More Free Money!
by Barry Peters, Esq.
The most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.
Money has always been effective bait. And free money from the government? That’s both “priceless” and irresistible.
A couple of examples show how well the formula works, even in the area of education:
- Your state might win a share of $3.5 billion to be handed out by the U.S. Department of Education. All it has to do is adopt the Common Core State Standards.
- How about a free computer, plus you can continue to use your favorite curriculum? Just enroll your homeschooled child in our virtual charter school.
Despite these alluring promises, after Idaho dutifully adopted the Common Core Standards, it received none of the promised federal funding. And after the on-line charter schools were up and running, the list of approved curricula was systematically narrowed to just a few options, all of which had to be both sanitized of any spiritual content and aligned with the Common Core Standards. Nothing sells like “free.” But when a person takes the government freebies, they’re on the hook. The government runs the show. They can change the rules at will. And there’s no accountability for the government’s failure to live up to its promises.
Free Money for Homeschoolers
Many years ago, several well-intentioned state legislators proposed a tax credit bill that would have helped those whose children were being taught in a setting other than the public school system. That struck us as more than fair in light of all the money that our efforts were saving the state each year. To our amazement, as soon as our homeschool-friendly legislators began to debate the bill in committee, the discussion quickly focused on the “accountability” strings that would need to be imposed to make sure the home educated children were properly educated. State registration and testing requirements were suggested as appropriate first steps.
Seeing the writing on the wall, we asked that home schooled families be excluded from the bill. Despite the soothing assurances of the bill’s sponsors, they lacked the ability to truly shield us from bureaucratic intervention. That experience convinced Homeschool Idaho’s predecessor organizations that the best policy is to firmly decline the financial assistance offered by our government.
How We Got Here
Idaho is considered by many to be the most homeschool-friendly place on earth. It is where the legislature has given us the freedom to teach our own children without government oversight. It’s the place that highlights the fact that, as a group, children taught at home without government involvement achieve academic results that are lightyears ahead of the children in the public schools. The average homeschooled student in Idaho outperforms four out of five of the students in the public system on standardized achievement tests.
Have you ever wondered why we enjoy such freedom?
It turns out that a significant reason why our legislature has blessed us with unfettered freedom is our willingness to forego its financial assistance. For years we’ve gone to the capitol every February for Legislative Pie Day to offer our legislators a show-and-tell type of encounter with students who have actually been taught at home. We draw them in with homemade pies and encourage them to linger at our displays and talk with the students. And we tell them how much we appreciate the tremendous freedoms they’ve extended to us. To answer their academic questions, we show them our composite achievement test scores assuring them of our students’ accelerated progress. And we let them chat freely with our children to dispel any lingering doubts about any supposed lack of “socialization.” They, in turn, regularly remind us that we are the only constituency that does not show up with our collective hands held out. We don’t ask them for funding to help us. We live within our means even though most of our homes have become single-earner households in order for us to teach our own children.
The New Free Money
The next iterations of “free money” for homeschoolers are on the horizon. They are the prospects of Educational Savings Accounts (ESA’s) and Strong Students Scholarships.
Education Savings Accounts
ESA’s are hardly “savings accounts” in the normal sense of the term. The parents don’t “save” their own money to pay for their child’s education. These accounts are effectively debit card accounts provided to the parents of school-aged children who are being taught in a setting other than the public school system. The operation of such accounts in the few other states which have passed them has been eye-opening, though not entirely surprising. In Nevada, for example, here are some of the guidelines that must be followed:
- To qualify for ESA funds, homeschooled children must first be enrolled in the public schools for at least 100 days. Only then may the parents apply for the ESA.
- To remain qualified, every student must be tested annually to demonstrate academic progress that is satisfactory to the state.
- Parents of home schoolers who receive an ESA may continue to teach their own children, but only after they have first applied for and been approved by the state as a “Participating Entity”
- Even parents who go to the trouble of becoming a state-approved Participating Entity are not permitted to pay themselves for their educational services. They may only spend the money on curriculum purchases and annual standardized tests for the students.
In short, for the typical homeschool family, to receive a debit card that can only be used to cover the cost of curriculum and testing, the parents must (1) enroll their children in a public school for 100 days, (2) apply to the state for its approval of the parents as a Participating Entity, and (3) they must then test their children every year and release the test results to the state. Once they’ve cleared all those hurdles, their actual educational expenditures will then be subject to an audit by the state each year.
That’s in part why the Nevada legislature put its ESA program out of its misery and cancelled the law that created it.
Strong Students Scholarships
In Idaho’s 2021 legislative session, a new bill has been submitted which will establish the Strong Students Scholarship program. That program suffers from many of the same dangerous deficiencies that the ESA programs have incorporated.
Homeschoolers who want to apply for the scholarship will first be required to enroll their children into a public school program for 100 days in the preceding year before being allowed to request the scholarship. For most homeschooling families, the prospect of subjecting their children to 100 days in the public schools makes no sense, regardless of how attractive the scholarship might otherwise be.
Then, once the family has endured the application process, the program will be administered by the State Board of Education. That is true despite the fact that the State Board otherwise has no legal control over homeschools or private schools. In short, this scholarship would provide the State Board the means to begin exerting influence and control within the homeschool community that it has not heretofore had.
The aspects of a home education program for which the scholarship funds may be used is also quite restrictive. And, at any time after the scholarship has been awarded, the Board of Education retains the right to audit the families finances to be sure the money has not been spent in an unauthorized fashion.
For those committed to protecting our freedom to teach our children without government interference, any one of these requirements is a deal-killer. Together, they are a threat of such substantial proportions as to force our vigorous opposition. Having said that, we understand and appreciate the motivations of those who wish to bless home schoolers with this free money. And we understand the need for free market “choice in education” to be brought to bear on the public school system’s virtual monopoly. But we also understand the threat to Idaho home schoolers’ autonomy that will come in the wake of this effort to open the door to state funding.
We are resolved that Idaho homeschool freedoms will not become collateral damage in the pursuit of a broader choice in education. In the final analysis, we must firmly, but politely, say: “Thanks, but no thanks.”