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Looking for education reform in all the wrong places

Home schooling, an outgrowth of informal rural education systems that have existed in the United States since its creation, is the education of children at home or perhaps by the community in an informal setting. While most students are educated in institutional settings like public (86%-87.5%) or parochial (11%-12%) schools, between 0.5% and 2% percent of the 2002–03 school-age population is home schooled. This is a 29 percent increase over the last 4 years and more than ten points faster growth than that of private and public schools.

Most of the education reform debate has focused on conversations between urban elites over charter schools versus voucher based systems. This discussion has missed that home schooling is the real force in school reform. Nationwide, charter schools enroll about 500,000 students. Private schools funded by vouchers educate even fewer students, a piddling 20,000 nationwide. But out of a school age population of 53 million, this is just a drop in the bucket. Meanwhile, home schooling is educating twice as many children. Depending on who you ask and when, between 850k and 1100k children are home schooled. Growing far faster than private schools which are expected to grow by a 7 percent over the next few years. Note that this is nothing to sneeze at either, and much faster than public schools are expected to grow. The system is failing these people either in the quality or substance of the education that their children are receiving, and as such they are expending tremendous resources to educate their children at their own expense of time and money.

Since states retain most of the control over education, federalism can offer a way out. Individual states should experiment with partial privatization of school systems, expanding voucher programs, and increasing charter school enrollment. But states should find ways to help parents and communities interested in home schooling be more effective. This could take any number of forms, from ending the marriage penalty (to allow more parents to do it), allowing tax deduction of education related expenses for home schoolers, or even making standardized testing free to all people in the state (so that charter students could use these tests to measure their academic skills against those of more conventional students. Ideology is important. To me, it seems rather wasteful for large numbers of families to devote so much resources to educating their children, when class size doesn’t seem to have a clear causal effect of education equality. Likewise, I assume that professional education in educating children makes for better teachers, so hordes of unskilled teachers probably wouldn’t be a net benefit for society. But, many families don’t feel the way that I do. If government has to expropriate money from us to redistribute it, it should at least be in a manner that is consistant with our revealed preferences.