Back to school time. And for today’s parents, that means facing more choices than a Las Vegas buffet.
I know this menu. My wife and I have loaded up our plates with a sample of everything.
By contrast, I can’t help but think back to how simple things must have been for my parents’ generation. When I went to elementary and intermediate school in the 1970s, my classmates and I walked or rode our bikes to the neighborhood public school.
In my hometown in the farm country of Central California, you might now and then run across a young person who went to private school — usually a Catholic school.
Yet, for the most part, just one generation ago, the public school monopoly was the only game in town.
Today, the world of K-12 education is completely different from what it used to be. Parents have choices, lots of choices.
There are still private schools, but not all of them are parochial. There are also specialized schools for children with learning differences like dyslexia.
For the last 25 years, there have also been charter schools, a kind of hybrid between public-private schools. They get money from the state, so they run on public tax dollars. But they have more autonomy than traditional public schools, which means they can experiment with different types of instruction.
And, in the last two decades, there has been an increase in the number of students who are homeschooled. Since 1993, homeschooling has been legal in all 50 states. Much of the early interest came from Christian fundamentalist parents seeking to shield their children from public school textbooks and curriculum that offended their religious sensibilities.
Nowadays, slightly more than 3 percent of the school-age population is homeschooled. Yet there is still a lot of ignorance about the concept. It does not always mean a student sitting with a parent at the dinner table, with an open textbook. There are homeschool associations, and brick-and-mortar buildings with teachers where students go a few days a week in between home study.
And, I have learned, parents choose homeschooling for a multitude of reasons. Sometimes, it is to avoid bullying or to protect a child who may appear socially awkward. Sometimes, it’s to avoid the constant testing in public schools, or give children more time to pursue sports and other extracurricular activities. Or maybe it’s because parents want students to learn the basics but also have more time for electives like music and debate, which have sometimes been removed from the public-school curriculum.
Likewise, individual states have built reputations for being either a good or bad place to homeschool children; that is, some states make it easy for parents to homeschool their children, others not so much. For states like California, with high per-student expenditures, it’s a good deal financially since parents get to spend on instruction — in their child’s name — roughly a quarter of the funding that would normally go to a public school.
In fact, these days, parents have so many choices that it can be confusing. Every parent wants what is best for his or her child, but it’s hard to know exactly what that is.
As if that were not maddening enough, parents who have more than one child — and who are paying attention — will note that each of them is different. They may have different styles of learning and process information in unique ways.
That’s how it is in our family. So, this year, our educational choices are a smorgasbord.
My children — ages 9, 11, 13 — went to a Montessori charter school from kindergarten to 3rd grade, 5th grade, and 7th grade.
Now my two girls are being homeschooled by my wife — a Montessori-trained educator and licensed language therapist — and the teachers who work at a homeschool charter school. Both my daughters are self-starters with enough discipline to work in their home classroom, neighborhood library, or school classroom.
My son was supposed to be homeschooled, as well. But, at the last minute, he opted for public school. He is now one of about 1,000 pre-teens at his middle school moving between eight periods a day. It seems like a good fit, since he needs rules, deadlines, structure, and set expectations. Public school gives him that.
Competition is a good thing. It’s true in business. And it’s true in education. The public schools in America have run the board for too long, unchallenged. We’ve let bureaucrats, administrators and teachers’ unions create a system of low accountability that exists chiefly for the benefit of adults who work in it.
Many parents are catching on, and voting with their feet by taking their children elsewhere. The market speaks.
You would think that those who, every day, teach lessons would be quicker to learn theirs.
Ruben Navarrette is a contributing editor to Angelus and a syndicated columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group and a columnist for the Daily Beast. He is a radio host, a frequent guest analyst on cable news, and member of the USA Today Board of Contributors and host of the podcast “Navarrette Nation.” Among his books are “A Darker Shade of Crimson: Odyssey of a Harvard Chicano.”
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