Ari Armstrong, Education, Gold Dome, Uncategorized

Armstrong: Thriving kids should be focus of education

I hope your kids enjoy their summer breaks! My homeschool family maintains the same schedule in summer as we do the rest of the year. We spend a half-hour to an hour on math almost every day (including weekends), then do a writing project, then pursue a free-form day that often includes a video lesson in Spanish, readings or videos on science and history, free reading, and tons of time for free play solo or with friends.

Most of my kid’s day looks like what most kids would call recess. Often a “home” school day for my son includes several hours of uninterrupted, unstructured play at a park with friends. Yet this weird myth persists that homeschooled kids are the ones with insufficient opportunities to socialize! A couple times my son has spent the entire day interacting with snakes and other reptiles, and their human tenders, at My Nature Lab.

My basic parameters are that my son needs to become literate and numerate. If you can read and do math, you can learn anything and do pretty much anything you want. I remain very happy with the Dimensions Math program, while a lot of homeschoolers love Beast Academy. We take an eclectic approach to literacy.

Within those broad aims, my son has enormous control over his day. For example, for a few days my son skipped his Dimensions work in favor of trying out a little algebra from a Choose Your Own Adventure book called “The Dregg Disaster.” He soon found that math overwhelming (he is headed into fourth grade), but it’s something he can come back to later. After we got home from a trip to the Sand Dunes, my son decided to write a short essay about the trip rather than do his usual writing assignment. We do read “real” literature, such as Robin Hood, but these days mostly he’s reading books from the Wings of Fire (dragons), Warriors (cats), and Franny K. Stein series.

Given that much of my son’s life looks a lot like recess or summer camp, how is he succeeding academically? He’s ahead of grade in the main subjects, and recently he scored in the 99th percentile on one of the major standardized tests. He does this with his parents, rather than certified teachers, directing his education, which Colorado’s state board of education recently denigrated. He doesn’t have access to fancy facilities or unusual materials.

What my son does have, in addition to substantial autonomy and play time, are parents who invest a lot of time in his education. I serve as primary math tutor. My wife has read to my son, or eventually had him read to her, nearly every night since the day we brought him home from the hospital. I spend a lot of my time driving my son to park meet-ups, museums, and so on. True, many parents who send their children to traditional schools make comparable efforts, and then the schools claim credit for the achievements of the parents.

Yes, my family takes a financial hit in order to homeschool, now more so because the state board had decided that my family does not deserve to benefit from any of our education-directed tax dollars. Still, “school choice” is, for us, a daily reality, because we have the financial stability and scheduling flexibility to make homeschooling work.

Although some less-well-off families and some single-parent families find a way to homeschool, most families do not have the money or time to pursue that option. For them, school choice, or the lack of it, becomes something that affects their children on a daily basis during the school year.

The long-running fight over school choice

Recently I watched the 2019 film, “Miss Virginia,” about the political struggle of Virginia Walden Ford to achieve a limited voucher scholarship program in Washington, D.C. I very much enjoyed the film, even though it clearly has a political axe to grind and attributes vicious motives to the opponents of vouchers.

The film points to the divisions among parents and within the African American community over vouchers. Black parents tend to be more aligned with the Democratic Party, and they also tend to have children in the worst-performing schools. Understandably, then, some Black parents and activists are tempted to find common cause with conservatives when it comes to school choice. Vouchers, after all, are most associated with the free-market-leaning economist Milton Friedman. That puts many reformers at odds with another major faction of Democratic politics, the teachers’ unions.

The film also points to a major argument against vouchers, that they pull money out of the public schools. In the case of the D.C. program, the money was added to the existing system, so that argument had much less force. Still, any dollar spent on vouchers could instead be spent on the regular public schools. The National Coalition for Public Education says, “Congress should end the D.C. voucher program now, and keep public money in public schools.”

The argument about financing bizarrely presumes that an absolute government monopoly on education is the most effective way to spend education-directed dollars. Obviously the notion is absurd. Those who support such a monopoly generally scream about what they fear to be monopoly power elsewhere.

The idea is that any family “taking money away” from the regular public schools and spending that money elsewhere somehow damages the public schools. That seems like a very convenient argument for the people who benefit financially from those schools. Most anyone who benefits from a government-backed monopoly will argue that competition is bad.

