Is Home Schooling in the Public Interest?

Paul van den Bosch and Larry Booi respectfully disagree.

paul van den bosch says YES

Many studies and a wealth of evidence show that home education is academically and socially good for the student and also benefits their family. The proof is in standardized test scores and studies by the Home School Legal Defence Association, the Alberta Home Education Association and through the Fraser Institute.

So, home education is great for the individual. But is home education in the public interest? I see many benefits to society: Home educated students are well socialized and become active citizens, strong home-educating families contribute to society, and home schooling makes government more effective.

Studies show that home education leads students to active involvement in all aspects of their lives: academic/intellectual, social, economic, political and more. Home education produces graduates who have covered the academic basics and beyond (with a high percentage going on to post-secondary success). Graduates of home education become citizens who engage in community life: They are far more likely to vote in elections, become involved in political causes and devote a larger portion of their time and energy to volunteering.

Further, my experience shows that the parent-directed, student-driven, individualized nature of home education produces innovative, creative and entrepreneurial-minded graduates, who contribute these talents to society. Home education disrupts sameness. It improves society by spreading diversity of thought, experience and ideas.

Another key benefit of home education is the strength and cohesiveness it brings to the most crucial foundation block of society: the family. Home education creates a unique situation wherein parents and children have an abundance of time to spend together to build strong relationships. The active community engagement of home-educated grads is a direct product of the involvement of their families.

The societal benefit of home education extends to government efficiency. In 2017 more than 12,000 Alberta students were home educated. The cost to taxpayers was just over $1,600 per student. The cost to taxpayers of the average public school student (primarily in salaries paid) was over $12,000. Note the difference in the number of zeroes. Home education saved Alberta taxpayers over $120-million last school year alone. It thus contributes to effective governance by making more money available for such things as better hospitals and improved roads.

According to “Home Schooling in Canada: The Current Picture,” a 2015 Fraser Institute report, enrolment in home education increased almost 30 per cent between 2006–2007 and 2011–2012 while enrolment in public education across the country actually decreased over the same period. That’s the bottom line when asking “Is home education in the public interest?”: The public is clearly interested.

larry booi says no

Arguments that home schooling is somehow in the public interest tend to fall apart quickly—being so obviously a stretch—and in any event they’re not the main reason why some people advocate for home schooling.

A strong public education system has long been recognized as a vital element in ensuring the common good, general well-being and collective interests of all. In an increasingly complex, globalized and competitive world our best interests are served by ensuring that all children’s potential is fully developed. A well-resourced, professional and democratically accountable system of public education serving all students gives us the crucial competitive advantage of a well-educated population and meets the varying needs of individual students as well as creating equity in this vital area of their development.

It also brings together individuals from diverse backgrounds, who learn to work together in an atmosphere of acceptance and respect and develop as citizens of a democratic society.

The right of every child to a good education is fundamental, one that we have a collective responsibility to ensure. The argument that we should allow parents—supposedly on behalf of the child—to override this vital right must therefore be held to a very high bar. But the main arguments for home schooling are not based on any reasonable conception of the public interest or children’s rights, but on a misguided and overstated idea of parents’ rights—basically, “I’m the parent and I have the absolute right to determine what education my child receives, including educating the child myself.”

Clearly, parents have interests and rights when it comes to their children’s education, and these should be respected and supported in reasonable ways. But how far do these interests and rights extend and at what point do they compromise the child’s right to a strong education? These rights, like others in Canada, are not “absolute.” We value freedom of speech, but that right is limited by libel and slander laws. We have a Charter right to freedom of religion, but it is limited by laws preventing harmful punishment and treatment of children.

Children are not mere chattels of parents; they have their own rights, and these must be protected. If home schooling is allowed to exist, our government must ensure that the rights and education of children are not only not compromised but are at the same high standard rightfully demanded of our public education classrooms. Otherwise, we risk abandoning children and compromising their futures in the name of parents’ rights.

Over my decades of work in education, I’ve become increasingly convinced that home schooling safeguards in Alberta are far too lax, and in too many cases children’s rights and futures have indeed been compromised. The real “public interest” in this area is not in enabling more home schooling, but in rigorously protecting the educational rights of children in any situation where home schooling is allowed.

paul van den bosch responds to larry booi

The first thing I should do is thank Larry Booi for proving my point that home education is in the public interest. Since his piece doesn’t construct any logical argument nor put forward any evidence that home education compromises the public interest, it’s clear that home education is a good thing.

