In hindsight I see that my path to homeschooling was largely a math problem. In the process of making my decision I didn’t realize it was a mostly a math problem, but it was.
Here’s how it goes:
1. Good school districts are in expensive neighborhoods.
I had in my head what a “good” school district is. I want to New Trier, in Illinois. It is on anyone’s list of top high schools in the country. I wanted my kids to have that.
Then, when I realized that those brick-lined streets I grew up with are for the very rich. This photo, for example, is a tree-lined street in my childhood neighborhood peppered with tw0-million-dollar homes. And it’s the poor section of the New Trier school district.
2. You should live in a neighborhood where you earn the median salary.
So I realized that all the famous public school districts in the country – Tribeca, Palo Alto, Mercer Island, White Plains – come with a huge housing price tag. Sure, there is lower cost housing in all these areas. But one of the most important factors in creating a sense of well-being for your family is that your income is roughly the same as the median income of where you live.
If you earn less than everyone else, even if you are a millionaire, you will feel uncomfortable, and so will your kids. This is not rational—it’s emotional—it’s built into our DNA. Read Stumbling on Happiness to understand this. It’s by Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert and it’s the bible of how happiness relates to financial security. But really Gilbert is just reiterating research you can find in books by Kahneman, Lyubomirsky, and Powdthavee, and hundreds of others who drew the same conclusion: That financial sense of well-being depends on having a similar amount of money to those around you.
When I was deciding on schools I had already tested this research by earning $200K in both New York City and Madison, WI. Predictably, I felt like I was at the edge of poverty in NYC and I felt awkwardly rich in Madison.
The schools in Madison are terrible. The high schools don’t even make it into the top half of all high schools in the US. Don’t tell me about your personal standards for high school, okay? Whatever they are, you don’t aspire to send your kid to a school that might be in the bottom half of all high schools in the US.
3. A job to support a family in an expensive neighborhood is about $150K.
To get my kid into a school district where I knew the school would be ranked high, I had to earn $150K a year. That would put my family in the median income for those areas, (although we would still probably feel like we didn’t have a lot of money).
But to earn $150K, the whole time my kids are in school I’d need a very serious job that is definitely more than eight hours a day. More likely ten hours a day, if I am able to keep it that low. Because as you get up the food chain in corporate life, that’s how much people work.
4. People who earn $150K are not home for their kids.
Look again at that picture. I know that corner really well because I used to come home to an empty house, and I’d walk around my block all afternoon. Thinking. I didn’t like being at home because it was lonely. There were other things wrong with my childhood, for sure, but I knew I didn’t want my kids to come home to an empty house.
I also knew that mathematically I wouldn’t be able to afford an after school caregiver who would be great. Money would be tight living in a great school district with me earning $150K.
5. You have a choice: earn $150K or homeschool.
So I moved to a place that has a low cost of living. I told myself that the schools couldn’t be that bad. In Madison, they are terrible. And the parents are in denial. There is actually no discussion in the community when the state newspaper runs stories about how bad the high schools are.
I knew I had a choice between working ten hours a day to live in an expensive city, or send my kids to an expensive private school, or homeschool.
The choice was work ten hours a day or homeschool. It’s an easy decision.
The decision is more stark for me because I have always been the primary breadwinner. But I think the decision gets even more simple when there is not one primary breadwinner. Because to earn even $75K, you need to be out of the house eight hours a day. So then you have two people instead of one outside the house eight hours a day. Just to live in an expensive school district.
When I was making my decisions, I thought that ideally I’d work part-time and live in a great school district. In fact, Pew Research shows that most moms would like to do that. But that’s a tough feat to pull off. It requires marrying someone who earns $150K, reliably. Which only a small percentage of families have.
So, realistically, homeschooling is the most low-risk decision for most two-parent families. Each family will have their own math driving their choice. But it is clear to me that the risks of homeschooling do not outweigh the risks of me being gone all day at a job.