There is no better indication of the failure of and increasing disappointment with public education in the United States than the growth in the number of charter schools and homeschooled students. A new study released by the federal government reported that the number of charter schools in the 27 states in which they operate increased by 40 percent in 1998-1999. Almost 1,700 of them serve more than 400,000 students.
The number of children being homeschooled by their parents has also grown by leaps and bounds. In 1996, the U.S. federal Department of Education estimated that the number of homeschoolers was somewhere between 700,000 and 750,000. Homeschooling advocates say that the number increased to as many as 1.5 million in 1999.
Since charter schools operate with public funds that cover the tuitions of the students attending them, they remain a part of the state educational system, But the private-sector managers of charter schools are given greater latitude in structuring teaching methods to meet the needs of their students. And equally important from the parents’ point of view, they are able to impose more demanding standards on student conduct to prevent antisocial and violent behavior.
The benefits of homeschooling have also become apparent. There is more individual attention, and the child is able to learn at his own pace. And more and more homeschoolers are outperforming their counterparts in public schools, in terms of both classroom performance and college admission.
Moreover, homeschooling isn’t limited to Caucasian religious families concerned with an excessively secularized education in the public-school system. It is estimated that 4 percent of homeschooling families are black, with another 4 percent in the Hispanic community.
It is clear that a growing number of American families have lost confidence in the public-school system. An increasingly dumbed-down curriculum, with an emphasis on “politically correct” fads and fashions, as well as a concern about the safety and security of the school environment, has resulted in more and more parents’ trying to opt out into a better alternative.
The problem, however, is that the government continues to be a giant stumbling block standing in the way of parental choice. For millions of families, homeschooling is simply not feasible, either because they cannot afford for one of the parents to stay home to educate their children or because of the parents’ own inability to satisfactorily educate their children in various subjects. At the same time, the burden of federal, state, and local taxes imposes too great a strain on family budgets to afford the costs of a private school, especially when there is more than one child to educate.
Charter schools seem to offer a partial answer to this problem, since some of the tax dollars paid by the parents to the state or federal government pay the costs of tuition on a per-pupil basis. Charter schools, however, are not the same as independent, private schools. They remain part of the public-school system, especially since they still have to conform to a state-mandated curriculum and are mostly limited to hiring teachers certified by the state. Qualified college-level chemistry or math professors, for example, cannot be permanently employed in a charter school unless they have gone through the additional layer of a state certification process enabling them to teach at the primary or secondary level of schooling.
Furthermore, it is inevitable that over time, charter schools will become another vested interest determined to limit any innovations or new competitors that may threaten their enrollments and the tax dollars they receive from the state.
It’s time, therefore, to rethink the entire idea of public schooling in America. It’s time to consider whether it would be better to completely privatize the entire educational process from kindergarten through the Ph.D. With the state no longer responsible for education, the local, state, and federal government taxes imposed for the present system could be abolished. The tax dollars left in the hands of the citizenry would then be available for families to use directly to pay for their own children’s education. The free market would supply an infinitely diverse range of educational vehicles for everyone. And families would finally be free to select the best educational vehicle for each of their children.
Professor Ebeling is vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (www.fff.org) in Fairfax, Va.