Mr. Booi thinks it is a “stretch” that home educating parents care about the good of society, but that concern is exactly what he would find if he actually spoke to home educating families. It is primarily because home educating parents care about our current and future society that they home educate. They aren’t satisfied with public school standards, and they want better—not only for their own children but for all of society. Home educating parents don’t treat their children as “chattels” (to reference Mr. Booi’s demeaning term) but as the future leading citizens of the world. These parents want the world to be a better place and they know that being intimately involved in the education of future leaders is how to do that.

Mr. Booi spends a lot of words defending a public system that doesn’t exist in Alberta. He would like an education system which provides for a “well-educated population.” I would like that also. But I have to ask: Where is that system that educates our population so well? It’s not in Alberta. Not the public system anyway. Not in 2018. Compared to the rest of Canada, Alberta has one of the lowest rates of high school completion. Too many Albertans don’t finish their education and therefore can’t be considered “well-educated.” In contrast to such low public rates, graduation rates of home-educated students are over 95 per cent. And as noted by the organizations referenced in my original piece, home-educated students who take standardized tests score well above their public-educated peers.

How can Mr. Booi possibly say that Alberta public school students are educated well when provincial standards are so low? As just one example, here’s a recent headline from the Calgary Herald, October 24, 2018: “‘Shockingly low numbers’: Province dropped pass score to 42 per cent for Grade 9 math test.” Can any reasonable person defend 42 per cent as a passing mark? If Alberta public schools were truly held to the high standard alleged by Mr. Booi, there would be no need for home education. But that simply isn’t the case.

I don’t intend here to knock the fine work done by so many teachers in our public schools and I don’t begrudge the salaries they earn. But they’re handcuffed by our public system. Money spent on teacher salaries is money actually spent in the classroom, and that’s where more should go. But it doesn’t. Far too much money disappears into the educational bureaucracy instead of going to teacher’s aides, books, electronic resources and improved education in the classroom.

Mr. Booi wants to set the rights of parents against the rights of children, as if they are opposed to each other. They’re not. Parents are the first and best educators of children. It is not a logical argument to simply insult home educating parents. Home education is a cross-section of Alberta society today—every possible background and belief and minority and family unit is represented—and home educated students are a diverse group who regularly socialize together to truly create the “atmosphere of acceptance and respect and development” often missing in schools.

The truth is that the best advocates for children’s rights are the parents; the rights of children and parents combine well for the benefit of children; and the education of children is always improved the more their parents are involved, up to and including home education. When governments trample the rights of parents—when governments state “We know better than parents what is good for children”—children suffer. We need look no further than the historical example of Canadian residential school policies to see how such governmental and bureaucratic hubris caused suffering.

Mr. Booi goes on to suggest that home education “compromises” children’s education but, again, provides no support for his statement. Of course, he can’t provide evidence. There is none. All evidence clearly shows that a child’s education is improved and enhanced by home education.

He also wants home educators held to high standards of education. Done! Every student being home educated in Alberta meets with a home school facilitator at least twice per year. Home educating families are held accountable to their own high standards as well as to provincial standards through these visits and through regular phone and email contact.

Studies show that home educated students meet and exceed provincial standards in all subjects. What’s unclear is why Mr. Booi is convinced that home schooling is not in the interest of any student or any family or in the public interest. He feels it’s bad because, well, he just feels it is.

Home education is clearly working for students and families and for all of society. Home educating parents respect and work to build the rights and futures of children, and the educational possibilities are limitless. Home educators meet Alberta standards—home school facilitators ensure academic standards and provincial government auditors have gone overboard to guarantee financial accountability—and then go well beyond.

Home education is a clear path to a well-educated population, and more and more Albertans are choosing that option.

larry booi responds to paul van den bosch

Paul van den Bosch paints a rosy picture of the supposed positive impacts of home schooling for individuals and society. But his position is thoroughly undermined by his inadequate and discredited evidence base, unsupported assertions and failure to deal with crucial relevant issues.

