Privatizing Education with Arvin Vohra – Episode 014

Arvin Thumb Direct mp3 download.

Link to episode 14 on Libsyn.

This week the Liberty Hippie is joined by the former Vice Chair of the Libertarian Party, the one and only Arvin Vohra. Arvin is an author of a number of books, including How to Get Into an Ivy League College, and Lies, Damned Lies, and College Admissions: An Inquiry into Education, and the creator of the Vohra Method, a highly specialized tutoring and college preparatory program.

In this episode we talked about privatizing the public education sphere and the potential of what that might look like. We also discussed why the public school model is failing students and how children can benefit from enrolling in an alternative schooling method – homeschooling, private school, etc.

The Links

After the show, the Liberty Hippie carries on about one of his pet peeves around this time of year: the Vidalia Onion packing season. He gets into the problems with government protection of crops based on where they are grown or produced, and questions why the state should hold a trademark on an entire crop.

The Onion Links

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Link to show notes for episode 013 with Jason Carrier.

Three Reasons Not To Homeschool

Earlier, I mentioned that my wife and I had many discussions before deciding to not enroll our son in first grade. In those discussions we came up with a number of reasons that we were unhappy with the public school system. At the same time, there were a handful of things that made us apprehensive about homeschooling. Surely, you may not agree with all of our reasons, or think we missed some key reasons to keep a child in public school, but these are what we thought of.

As adults, we make decisions for ourselves, as parents we also make decisions for our children. Every time we make a decision we are utilizing a recollection of previous experiences as well as synthesizing new information surrounding the present circumstances. A lot of the decision making when it comes to whether or not to homeschool, can be based on our experience in school both educationally and socially speaking. I was a student that thrived in the elementary school setting (fell apart in middle school and was back to enjoying high school by the end.) I enjoyed the projects, I enjoyed reading and writing reports, I enjoyed gym class every other day, I enjoyed running around like a hooligan on the playground. Believe it or not, some of my teachers taught me to enjoy learning and instilled some important values. In the end I would eventually go on to get my Master’s degree. Public school also worked for my wife as she went on to get her Doctor’s in Audiology. So if a generic public school setting worked for us (and countless others) why shouldn’t it work for our son? And further, why would I take that experience away from my son? Unfortunately, when you’re making decisions for a third party, you need to keep their best interests in mind, and sometimes what worked for you may not work for them. My wife and I really tried to remove our personal experiences with school from the decision making process, but it was difficult. The public school landscape has changed and not for the better.

One of the biggest factors when it comes to deciding whether or not to homeschool for everyone to consider – and it’s really too bad – is it’s affordability. There are a couple of upfront costs, but there are also some hidden fees that need to be considered. The most obvious cost is curriculum. Even if you create all the curriculum you will use, you’ll still be using resources be it paper and ink, pencils to write, or even just the electric to keep the lights on when they’d otherwise be off. Luckily for us, my mother-in-law is a homeschooler and my mother is an Elementary Special Ed teacher, my brother is a high school tech ed teacher, and my father is an engineer with a huge science brain: we have resources. Over the past couple of years we’ve bought a few boxed curriculum sets and filled in the rest with miscellaneous worksheets from workbooks given to us. If we decided to buy a boxed curriculum for every subject, the cost would add up quite quickly. Though, the biggest fee associated with homeschooling, is that you’re working for free. Say what you will about a homemaker/homeschooler it’s a job. It takes time and effort and most importantly – financially speaking – it reduces household income to one salary. Next year both of our children will be school age and we could be sending them to public school which would free me up to work part time or even full time as a teacher. That would be easily an extra $30k per year. Over time, that second income adds up and homeschooling becomes pretty costly. The last prong of the financial fork in your homeschooling steak is tuition. The moment you buy a piece of property, you start paying property taxes and somewhere wrapped in that massive donation to the state/county are your school taxes and you’ll pay them until you start renting or you curl up under a log and die – long after your child has finished with school. Depending on how big your house is, or how vast your property, your tuition will be different, but the fact is you pay for public school, so you might as well use it. Say what you want, public school is not free. Essentially you pay for homeschooling twice through taxes and an income you won’t be seeing.

