Does school choice increase government control of private schools/homeschooling?

A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to discuss educational freedom and the competitive entrepreneurial marketplace that is flourishing thanks to new and expanding school choice programs across the country.

I’ve written extensively on a variety of reasons why school choice policies that allow education funding to follow students face opposition — from claims that they will “defund” public schools to claims they don’t improve academic outcomes.

But opposition also comes from those who are concerned such programs will increase government control of private and home education.

“State funds come with strings attached,” or thereabouts goes the argument. “He who controls the purse strings, makes the rules.”

This is certainly a valid concern, as we should always be vigilant against government overreach (and we know how promises from the government to not take “control” in other areas have played out!).

But I think there is an important distinction between not supporting school choice programs and actively opposing them.

First, participation in a school choice program is voluntary. For families concerned there would be new mandates or requirements if they participated, they are able to continue operating as they were. But this doesn’t mean all other families should be denied the opportunity to decide for themselves if they want to participate, especially if they can’t currently access a different educational setting. And if a family participates one year, but then changes to the program are made that they are uncomfortable with, they don’t need to continue participating.

Second, the government can already impose more regulations on private schools and home education if it wants to, even without a school choice program.

“Compulsory schooling statutes in each state grant the government the power to control K-12 education and to mandate it under a legal threat of force,” points out Kerry McDonald with the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE). “Moreover, some of the states with the strictest control of private education don’t have any private school choice policies at all.” She uses her home state of Massachusetts as an example.

We have no private school choice programs, and no hope for them to come anytime soon. Yet, the Bay State has some of the tightest homeschooling regulations in the country and is a state that requires local school board approval for any education entrepreneur who wants to open a private school in a particular city or town.

On the other end, “states with more school choice generally have more freedom to homeschool,” write Corey DeAngelis with the American Federation for Children and Jason Bedrick with the Center for Education Policy.

In fact, last year, Ohio lawmakers passed both universal school choice and a reduction in homeschool regulation.

Education choice policies shift the locus of control over education from politicians and bureaucrats to families. When a government-run school fails to meet a child’s individual learning needs or is pushing values that run contrary to her family’s values, choice policies give that family an immediate escape hatch. 

Empowering families with education choice also reduces the likelihood of harmful government regulation. As more families benefit from private and home education, the coalition willing to fight for the autonomy of private education will also grow. 

Additionally, “the school choice coalition has been careful to support legislation that includes language preserving the autonomy of private education providers,” continue DeAngelis and Bedrick.

For example, Arizona’s current school choice program — education savings accounts (ESAs) — has a safeguard that expressly prohibits private schools from having to “alter [their] creed, practices, admissions policy or curriculum” in order to accept students who pay for tuition through the school choice program. Arizona law also distinguishes homeschool students from home-educated students who participate in the ESA program, resulting in two separate legal categories. This legal distinction is important.

The state enacted this school choice program more than a decade ago, “and there have been no encroachments on the freedoms of private schools or homeschoolers,” conclude DeAngelis and Bedrick.

Preserving the autonomy of private education providers and families who direct and provide educational opportunities for their children can co-exist with expanding education choices.

It’s a topic, though, that is expected to continue generating debate, as even home educators are divided — those who have been homeschooling for years are more leery of regulatory encroachment than those who started homeschooling during COVID.

Check out my post here for more on drafting strong school choice policy that also protects home education.