August 21, 2014

NC homeschools and abandoning the common good

The increasing number of homeschooled children in North Carolina is alarming. When parents are committed only to their own child's education, our society unravels.

The number of homeschooled children is growing at a record rate in North Carolina, surpassing the number of the state’s children who attend private schools. During the 2013-14 school year, there were 60,590 home schools in North Carolina, a 27 percent increase from the 2011-12 school year.

According to the N.C. Division of Non-Public Education, 98,172 students in our state are homeschooled. Across the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Education, 1.77 million students, or 3.4 percent of the nation’s school-aged children, are homeschooled, half a million more than in 2003.

In 2011, 91 percent of homeschooling parents said that one reason they homeschooled was concern about the public school environment. Seventy-seven percent cited “a desire to provide moral instruction,” and 74 percent cited “dissatisfaction with academic instruction at other schools.”

That homeschooling is increasing is clear. Less clear is what these trends mean for public education in North Carolina and in the United States.

Certainly, some may suggest that these numbers demonstrate an increased parental commitment to a child’s education.

Another way to look at it is that higher-than-ever numbers of parents are removing themselves and their children from the public education system that is such an important part of the culture of the United States – a public education system that needs constant and continuous maintenance to improve. The contract of our public education system includes that such maintenance, at least in part, comes from the families of students in the system.

When families leave in higher and higher numbers, what does that mean for the public education system? And what does it mean for our sense of community?

In her 2012 book “Homeward Bound,” Emily Matchar puts the increasing number of homeschooled students in a historical context. During the social and political reform of the Progressive Era, from 1890 to 1920, Matchar writes, “Parents with high socioeconomic status – the ones with the greatest social and political clout – advocated for policy changes that ultimately benefited everybody,” including a number of school-reform bills, such as a more widely available high school education.

Today, though, Matchar notes, “Historian Janet Golden observes that we’ve abandoned the idea of communal good in favor of individual, family-focused solutions.” That means “there are fewer people volunteering to improve the public schools.” She describes it as “opting out” of the social contract.

When parents are committed only to their own child’s education, that affects the education of other children, those whose parents don’t have the time or inclination to fight for improved school conditions, those whose parents must work long hours and can’t devote evenings to school projects and PTA meetings. When parents are committed only to their own child’s education, that affects communities for whom schools have long been a source of unity. What does that do to education in North Carolina, education in the United States?

Not all home schools are turning their backs on society. Homeschooling, in and of itself, is not a problem.

The problem is seeing opting out of the system as a solution. Instead of looking for solutions within the system, these parents remove themselves and their students, making it more difficult for the school environment to improve for other students. What do these children learn about community?

Of course, not all parents who are invested in their child’s education opt out of the system. Many caring parents and families continue to send their children to public school and to work to effect change in real and important ways. Yet if the number of home schools continues to increase, the important role families play in the schools will fall to an increasingly smaller group of parents.

When we drop out instead of tackling challenges head on, our world narrows. We suggest that our family is the only one that matters.

Such a solipsistic view is detrimental to society as a whole as well as to our individual families. What good is one family without another? One neighborhood without another? One town without another? We need each other. It takes all of us to build a better society.

Leslie Maxwell of Durham is a writer and adjunct professor of English.

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