Homeschoolers ‘vigilant’ over latest school choice wins in states

School choice advocates have had a successful year implementing new policies in Republican-led states, but concerns over the changes have come from an unlikely source: homeschoolers.

While school choice fans and homeschoolers would seem to be on the same side of the coin — namely, those skeptical of the public school system — the government getting involved in what has been dubbed “education freedom” has sent chills down the spines of some homeschool backers.

Homeschoolers worry some of the more popular school choice programs that are getting implemented, such as education savings accounts (ESAs), will become a Trojan horse to the government getting more say in how they educate their children at home. 

“We’ve long had a policy position against public funding of private homeschooling for a variety of reasons. One of the main reasons is that the strength of private homeschooling has been the fact that we have stayed private in very important respects and not been dependent on government funding,” said James Mason, president of the Home School Legal Defense Association.

“That has spawned an incredibly broad and diverse kind of homeschooling ecosystem where we have created a whole new kind of education — education freedom that didn’t exist 40 years ago. So we’re very leery of government involvement through funding that would roll that kind of freedom,” Mason added. 

At least eight states have implemented new school choice policies this year, with four of those states now having universal ESAs: Iowa, Arkansas, Utah and Florida.

ESAs are accounts that provide a certain amount of money to parents who want to send their children to private schools or other educational settings. 

These new programs have fueled worries for some homeschoolers who believe that if parents start taking government money, the government can then add new conditions on how or what they teach. 

States looking at ESAs have so far sublimated the concerns of homeschoolers by making two separate categories in the legislation, one for those using the money for homeschooling and another for different education purposes. 

But in states such as Florida, homeschoolers weighed a campaign against the ESA when the bill was first introduced. 

“The original draft of the bill that was put out didn’t do the separation, and the homeschool community pushed back and was actually kind of lobbying against the bill as a whole. But once they made that change … the new language was put in where they did create the distinction, [and homeschool advocates] dropped the fight on it,” said Colleen Hroncich, a policy analyst for the libertarian Cato Institute’s Center for Education Freedom. 

Iowa took a different approach that just kept the homeschooling issue out of its universal ESA altogether, but its version of the law also upset some school choice advocates.

“They didn’t have that fight, but then it really doesn’t give you a lot of the benefits of an ESA,” Hroncich said, adding that Iowa’s system is more like a voucher program. 

Homeschool advocates would like to see support for their cause in an entirely different way. 

The ideal situation, they say, would be for the government not to be in charge of the funds at all and having it go through a private organization.

“There was a program in New Hampshire that we’ve supported where it promoted private philanthropy,” Mason said. “So people who cared about educational freedom could make tax-advantaged donations to an organization privately funded that would then distribute the money to people to be able to privately educate their children.”

The school choice movement plans to keep fighting on ESAs, as legislation that it backs recently fell short in states such as Texas and Georgia, both of which have Republican parties amenable to its cause.

Homeschools plan to watch those fights closely.

“Our goal, even in those states, is to protect the liberty of parents to choose, so we’re on the lookout for additional regulations that may come along with the money. That’s always been one of the reasons that we’ve opposed state funding for private education, that even if it doesn’t start out with regulations, eventually more regulations would be added. We’re vigilant to prevent that from happening in the states where these ESAs happen,” Mason said. 

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