Unschooling and School Choice: A Complicated Relationship
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Unschooling and School Choice: A Complicated Relationship

The evidence is largely on the side of freedom in education. And adding unschooling to the set of educational options available to families increases that freedom.

I agree with Kerry McDonald’s assertion that unschooling could produce a well-educated citizenry while preserving individual liberty. While the evidence on home education is limited, the rigorous research on private school choice programs tends to suggest that educational freedom works. And expanding school choice programs to allow for unschooling would further increase educational freedom.

But the expansion of school choice programs is unlikely to lead to more unschooling. And it’s possible for school choice expansion to make unschooling less meaningful. Here’s why.

The Evidence Supports Educational Freedom

The most comprehensive reviews of the evidence find that student exposure to homeschooling tends to be associated with better academic achievement, social development, and long-term success. However, most of the scientific evidence on home education is limited by selection bias. Advantaged families are more likely to have the resources needed to opt their children out of the “free” government schools to educate them at home. In other words, the improved outcomes experienced by homeschooled students may be the result of family background rather than educational setting.

While the studies on home education are limited, the preponderance of the rigorous evidence suggests that more freedom in education leads to better results for students and their communities. The majority (ten) of the sixteen random assignment studies on the subject find that winning a lottery to use a voucher to attend a chosen private school increases student test scores overall or for subgroups—at a fraction of the costOnly two of the sixteen evaluations—both of the highly regulated Louisiana Scholarship Program—find negative effects on student test scores.

But school choice does so much more than shape test scores. The majority of the rigorous studies suggest that private school choice also improves student attainmentcivic outcomessatisfactioncrime reduction, and safety. If expanding educational options to include private schools leads to better student outcomes, then we might expect that expanding educational options further to include home education would lead to even better results.

The evidence is largely on the side of freedom in education. And adding unschooling to the set of educational options available to families increases that freedom. But will school choice programs get us there?

School Choice and Unschooling: Friends or Foes?

Expansion of school choice could increase unschooling if the government allows families to spend program funding on home education costs. For example, families are allowed to pay for homeschooling expenses using New Hampshire’s tax-credit scholarship program. But using school choice funding for homeschool expenses is by far the exception, not the norm. In fact, the New Hampshire program cited by Kerry McDonald is the “only tax-credit scholarship program in which homeschool students also are eligible.” The vast majority of school choice programs can only be used to cover private school tuition and fees. The reality is that school choice appears to crowd out the least regulated forms of education. For example, a recent study published in Peabody Journal of Education—conducted by Angela K. Dills and I—finds that school choice expansion generally leads to less homeschooling in the United States, presumably because many families switch to the “free” alternative when given the option. We also find that the enactments of private school choice programs lead to reductions in the likelihood that private schools focus on providing homeschool services.

But these empirical studies can only tell us about the effects of school choice programs on homeschool market share in the short-run.

It’s entirely possible for school choice programs—which leave out home education options in the short-run—to expand home education in the long run. School choice programs that do not allow families to spend program funding on home education could give families a taste of some educational freedom in the short run. Indeed, families might want even more educational freedom when given a small dose. And society might become more accepting of unschooling if families demonstrate they can make responsible education decisions for their children. In other words, exposure to restricted forms of school choice in the short run could lead to more unschooling in the long run.

But what if school choice programs did allow families to choose home education for their children?

Including home education options in school programs expands access but introduces another problem: program regulations would lead to less meaningful home education options. School choice program regulations may include state testing requirements, mandates for schools to accept all students at random, and requirements for schools to accept the voucher funding amount as payment-in-full. Private schools tend to be less specialized after school choice programs are enacted, perhaps because government regulations reduce autonomy.

Government funding could similarly bring government control into the realm of home education. Society’s concerns about how public education dollars are spent could lead to calls for homeschool accountability. It shouldn’t take much imagination to envision government bureaucrats going into people’s homes to administer standardized tests and inspect curriculum. We might also imagine requirements to accept all students into a homeschool community at random, in the name of fairness—even if the students are not particularly interested in the community’s specialized mission.

The Path Forward?

The path toward maximizing educational freedom isn’t immediately clear because in the United States the vast majority of students are currently stuck in residentially assigned government-run schools. School choice programs obviously lead to more educational freedom by expanding the number of options available to these families. At the same time, however, choice programs likely reduce the prevalence of unschooling because families are almost never permitted to use program funding to cover home education costs. And program funding could also bring government control into otherwise specialized home education settings.

The only way to expand educational freedom while eliminating regulatory risk seems to be the complete separation of school and state. But that’s not going to happen anytime soon.

A feasible policy option to advance educational freedom while minimizing regulatory risk is a privately funded Education Savings Account program (ESA) at the state level. These programs allow families to opt their children out of residentially assigned government schools and receive a deposit of education funds into savings accounts. Families can use the funds in the ESA to cover approved education expenses such as private schooling, tutoring, online courses, and home education costs. ESAs are less likely to be regulated than voucher programs because it is far more difficult for a regulator to determine which service provider did or did not affect outcomes for each student—since families can customize their children’s educations with multiple providers. Heavy school choice regulations are also less likely to come with private dollars than public dollars.

Of course, it’s still possible for an ESA program to be heavily regulated. Advocates of educational freedom should watch for those regulations as ESAs are introduced across the United States.

As such, ESAs are far from a perfect solution. But it’s the best one we have at the moment.

This article originally appeared in Cato Unbound.