The last big hang up with homeschooling over public school is sports. It is a much bigger issue for me than for my wife, and it is one of those things that won’t surface for another handful of years, but all the same, something to think about – and something I still think about quite frequently. School districts often offer youth rec-leagues and there’s usually some sort of travel program depending on the sport. Though by seventh grade, the youth programs peter out, travel programs get more expensive and high school sports begin. At a quick glance it seems that most states allow for homeschool students to participate in school sports (you can find a fairly comprehensible list here), but Georgia (our state) isn’t on that list and when speaking to other homeschoolers, their students have not been allowed to participate in public school sports. (Though I imagine if the student was an all-star QB the district would quickly change its mind.) To me, this is an issue.

I ran all three seasons: cross country, indoor and outdoor track. It was something that I recall quite fondly, and I think instilled a strong work ethic and a sense of routine outside of school. Everyday, when school ended – a place I was compelled to be – I would play some frisbee with my friends for an hour and then at 3:30, practice would begin and I would spend the next hour-and-a-half of my day doing something that I technically didn’t have to do. Sports kept me occupied when I might have too much free time, and they also gave me certain standards I had to meet if I wanted to keep participating (grades, behavior, tardiness, etc). It really gave me an incentive to work through high school as opposed to fighting my way through.

If the incentive sports gave to work through school wasn’t enough, there was also the team aspect. There was nothing more important in my education than learning to work with others and the camaraderie that comes when aiming to achieve a universal goal. Understandably, this might not be true for all students, but they heavily impacted my high school education and in turn impacts my decision making when deciding to not enroll our son.

As I look back at the decision making process, I think we had some other minor drawbacks here and there, but these three were the ones that came up repeatedly. Almost every anti-homeschool discussion focused on these topics. In the end they weren’t enough encouragement for us to keep our son in public school, but they might be for others. And as we move along this homeschool journey, we may find other traits of homeschooling we disagree with. I can’t foresee any that would make us send out son back to public school, but high school – both public and home – is a completely different situation.

Making the Decision

Homeschooling, it’s not for everyone, and to be honest, it took me a long while to get on board with the concept. After all, I have my Master’s degree in education. Pulling my son out of public school, the place I spent six years of my life training to work in, felt like something of a betrayal. It was an admittance that I saw something wrong with the public school system, that there was something wrong with my life-path-choice. It was an admittance that I was wasteful and wrong, two things I don’t care to be. It took us nearly the whole summer to finally make the decision and we only really pulled the trigger a few weeks before school was slated to start.

When we lived in Vermont, the idea of homeschooling never really crossed our minds. Sure, the schools in Vermont had to live up to the same federal standards as the schools in Georgia, but the mentality was different: the halls were friendlier, the parents welcome, the classes smaller. That isn’t to say the schools in Georgia are bad – my son learned how to read and blazed through math in public kindergarten – but it just wasn’t a good fit for our family. Of course, I didn’t and still don’t know that homeschooling is the right fit, but we’re trying.

I’m not sure how many discussions my wife and I had before finally making the decision to not enroll our son in first grade, but there were many, and it wasn’t always the same points that were contended. Undoubtedly, homeschooling isn’t for everyone and there will be a litany of different reasons for every family, some will be more real than others, but they all play into the final decision.

One of our main concerns with public school was time: time traveling to school as well as time in school and how it was spent. In our county the students have a seven hour day, even the kindergartners. Yes, I am aware that many schools are moving to a full day kindergarten, but in Vermont this wasn’t the case. (I strongly disagree with full day kindergarten but that’s for another post.) It seems to me that graduating from a three-to-four hour pre-school program to a seven hour kindergarten day is a massive jump and one we weren’t particularly keen on.

So, while I may not think it ever appropriate for a five or six year old to be in an institutional setting for seven hours a day, inevitably as a student progresses through their educational career, it will become necessary. What I fear (and saw first hand) is how seat time is actually utilized. As a soccer coach, I learned that no player should ever be standing still: lines are bad. If you must use a line for a drill, try to get players to do basic exercises with the ball while standing in line. The same idea can, and should, be applied to school, but it isn’t, in fact, many times, it can’t be accomplished due to classroom makeup. Classrooms are filled with brilliant students who buzz through worksheets in no time as well as students who ought to have an aide, but don’t. Yes, it’s a teachers job to handle this gamut of students, but it’s not always possible with burgeoning classroom sizes and ever increasing government proffered “standards.” So what happens? I guess it depends on the teacher, but it usually ends up being downtime in which a student is wasting time, and at the end of the day if you add up all that wasted time, how much do you have and what else could have been accomplished?

