Home Schools Need Regulation and Evaluation

The opening of this story in the Staunton News Leader is not about Texas Governor Rick Perry. It is, however, incredibly depressing:

By the time he was 16, he had never written an essay. He didn’t know South Africa was a country. He couldn’t solve basic algebra problems.

It’s the story of Josh Powell, a now  21 year old college student who was home schooled by his parents until he was able to get himself a remedial education at a community college after receiving an education at home that neither prepared him for an academic life nor a professional career.

I have no doubt that some home schools produce excellent results and students who are incredibly successful. I’m just as sure that there are students who receive almost no education of value and who become lost before they’ve have a chance to find out who they can become.

I’ve had experience with both kinds of home schooled students. Some have been socially adept high-achievers and others have labored under severe social difficulty and academic deficiencies that made their high school experiences incredibly challenging, and in some case, unmanageable.

But under laws like that of Virginia and Montana, there’s simply no way to know what students in home schools are being taught or whether they’re even learning basic academic skills. In Montana, the law says that parents have sole responsibility for:

(1) the educational philosophy of the home school;
(2) the selection of instructional materials, curriculum, and textbooks;
(3) the time, place, and method of instruction; and
(4) the evaluation of the home school instruction.

There is a requirement that home school students be registered with their County Superintendent—and a vague admonition that students be taught the “basic instructional program” set forth by the state, but there’s no review, enforcement, nor measurement of that education. In short, there’s little reason to believe that Montana doesn’t have students just like Josh in home schools today. And the home school and school choice community wants to keep it that way.

Josh Powell’s story turned out reasonably well, though he still wonders how much he lost not being in public schools.  As the story notes, at least of one of his siblings has him worried:

Most of all, he worries about his siblings: There are 11. One, old enough to be well into middle school, can’t read, Josh Powell said.

All of this, of course, goes beyond home schools. Those on the right who bray all the time about “school choice” want the same kind of freedom in charter schools, for-profit private schools, and online scams to make money without actually educating children. The bills proposed in the Montana Legislature have been long on rhetoric, and short on expectations.

Parents absolutely have a right to educate their kids and teach them the values they hold dear. But there is a reciprocal obligation to ensure that students actually are educated—and a vital government role in overseeing that education, because as it turns out, there’s another right involved:  the right of children to receive a quality education that prepares them for life.

And one of the functions of government is to ensure that kids receive that education. After all, as famously home schooled Thomas Jefferson once said:

Educate and inform the whole mass of the people… They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.