The Coronavirus Pandemic’s Impact on Education and the Defenders of the Status Quo
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Commentary

The Coronavirus Pandemic’s Impact on Education and the Defenders of the Status Quo

It's a sad continuation of an education system that doesn't view success through the eyes of individual students but prioritizes itself.

In an attempt to combat the spread of COVID-19, over 124,000 schools have closed for more than 55 million K-12 students in the United States.

In just a matter of weeks, these closures caused the proportion of homeschooled students to jump from around 3 percent to nearly 100 percent of the school-aged population. In other words, we’re essentially all homeschoolers now.

Students, parents, teachers, schools, and school districts have all been tossed into an unprecedented situation during the pandemic. Some level of trial and error, growing pains, and even the realization that homeschooling isn’t for everyone are to be expected as everyone adjusts and shifts to online learning on the fly.

But unfortunately, rather than looking at homeschooling as a way to help children make the best of the current moment, some opponents are seeking to tear it down. It’s a sad continuation of an education system that doesn’t view success through the eyes of individual students but prioritizes itself: a massive government monopoly that gets more money for each student it retains and lashes out at any alternative that might attract students and parents.

This extreme backlash might be explained by the fact that there isn’t any upside to the pandemic for the opponents of homeschooling. Tens of millions of families that previously sent their children to government schools are now getting to test-drive some form of home education. And as opponents of educational freedom have pointed out, there may be a lot of families that figure out that they really don’t like homeschooling, at least this rushed version of it, for whatever reason.

However, even if the opponents of educational freedom are correct, the test-drive should theoretically lead to increases in homeschooling in the future. Some percentage of families that are trying out homeschooling for the first time will find they enjoy it, whereas those families that realize they do not like homeschooling were not doing so before the COVID-19 crisis anyway. In other words, when it comes to the numbers, defenders of the government school system have nothing to gain and everything to lose.

The best-case scenario for the opponents of home education is that every single new homeschooling family decides that it’s not going to continue doing so when brick-and-mortar schools reopen. In that unlikely case, the proportion of students identified as homeschoolers would simply return to its normal pre-coronavirus level of around 3 percent.

Around 50 million students were attending government schools before the closures. Even if only 2 percent of these families decide they want to continue homeschooling after the lockdown, that would mean government schools would lose nearly 1 million students. Because the U.S. spends around $15,000 per child each year, on average, and because schools are partially funded based on enrollment counts, that loss of students could reduce government school funding by up to $15 billion each year.

But that’s not the only problem for government schools.

Families fight really hard to keep their educational freedom once they get a taste of it. In a sense, those who exercise school choice become their own special interest groups. For example, evidence suggests that thousands of low-income families benefiting from school choice programs in Florida tipped the governor’s race in favor of Ron DeSantis in 2018. Families might similarly fight to take their children’s education dollars back from the government school system in the form of education savings accounts to help offset the costs of homeschooling.

This taste of educational freedom might also allow people to take a step back and reassess if the outdated factory model of schooling is how we should really structure education today. Families might begin to realize that there is no good reason to fund schools directly, that we should fund students instead of systems. Families might begin to realize that education dollars should follow the children to wherever they are receiving an education, whether that is in a government school, a private school, a charter school, or at home.

How schools respond to the coronavirus pandemic might also turn on a lightbulb for many families with children in schools that aren’t working for them. In fact, a new survey conducted by Common Sense Media found that private school students have been more than twice as likely as students in public schools to connect with their teachers each day since schools closed. The survey also found that private school students are 1.5 times as likely as public school students to attend online classes during the closures. These results shouldn’t surprise anyone. Private schools know that their customers can leave if they don’t deliver.

To further complicate matters, the post-pandemic recession will likely lead to substantial funding cuts to school systems in the near future. In this sense, the all-out attack on homeschooling levied by the defenders of the status-quo government school system is understandable. The monopolies have everything to lose.

This might explain why the Washington Post released opinion pieces with overly dramatic headlines claiming that “homeschooling during the coronavirus will set back a generation of children” and that “teachers should make a billion dollars.” An opinion article featured in Salon continued with the sensationalism by arguing that more homeschooling would “likely worsen education for students and pose serious problems to the economy and the nation’s well-being.”