Another issue I take, is that in a seven hour school day, kindergartners went outside once for twenty minutes: twenty minutes. They went to gym twice a week for 40 mins, lunch was 20 minutes. There was no down time from learning. Kindergarten – in my mind – ought to be about playing, learning how to play and interact in a manner that is appropriate for children. Instead they’re stuck trying to keep up with standards some bureaucrat on the take from the Education Lobby has put in place. (Think about how much money is poured into the education industry with the advent of testing?)

In his year of kindergarten, my son never took the bus. This wasn’t for fear of being bullied or any other emotional fear surrounding the bus, but rather it was the duration of the bus ride. Because of where we lived, my son would have been the first on and the last off the bus which doesn’t mean much in itself; however, when you learn that the bus went by our house at 6:35am and again at 4:35pm it gets a whole lot realer. From beginning to end, that’s essentially a ten hour day – for a five year old. There are adults that don’t (and couldn’t) do that. In the end, it was me that was driving him back and forth to school everyday, yes it was our choice to do so, but it was a decision that had a pretty bleak alternative.

On top of the long day, the school system in our county is quite large; it is the third largest county in Georgia and it is broken into three school districts. Coming from Vermont where each grade had two – maybe three classrooms of 15-25 students in each, a grade with eight classrooms of 22-25 kids was a bit of a shock. It essentially meant that from year to year, our son would most likely not be with any of his friends from the prior year: each year would almost be like starting over. In our minds that meant two things, firstly, if home schooling didn’t work for first grade, we could stick him back in for second grade, and in terms of social networks, he wouldn’t be that far behind. Second, it meant that each new year would almost be like starting in a new school rather than a return to familiar situations. This was troublesome for us. (Imagine how much attention can be put on learning when you don’t have to constantly worry about navigating new social situations.)

Despite all the differences we face based on regional characteristics, there is at least one common trait through schools across the country: teachers. Some teachers are phenomenal and you wish your student could have them every year, some teachers are rubbish and you wish your child didn’t have to spend a day with them. Unfortunately, this is a crap shoot in public school. There is no telling who your teacher will be from year to year. At least with home schooling I know who the teacher is and where their weaknesses lie.

healthy breakfast
The lovely tax-payer funded school breakfast. Whole grain though.

For all the talk about how unhealthy our kids are, and how much we need to make them go exercise and eat their grains it was amazing how unhealthy the school food was. Due to the average income level of the student body as a whole, the school received funding for free breakfast for all the students, and while one might think that a tax-payer funded program would provide good wholesome food – it didn’t. Each morning as every child entered the school doors, a lunch worker was standing there handing out bagged breakfasts to those that wanted one. (We never let our son take them, but he would inevitably get them in the classroom.) What was in these wholesome bags of goodness? Sometimes a fruit – orange, banana, apple, – or a cheese stick, but more often than not, it was a six pack of mini-donuts, or a box of sour-raisins, a Pop-Tart or a juice box: grains and fruits loaded down with sugars and additives. Exactly what students need to sit through a long day of school, but hey, it was tax-payer funded.

Lastly, a big concern of ours was communication. When a teacher has 25+ students, seemingly endless evaluations to write, new standards to learn, lesson plans to write and constantly submit for evaluation, there leaves little time to communicate with families. Just like everything else, education has gone the way of regulations. There is a constant growth of paperwork and guidelines for teachers to follow, and that takes away from what education really is: a relationship between a teacher and a student (and family when appropriate) that encourages a child to grow their brain and discover the world.

This is not to say that homeschooling is the answer to all these issues, but for now, it seems like it is the best answer to many of these concerns. And of course, homeschooling has it’s drawbacks and give me pause whenever I think about them. No doubt there’s lots of other pros to homeschooling that were either of little concern to us, or things that I just overlooked.