviously, based on the huge disparity in the data, many families technically in remote private or public schools still checked the homeschool box.

Versions of homeschooling

An example of “homeschooling” that’s not officially “home-based education” is the CHEC Independent School, run by Christian Home Educators of Colorado and marketed as “an umbrella school that serves homeschool families.” Officially, students in this program are enrolled in a private school and so do not establish a “home-based education” program under Colorado law.

My family is homeschooling per statute. Basically that means we sent a letter to our school district and we keep records of our educational activities. But, whereas some “homeschooling” families officially in private schools might not use any online educational programs, we use (and pay for) several, including Generation Genius and Mystery Science.

Homeschooling per statute also means that government forces my family to help finance the public school down the street that we do not use, and on top of that we have to pay for all of our homeschooling supplies and activities out-of-pocket. The same point applies to “homeschool” families technically in a private school. If that strikes you as a lousy deal financially, I’d agree with you. I do like the independence that homeschooling enables. But the tax side of it is not remotely fair. My family should be able to spend our educational dollars on our son’s education.

I will note, though—as if things weren’t confusing enough—that official homeschoolers still are eligible to participate in certain tax-funded enrichment programs. For example, Woodrow Wilson Academy, a charter school, also offers a “homeschool connection” program that families can join one day per week. Cherry Creek Schools (among others) offers a similar program.

Or consider the Utah-based My Tech High, popular among many homeschoolers I’ve met. This outfit works with “accredited public schools to offer personalized, distance education programs for students ages 5—18 all over the U.S.” In Colorado, My Tech High works with Colorado Early Colleges (a charter school) and with the Vilas and Kiowa school districts, although participating families can live anywhere in the state. Parents either can enroll in My Tech High’s remote classes or else create a “custom-built” curriculum eligible for tax-funded reimbursement. Families who use this program still fall under Colorado’s home-based education law.

My family thought about using an enrichment program but decided against it at least for now. These programs give homeschooling families back a small portion of their education tax dollars with a bunch of strings attached. My family should be able to spend all of our education tax dollars on programs we want and without the red tape.

What happens post-pandemic?

The big question is, how many families who turned to “homeschooling,” either as the state defines it or as part of a remote private or public school, will stick with it once the pandemic ends? I don’t have a good sense of this. I don’t even have a good sense of when the pandemic might meaningfully “end.”

I think the trend of a lot more people working from home will continue, and that will make homeschooling more feasible for many families. Some families will try homeschooling and hate it; others will try it and love it. I think we’ll see a permanent increase relative to pre-pandemic numbers, even if the number drops below its peak. Maybe the number of homeschooling families will continue to grow as homeschooling becomes better-known and as high-quality resources become ever-more abundant.

As to whether your family should homeschool (however you define that), that is a highly personal decision that depends on a lot of variables. All I can do is offer my own family’s experiences. We’ve had our rough days. On the whole, though, I’ve found homeschooling—or “world schooling” as I prefer to call it—enormously rewarding.

Ari Armstrong writes regularly for Complete Colorado and is the author of books about Ayn Rand, Harry Potter, and classical liberalism.  He can be reached at ari at ariarmstrong dot com.

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