Opinion

KOLB: The Coronavirus Pandemic Will Create A Greater Appreciation For Public Schools

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Charles Kolb Deputy Assistant to George H.W. Bush
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Editor’s note: We endeavor to bring you the top voices on current events representing a range of perspectives. Below is a column arguing that although it has seen an uptick in popularity during the coronavirus pandemic, homeschooling will not replace the public school system. You can find a counterpoint here, where J. Michael Smith, president of the Homeschool Legal Defense Association, argues that homeschooling is a great alternative to public school and will find greater popularity after the pandemic.

Before the coronavirus pandemic upended many aspects of American life, approximately three percent of students were educated through homeschooling.

Now, with schools closed and many institutions pursuing online instruction, we don’t yet have new estimates as to the percentage of students being homeschooled. Judging from the anecdotes from anguished parents, however, that figure is probably well into double-digits.

During the first three decades of my life, I was a heavy consumer of education, but I couldn’t imagine trying to homeschool a child today. Some years ago, when I was in law school, I was asked to give introductory economics lectures to a group of teenage Civil Air Patrol cadets. It was not a pretty picture: the problems were on my end, not theirs.

That experience taught me a lesson: being a good consumer does not necessarily translate into being a good producer. I should have reached that conclusion much earlier in my economics studies. That’s what comparative advantage is all about.

A colleague with a Master’s degree in elementary education told me that she wouldn’t conceive of homeschooling her children. That admission made me feel better about my own short-lived classroom career.

American K-12 education has always been decentralized. Local control has been a fundamental characteristic of our public education system. One reason for this tendency is the fact that so many public schools are funded through local property taxes.

Efforts to impose even modest federal standards or requirements often provoke resistance. Algebra taught in Alabama should be the same as algebra taught in Alaska, but the Obama administration’s efforts to launch a national core curriculum went nowhere thanks to intense state and local resistance.

President Jimmy Carter succeeded in setting up the U.S. Department of Education, but his success by no means quelled ongoing controversies over the extent of federal involvement in K-12 education.

Candidate Ronald Reagan campaigned in 1980 vowing to close the Education Department. When he left office in January 1989, there were actually more federal education programs run by the Department than when he took office in January 1981.

What goes on in our K-12 classrooms occasionally becomes controversial: sex education (aka “Family Life”), character education, questionable books in school libraries, school “choice,” and the role of religion. My favorite K-12 education controversy involved whether there should be prayer in the public schools. Columnist George Will offered the most insightful, practical observation about this dilemma when he quipped that as long as there are math tests in schools, there will be prayer in schools.

Since most Americans were educated in our public schools (and many have children in them today), there’s a longstanding belief that almost everyone is therefore entitled to be an expert capable of addressing these issues. That’s okay, as long as the focus remains on two important issues: what our children should be learning and whether they are, in fact, learning.

Whether the approach is homeschooling, public, private or charter schools, it’s critical that parents, teachers and students be held accountable for the outcomes. I have always admired and marveled at homeschooling parents. It’s a serious commitment that requires dedication, planning, time and patience. Results are what’s important.

The reaction to the coronavirus pandemic has decentralized public education even further. With schools closed, more parents are engaged in homeschooling in ways they’d never anticipated. Sure, there are online classes, but from what I hear, the quality is spotty. We’ve gone from local control to household control, with many parents longing for public schools to reopen.

There are many reasons why parents decide to homeschool children. In some cases, parents may have concerns about the quality of their local public schools but may lack resources to pursue other options. In other cases, parents may prefer their own, direct control over what their children are learning.

Homeschooling is just fine for those parents and students who want it, but homeschooling will never supplant our traditional public K-12 system. The vast majority of American students will attend (and hopefully be educated in) our public schools.

As the coronavirus pandemic ends, our K-12 schools will gradually reopen. Some school systems may open for a few weeks this spring, while others may not reopen until late summer.  Homeschooling during this unusual time was, for many families, not something that they had expected or prepared for.

Perhaps one unanticipated, positive consequence of these difficult times will be a greater appreciation of (and perhaps even increased compensation for) truly outstanding American teachers.

Charles Kolb served as Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy from 1990-1992 in the George H.W. Bush White House