Donald Trump managed to sound at least one encouraging note at a Republican convention focused more on fueling fears then empowering individuals. "We will rescue kids from failing schools by helping their parents send them to a safe school of their choice," he boasted in his acceptance speech.
Well, OK. The reference to "safe school" does put the emphasis on danger rather than education, but at least Trump called for parental choice. And Donald Trump Jr. compared public schools to "Soviet Era department stores that are run for the benefit of the clerks and not the customers, for the teachers and the administrators and not the students." He went on to call for choice and competition.
That sounds great for those of us who like options, especially with a new school year looming. And Americans have been embracing education choices—we've seen high-profile growth in the number of children attending privately-managed, publicly-funded charter schools, from 800,000 kids in 2003-2004 to 2.5 million, or 5.1 percent of total public school enrollment, in 2013-2014. That's sparked a lot of debate about the effectiveness of charter schools and the desirability (yes, really) of letting motivated families flee faltering public institutions.
More quietly, though, many American families have opted out of institutional education of any sort, taking on the responsibility of teaching their own children. From 1.1 million kids in 2003, the ranks of the homeschooled increased to 1.8 million in 2012—and an estimated 2.3 million this year, catching up quickly with the charter population. Homeschooled children outnumbered those enrolled in North Carolina's private schools as of 2014 after a whopping 27 percent increase in just two years.
My son is part of the surge in the number of children learning at home. The reason for our choice is ably captured in a point made by John Taylor Gatto, a former New York State Teacher of the Year who became a critic of government-controlled education. In his 2008 book, Weapons of Mass Instruction, Gatto wrote about the difference between schooling and education. "Education is a matter of self-mastery, first; then self-enlargement, even self-transcendance—as all possibilities of the human spirit open themselves into zones for exploration and understanding. There are points where the two conditions inform one another, but in schooling, somebody else's agenda is always uppermost."
You could say the same of any institution—that its interests overwhelm the individual concerns of the people within it. But that's why it's always a good idea to have alternatives and an exit strategy for when "somebody else's agenda" is incompatible with your own.
Such incompatibility has become a serious concern even with popular charter schools. Aside from the fact that there's always a potential mismatch between a family's priorities and a school's, even in an independently operated institution, charter schools face growing regulatory burdens that push them to consolidate and homogenize. Controversial national education standards have added to that burden, since they fall on charter schools as well as traditional public schools. "Some 2 million families have decided that charter schools are the best place for their children," the Goldwater Institute's Jonathan Butcher warned. "But under Common Core, these schools' options for differentiating themselves could be limited."
As of yet, homeschoolers face no comparable regulatory threats. Opposition to Common Core was part of the inspiration for the surge in homeschooling in North Carolina, according to the Charlotte Observer, and the same phenomenon is at work across the country. Rather than expend their time and energy battling to change a stubborn institution (North Carolina officials spent a year investigating a replacement for Common Core before deciding to keep the standards in place), parents walked out the doors and took on the task of education themselves.
Not that homeschooling parents all have the same motivation. As befits a DIY movement encompassing millions of Americans, people have different reasons for taking on the responsibility and different ways of getting it done. Once known as a domain for the religious (and a few hippies), the number of homeschoolers reporting "a desire to provide religious instruction" as a motivating reason dropped from 83 percent in 2006-2007 to 64 percent in 2011-2012. "[T]he face of home schooling is changing, not because of faith, but because of what parents see as shortcomings in public and private schools," USA Today reported in 2012. "[T]he movement is deepening its mainstream roots," Reuters agreed, and that mainstreaming is likely to continue since most homeschooled adults appear to be happy with their experience. "About three-quarters of a sample of home-educated students who are now adults raising their own children are opting to home school."
That satisfaction may be derived in part from the academic success achieved by many homechooled students who "score, on average, at the 84th to 89th percentile" on tests. That's pretty impressive when you consider that a good many homeschoolers deemphasize grades and standardized testing, which are most useful for assessing masses of students within institutions, not individual learners.
Old concerns that homeschooled kids are locked away from interaction with the rest of the world—probably derived from the days when the practice was illegal and had to be done in secret—have faded as kids taught by their families have become more common and recognized as obviously normal (as "normal" as anybody else that is). "Research shows that in terms of self-concept, self-esteem and the ability to get along in groups, homeschoolers do just as well as their public school peers," according to Brian Ray of the National Home Education Research Institute.
And maybe homeschooling—DIY education—is the right movement for an increasingly diverse country suspicious of large institutions. In an America of proliferating news sources, gigs replacing jobs, fragmenting political parties, and myriad religious beliefs, why wouldn't people see teaching their own kids as one more thing they can do better than the powers-that-be?
So let's hope that Donald Trump means what he says about educational choice if he takes up residence in the White House next year. It would be nice to think that there's one area where he'll actually expand our liberty. But millions of Americans aren't waiting on politicians to offer them a few more options for teaching their children—they're doing it themselves.