Arguably the most sensationalistic contribution, however, just came out of Harvard Magazine. Drawing heavily from the work of Harvard Law School professor Elizabeth Bartholet, the article forcefully attacks the right to educate your own children at home with anti-religious fearmongering and by making perfect the enemy of the good. The Harvard professor calls for “a presumptive ban on the practice” because she believes “homeschooling violates children’s right to a meaningful education and their right to be protected from potential child abuse.”

The article conveniently leaves out the fact that around two-thirds of U.S. students are not proficient in reading and that the most rigorous evidence on the subject generally suggests that homeschooled students are better off academically and socially than their otherwise similar peers attending government schools.

The author also forgot to mention the report from the U.S. Department of Education estimating that around 1 in 10 children attending government schools will experience sexual misconduct by school employees by the time they graduate from high school. If anything, by Bartholet’s own logic, she should be calling for a presumptive ban on government schooling. The Harvard Magazine article is also accompanied by a bizarre image full of anti-homeschooling propaganda. The image shows a sad, homeschooled child imprisoned at home while the rest of the children are free to play outside. The child’s home “school” is made out of four books. In an apparent appeal to anti-religious bigotry, one of the four books is the Bible.

Another one of the books originally misspelled “arithmetic” as “arithmatic.” Commentators on social media initially theorized that the misspelling might have been an intentional jab at homeschoolers. However, Harvard Magazine essentially outed itself by correcting the spelling error without noting the change three days after the initial release. In other words, the enemies of homeschooling committed an extraordinary self-own by accidentally misspelling “arithmetic” just as they were trying to bash the educations of homeschoolers. Since then, Harvard Magazine completely shut off comments to the piece, perhaps because there was so much public backlash to the article’s radical views.

Opinion pieces lobbying unfounded attacks on educational freedom are just the beginning. Harvard Law School is hosting an anti-homeschooling conference this June. The event description states that “the focus will be on problems of educational deprivation and child maltreatment that too often occur under the guise of homeschooling.” The conference agenda includes presentations on topics such as “child maltreatment,” “regulatory oversight,” and Bartholet’s call for a “presumptive ban” on the practice.

The summit was organized by Bartholet and professor James Dwyer. Bartholet believes that the burden of proof should be on parents to get permission from the government to homeschool their own children. Dwyer’s views are arguably even more extreme. He claims that “the reason parent-child relationships exist is because the State confers legal parenthood” and that “it’s the State that is empowering parents to do anything with children.”

These academics have it completely backward. Our children do not belong to the government. As the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Pierce v. Society of Sisters in 1925, “The child is not the mere creature of the State.” The burden of proof should be on the government if they want to take away our right to educate our own children at home.

From what I can tell, the views of homeschooling supporters will not be represented at the conference. What’s more, supporters of homeschooling are not even allowed to get into the conference unless they receive a formal invitation from the organizers. It shouldn’t shock anyone that neither my colleagues who support homeschooling nor I have received an invitation.

They say actions speak louder than words. Special interest groups in some states have pushed to prevent students from accessing alternative educational options during the crisis. For example, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Oregon teachers union successfully lobbied to block students from enrolling in virtual charter schools during the lockdown. One virtual charter school, Oregon Connections Academy, reported that the absurd rule stopped at least 1,600 students from accessing its services during the crisis. The teachers union in Alaska similarly opposed the state’s decision to provide students access to virtual education by partnering with Florida Virtual School.

The executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, Mark DiRocco, admitted that they were worried government school districts would lose funding if families were to switch to virtual charter schools during the closures. Rather than competing fairly by providing educational services to families in need virtually, the association instead chose to lobby to use the power of government to block all students from enrolling in virtual charter schools in the state. Although the association did not get everything it wanted, the state ultimately passed a bill preventing virtual charter schools from being compensated for serving any additional students during the lockdown.

Opponents of educational freedom have ramped up their efforts against the right of families to educate their own children at home at a time when families don’t have any other options. But their attacks on homeschooling are understandable since they have nothing to gain and everything to lose.

The tables have turned. Homeschooling is the new status quo.

A version of the column previously appeared in the Washington Examiner. 

Corey A. DeAngelis is the director of school choice at Reason Foundation.