This post reviews Dan Lips and Evan Feinberg, “Homeschooling: A Growing Option in American Education” in Backgrounder 2122 (June 2008). [Available fulltext here]
Lips and Feinberg, both with the Heritage Foundation, here produce a synthetic overview of homeschooling for the Foundation’s publication Backgrounder. Most of what they describe will be very familiar to anyone who has spent any time studying the movement. I will not here summarize everything they say but instead mention a few points unique to this paper.
The first thing to note is that Lips and Feinberg alert readers to the fact that reliable social scientific studies on such matters as academic achievement among homeschoolers is unavailable. In addressing this and other questions they rely heavily on the advocacy research of Brian Ray, the Rudner study, and similar sources. Despite their caveats about the limited efficacy of such studies, the bulk of their paper is concerned with summarizing their results, results which of course make homeschoolers look very good in terms of academic achievement, college admission, and adult performance. Describing Ray’s study of adults who were homeschooled, for example, they note, “Although this survey is not a scientific measure, the results support the idea that homeschooling likely leads to similar or [more] positive life outcomes compared to the general population.”
Given the Heritage Foundation’s commitment to limited government and supply-side economics, it is not surprising that the economic effects of homeschooling are stressed in this piece more than is often the case in summaries like this. Lips and Feinberg point out, and this is the first time I’ve read the claim, that homeschooling is saving taxpayers “between $4.4 billion and $9.9 billion in instructional costs each year.” They arrived at this figure by taking the national average per-pupil expenditure in public schools for the 2002-2003 school year ($4,934) and multiplying it by both the department of education’s conservative estimate of the number of homeschoolers (hence $4.4 billion) and by Brian Ray’s HSLDA-Affiliated National Home Education Research Institute’s higher estimate (hence $9.9 billion). They note that the savings to taxpayers is likely even higher than these figures suggest, for if 1 or 2 million more students joined the public school system tomorrow other costs like school construction would also go up.
In a section explaining why homeschooling will likely continue to grow, Lips and Feinberg describe the growing partnerships between homeschooling and public education such as part-time enrollment, participation in extracurriculars, and online learning. They (rightly in my view) see all of this as part of a larger shift in the culture toward a virtual economy and society, and they also explain trends toward distance education as an aspect of the school choice movement. They do not, however, mention the antagonism to these new hybridized forms of home education expressed by veteran independent homeschool leaders, many of whom worry that collaboration with government compromises the integrity of their movement (and, not insignificantly, lures customers away from their products and services).
Lips and Feinberg close with specific recommendations for policymakers. Basically, they want government to avoid all regulation of homeschooling even as it requires public schools to accomodate homeschoolers when they wish to participate in aspects of public education like extracurriculars. Secondly, they want homeschooling costs included as allowable expenses under the Coverdell education savings account program specifically, and, more generally, they want lawmakers to provide tax credits or deductions for homeschooling.
Once it got beyond their recycled summary of the homeschooling movement, I found this article interesting to read. The economic impact of homeschooling is not often discussed. Lips and Feinberg are correct in the abstract that homeschooling in general saves taxpayers money, but they miss the local reality that this money is often sorely missed by public schools. Every child in a district who does not register for public school costs that school thousands of dollars. This economic reality is behind many of the more creative partnership programs that have been formed in the past few years as public schools try to lure back students and the dollars they bring with them. Statewide, the education budget benefits from parents who pay taxes but don’t use the service of public education. But local schools often hurt.
Furthermore, the policy suggestions Lips and Feinberg offer would drain the State’s coffers as well. Tax benefits or vouchers for homeschooling would mean less money for public education. Lips and Feinberg do not provide anything like a detailed policy analysis here, but if they had we’d likely get to the root issue eventually: public education itself. Should government be in the education business? Many homeschoolers feel strongly that it should not. Where do Lips and Feinberg stand on this issue? Being fiscal conservatives I would think they’d trend libertarian here. However, some of the recent developments Lips and Feinberg celebrate like distance education and homeschooler participation in public school sports are in fact growing government, as would their tax policy suggestions. I’m glad to see their attention to the economics of homeschooling, but for me their discussion raised more questions than it answered.