While he states that there are “many studies and a wealth of evidence,” he mentions only three specific sources, including two home schooling organizations and the Fraser Institute. The first two are not research organizations and are set up to promote home schooling. The Fraser Institute exists to promote ideologically based “market solutions” through advocacy for privatization and undermining publicly delivered services, and simply has no credibility in educational research.

We are further told “studies show” home schooling has a wide range of specific positive benefits, but these turn out to be simply a list of assertions without any supporting evidence. It’s always important to remember one of the maxims of research in any field: “Assertion is not proof.” He then prefaces another list of supposed positive outcomes with, “Further, my experience shows….” No doubt Mr. van den Bosch believes in what he says, but the fervent belief of someone trying to sell you a product is never a sufficient reason to buy it.

His argument that “the societal benefit of home education extends to government efficiency” (or in plain terms, “We’re saving the rest of you money by home schooling”) is just as problematic. If the goal is to save money, why not just get rid of all funding for home schooling parents and save even more?

More importantly, the heart of the issue is not about money, and should not be—it’s about what policies we need to pursue in order to ensure that all children get a comprehensive and effective education in order to flourish in a complex, uncertain and demanding future. The most egregious flaw in Mr. van den Bosch’s argument is that he simply fails to grapple with the real issues of “the public interest” in this vital area, to the point where in his final sentence he trivializes it with the statement, “That’s the bottom line when asking ‘Is home education in the public interest?’ The public is clearly interested.”

That is most assuredly not “the bottom line.”

To do justice to this topic, we need to focus on the issue of the public interest in the right of all children to a first-rate education and whether home schooling undermines that right—especially when the growing forces of automation, artificial intelligence and global competition mean that only one thing is likely certain in an otherwise unclear future: Individuals and societies are going to need first-rate education. Our central concern must be to ensure that this happens for all children in our increasingly diverse and complex society.

The key reason there is such widespread support for public education in Alberta (where in fact only about 11,000 students participate in parent-provided home education programs out of a total of 700,000 Alberta students—about 1.6 per cent) is that there are enormous demonstrated advantages in educating our children in the public system.

While of course no system is perfect, Alberta’s system of public education is highly regarded internationally, for reasons that are at the core of the home schooling issue. Students across all grades and subject areas are in the care of the province’s skilled professional teachers, who collectively are recognized as being among the finest anywhere. These certifed teachers are required to continue to grow in their profession, are supported in doing so by ongoing professional development, and are held accountable by employers and the teaching profession. Where is the comparable ensuring of effectiveness and accountability in home schooling?

Our public schools are required to accept all students, including those with diverse and complex needs. They’re committed to educating all students well, regardless of their circumstances, with costs borne by the whole public—because it’s in the public interest to do so. We simply can’t ensure that these needs will be met in home school settings.

Public schools demonstrate a high degree of openness and visibility through ongoing assessment and communication with parents, and are overseen by democratically elected trustees. The system of monitoring home schooling is manifestly inadequate. Under the Home Education Regulation, a “teacher-facilitator” (who may be assigned by a co-operating private school) “conduct[s] at least two evaluations of the progress of the student each school year,” with the parent deciding how these occur, if any testing is to be done, and on what outcomes.

In my five decades of involvement in education, I have seen some situations where home schooling has worked reasonably well, usually when the parents were exceptionally committed, energetic and talented. But I have seen far more situations where I felt that students’ education had been compromised.

I believe that parents should have an important role, and that education works best when there is an active and ongoing partnership between engaged parents and professional teachers—but not when parents seek to replace teachers.

The public interest in this important area would be best served by three actions: Stop undermining public education by funding home schooling (and private schools, for similar reasons); put in place rigorous protections for the rights of children who are home schooled; and increase resources and supports for our public education system so that the promise of public education can be fulfilled for all students.

Paul van den Bosch and his wife Mary have seven children and have been home educating for over 25 years in Ontario and Alberta. He is past president of the Alberta Home Education Association. His background includes media and business management.

Larry Booi is board president at Public Interest Alberta and former president of the Alberta Teachers’ Association. He’s been involved in curriculum development, written textbooks used in Alberta schools, and is an adjunct professor at U of A.

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