Recently Jared Polis signed two bills pertaining to education finance, one that increases total funding and one that shuffles funds around to try to better equalize outcomes. If you think the fundamental problem with the public schools is that they are underfunded, you probably are very excited about these bills.

I, on the other hand, think the fundamental problem is the way funds are spent. The incentive structure is not to maximize outcomes for children but to maximize outcomes for teachers’ unions and for bureaucrats who work in education without actually doing much educating. Spending more money on the same educational fads, bureaucracies, and political projects is not going to create better-educated or more successful children.

A critic of “Miss Virginia” articulates another common argument: Vouchers “taking the best students out of inner city schools arguably made it still harder for those schools to attract adequate funding and motivate their pupils.” The argument about funding is strange; usually public schools beg for more funding precisely on grounds that their performance is so bad. The bit about motivation points to the real issue at stake: Some people demand that parents sacrifice the well-being of their own children for the alleged benefit of other students. Demanding that of parents is evil.

The proper solution to failing public schools is not to make all students suffer equally in them, it is to give every student a pathway to better alternatives.

The failed bill for scholarship accounts

In February, Republican State Senator Barbara Kirkmeyer introduced a bill to provide “empowerment scholarship accounts” specifically for students “with an intellectual disability, hearing impairment, speech or language impairment, visual impairment, emotional disturbance, orthopedic impairment, autism, a traumatic brain injury,” or the like. A few other types of students also are included. The bill would have funded not only “nonpublic” schools but “home-based educational” programs. See also Sean Duffy’s review.

Obviously, given Colorado’s Democrat-dominated legislature, any bill with a whiff of school choice is doomed. Kirkmeyer’s bill did not make it out of committee.

Interestingly, making common cause with the teachers’ unions on this score, Christian Home Educators of Colorado came out against the bill. Why? CHEC’s Carolyn Martin explains: “Over the last several years there have been efforts to expand government-funded homeschool programs, by either creating new programs or gobbling up private programs. These programs have brought much unwanted attention to the homeschool law. . . . [Kirkmeyer’s bill] is an attempt to set up government-funded ESAs [not to be confused with “educational savings accounts”] for private school and homeschool students who leave the public school system. . . . This wave of funding homeschoolers with government money has hit our shores and we must resist it if we want to be free!”

This criticism seems inflated. The bill affects only a small fraction of students. The bill does not fund homeschooling programs uniquely but only includes homeschooling as an option, along with “nonpublic” schools. The students in question often have an especially hard time adapting to the regular public schools. I see a lot of upside and very little downside to the proposal.

All that said, it would be much safer for government simply to fund families on the basis of need, rather than fund them specifically for education. If poor families need a boost (and if we accept government welfare as a solution), then just give the poor families money. Then if those families choose to spend some or all of that money on education, great. If they choose to spend it on better food or housing instead, also great. Similarly, if families with special-needs children need a boost, government should consider giving them money, no strings attached, rather than funds tied specifically to education. Rather than increase budgets for public schools, I’d rather direct those funds to families who need it most. Such an approach probably would do more good and avoid many of the political debates over how the money is spent.

Parents need not wait for government

As a parent, you don’t need to wait for politicians and bureaucrats to improve education for your child. Even within the standard public-school environment in Colorado, you have a lot of choices about where your child goes to school, including charter and online options.

True, private schools and homeschooling remain financially challenging for many families. Still, I think some families overestimate the costs and underestimate the rewards. What is going to mean more to your child: Living in a super-nice house or enjoying amazing opportunities for learning and personal growth? Often the financial trade-offs are worth it. A lot of things people spend a lot of money on aren’t worth the cost, in my view. Of course, there’s a big difference between a family struggling to put food on the table, or struggling to have a table, and a family deciding whether to upgrade to a fancier house or car.

My family has been fortunate in that we have the means to live a comfortable life as we homeschool. All children deserve what my child has, an opportunity to enjoy their lives, learn about the world around them, develop their abilities, and grow into thriving adults.

Regardless of what politicians do, parents of necessity take the lead in raising their children. Still, politicians who make education-related policies have a moral responsibility to ensure that their decisions serve, not political special interests, but the best interests of children.

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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