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We cannot forget children in the school choice debate

By: Sean Callahan, Editor-in-Chief

Originally Published February 20, 2024

From second through sixth grade, I was best friends with a boy I will call Jim. Jim did very well socially. He had an inner circle of friends, both in our neighborhood and at the elementary school we attended. We also had several mutual friends and hung out as a group on many occasions. Truthfully, I would have even considered him much more popular than I was at the time. Whereas I struggled to fit in and appear ‘normal’, Jim had no problem just being himself. Then, sometime in third grade, I couldn’t find him at recess, at lunch, or at gym class. After visiting him that week, I discovered the truth: Jim was now being homeschooled.

At the time, the concept had puzzled me. How do you do school from home? I discovered Jim’s parents helped him learn the different school subjects, and if he chose to continue homeschool beyond the elementary level, he could consider an online homeschool program. Jim had not been forced into it. He and his parents had talked with each other and with school staff. From what I remember, Jim struggled to focus in general, especially academically. He and his family had nothing against those who decided to pursue public or private school. But Jim did not feel like teachers were helping him be successful, and he was not a fan of school itself. Furthermore, his family did not have the money to commit to private tutors or private school itself. By third grade, Jim agreed with his parents that a change was needed.

Although he ultimately transferred back to public school for high school, Jim and his parents saw another option that they felt was most beneficial for his education and took it.

I could never envision myself in Jim’s position. Homeschool sounds scary to me, even now. How do you envision your parents’ as your ultimate teachers of everything? Perhaps, one could argue my belief of this comes down to how I was raised. I mostly disagree. I don’t think I would like how much power my parents had, and how constrained I would feel being at home for everything—fun, mealtimes, sleep, and socialization and education. I thrive off structure but also freedom, and occasional changes in environment. I think homeschool would drive me crazy. It has nothing to do with my parents—whom I love very much. It has everything to do with me, Sean the person. But Jim the person is not Sean the person. What he needed was very different from what I needed.

My older sister had attended a high school in our hometown, Hagerstown, called Barbara Ingram School for the Arts (BISFA). People often mistake it for a private school. But it is a public school, free and open to enrollment for any 8th grader. The catch is: you audition for a specific art you enjoy to be eligible for enrollment. Then, you must be accepted to the program to be enrolled at BISFA. My sister was accepted for dance. Other options were various forms of theatre, vocal performance, visual arts, instrumental, and creative writing. For these reasons, it is a small high school that can be extremely competitive to get into.

Looking back, I can safely say that I was not scared into applying for creative writing at BISFA because of some social fear of regular public schools. In fact, I was afraid I was not good enough for art school, and I was afraid of missing out at a regular high school. Although I was not fond of many sports, I was considering my local Catholic high school, because I knew I could be a good runner. That school had a great track and cross-country program. Additionally,

my other sister and several friends I knew were attending my regular local high school. There was a lot at stake, and my parents were not shy in expressing similar concerns. However, I am thankful for how this conversation of school choice went because it centered the important question: Did I like to write that much? In other words: is this the education that best fits Sean the person?

I could write on forever about why my high school was the best choice. But instead, I want to drive home the point in telling these two stories.

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in an irreversible, undisputable shakeup regarding the education system. Multiple experts cited in news sources agree that homeschool rates have increased dramatically and have remained steady since the onset of the pandemic. The Washington Post claimed, via an Oct. 2023 graphic, that homeschool enrollment has increased 51 percent nationally, while a Fox News 2022 article claimed that this number had reached as high as over 60 percent.

The Post article explains that prior to the pandemic, even as early as 2012, homeschooling was still largely a movement dominated by religious people who leaned politically conservative. But it has slowly gained popularity with people outside those groups, and now, it is equally as popular with liberals as it is conservative.

The Post describes parents across the political spectrum realizing that homeschool is more beneficial for their children’s education than public school, especially when it comes to children with disabilities, attention deficits, or dealing with perceived inefficient public schools.

However, other reasons for the homeschool increase still include a perceived narrative of ‘public schools indoctrinating children into being liberal’, and dissatisfaction with strictness of COVID policies. This pertains primarily to many conservative religious parents. But an examination of Hillsborough County, Florida, homeschool capital of the United States, shows how complicated the reasons for homeschooling can be. According to the Post, there are parents in Hillsborough who view the public schools as liberal indoctrinating, but there are also parents who feel Florida’s Governor, Ron DeSantis, is treating the public schools too harshly, therefore they are afraid to send their children to public school.

I believe that the pandemic, overall, has resulted in parents and children examining the education system more closely. Research across different news outlets has shown that most American attitudes towards homeschool have become more positive, less politically motivated. Most importantly, it has become more about what the child wants, and protecting children. On a moral level, the country seems to agree on two things. Firstly, homeschooling needs more regulation and guidelines to make it consistently effective and safe. Secondly, public education needs lots of changes. What we do not agree on is what those changes and regulations should be.

I am glad this conversation of school choice is starting to be more centered on the children. I am glad children as young as five and six spoke as loudly as their parents did, and recognized what they needed to succeed.

I am upset that this conversation feels as if it is only happening now. I am upset that we have been living in a world where public school is seemingly never questioned, and homeschool

has long been branded in the media as a place for only religious or conservative families. I am frustrated that still, today, there are parents ‘deciding’ what their child’s education will be, without giving them a say in it. I wish there was more media coverage about average stories like those of Jim and I, or just as much coverage about the children with disabilities or families during the pandemic who found a lot of peace in transitioning to homeschool. I also wish there was more coverage on children who found a lot of freedom in public school, and the teachers that changed their lives. I wish there was less coverage today about ‘schools brainwashing kids’ or ‘schools going woke’, and more coverage on the experiences of average children in America.

I do not believe there is a perfect answer to school choice, or a perfect education that works for everyone. I know there is more to this discussion than blindly listening to what children say. Parents and those in the education system do have a duty in making important calls to protect children. But children are people as well, and we as the adults of America have a responsibility to engage with them as they grow and develop. We have to be willing to consider school a choice a conversation, and to trust the child’s responses. We have to be willing to ask the question: What educational environment serves you the best?

Editor Note: The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely the author’s. Publishing of any opinion piece does not represent endorsement of the piece by The Review staff or Saint Vincent College.

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