Here’s the career math to know if you should homeschool

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.

18 replies
  1. Robin
    Robin says:

    You should live in a neighborhood where you earn the median salary.

    This is good advice for life in general.

  2. Kimberly Rotter
    Kimberly Rotter says:

    I think this hits the nail squarely on the head. I know exactly which school districts in my county are excellent. And I don’t think it’s realistic to think that we could live there. Plus, my husband and I agree that we want our child to spend as much time with one or both of us as possible. That precludes us both work so much that we can afford a decent private school. So my recent conclusion is that homeschooling is where we need to be. I just don’t know where to start, as far as the actual schooling part of it. I’m also trying to find out whether there are any charter schools worth their salt in our area. It appears that I have my work cut out for me on the research side.

    • leah
      leah says:

      This podcast is a good place to start:

      Put aside any misgivings that it’s on an urban survival website as the couple interviewed are mainstream and not in the least bit scary. I rolled my eyes when my husband forwarded me this link.

      My husband used this podcast to help convince me that homeschooling would be come thing to consider in the future (our twins are only 9 months old so lots of time to get to a place to make this lifestyle work for us).

      Once you do the ‘career maths’ and start thinking about home education as a viable option it does make so much sense you wonder why more people aren’t doing it.

  3. Sarah Rain
    Sarah Rain says:

    It depends on what you call a great school district. Most student success comes from their family backgrounds rather than school variables. I live near Albany NY, which has a horrible school system by the numbers, but the high school offers more AP, college-credit, and other advanced-level coursework than the high-ranked suburban school districts around it. The students whose families push them onto that track do great.

    Your usual argument is that schools generally suck as an institution for various reasons. I can get behind that one and would like to homeschool in some ways, though I am not right now. But you’re changing your tune here, saying that SOME schools are worth sending your kid to but you have to be rich to do it. I disagree. If you care about rankings, my kids go to a school that ranks in the top thousand nationwide; our household income is around $40K.

    • Mark K
      Mark K says:

      Penelope started this post “In hindsight I see that my path to homeschooling was…”

      Almost all of us start the path the being unschoolers as people who value education and want the best for our kids. So it seems natural to me that many people are doing the kind of math that Penelope describes.

      It was a different process for my family, because my wife and I both had such painful school experiences, we were looking for alternatives before my son was even conceived. But in my experience most people enjoyed school to a degree and find it hard to imagine what their life would be like without school. It is just assumed–the only variable is where are the good schools and is it worth it to move there?

      For some people the path takes you to structured homeschooling. For others, it leads ultimately to unschooling. But I found Penelope’s point to be a good example of putting herself inside her own head at the beginning of the process, in an attempt I think, to help people at that are just starting to think about not sending their kids to any school.

    • David
      David says:

      Agreed. The whole “good school/district” thing is a little overrated. It’s like parents don’t want to take responsiblity. I went to school in madison. And I saw kids go to ivy league schools, after going to my “bad” school. I saw plenty of people go on to a lot of “success”.
      It’s the parental influence.
      The “city” schools have a lot of underpriveleged students in the lot, throwing off the test scores. Sure, they are also bad schools, but a good student/person can still go on do whatever they want.

  4. Rachel D.
    Rachel D. says:

    My boyfriend’s two sons go to an excellent private school, even though the public school in our district is ranked one of the highest in the nation. They go to the private school because even though the public school is so well-ranked, it’s still safer for his boys to go to private, and either their mom or dad is home on any given day when they get home from school so they are very fortunate.

    So it’s definitely a math issue. If you don’t have enough money to pay for a school that has control over the environment they are providing for your children, then at least with homeschooling you can control their environment and exposure yourself.

  5. Caroline
    Caroline says:

    Yes! My local choices both public & private are not good. The closest good private school is 40 minutes drive. I couldn’t justify the time away from the family in addition to the commute. It really made no sense. Now that I’m 4 years into it, I see how homeschool is better for the children (and me) than conventional school anyways.

  6. Judy
    Judy says:

    Or you can realize that what the system deems “the best” isn’t necessarily the best for every kid. There are many nice middle class communities with good schools. What do I care if my high schools is not on a national list? My kids are thinking, active, engaged learners, with friends, non-academic interests and the ability to try new things. 2 of 3 have gotten into competitive colleges and are continuing to grow intellectually.

    The choice is NOT New Trier or. homeschool.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Here’s my problem with your reasoning: what does “good school” mean in this context? I think that in the US “good school” means “where I send my kids”. Because all the national rankings establish that we have tons and tons of not good schools. So you then have to say that you do not believe in those rankings.

      But then what do you believe in? What makes a school good? For sure we know that US public schools are atrocious on average. So then how do we establish if on is “good” if we are not using rankings?

      And if we are using rankings, then there is a direct correlation between how high the school ranks and the median income of the parents.


      • Judy
        Judy says:

        You eschew “the system” but then use that same system’s rankings to figure out if a school is good.

        Perhaps my view is skewed because I live in New Jersey. We have over 600 schools districts — basically every town is its own district. Our schools are pretty small and reflect the character and values of the community. There are a few districts (Abbot districts) in trouble that receive special funding. The downside of NJ’s small school district is, of course, high property taxes.

        I have no idea where my public high school ranks on any nation-wide list. I do know that my two graduates have been challenged, have had some fabulous teachers who have helped my kids grow intellectually, have had the space and opportunity to grow as learners, leaders, community members and human beings. My eldest has flourished in college.

        There are no metal detectors in the school. The president of the senior class last year is openly gay. There are no school buses — it’s a walking district. The cars in the kids’ parking lot at the HS are not better than the teachers’ cars. Kids’ live are not programmed to get into Harvard from the moment of birth. You don’t have to be a superstar to play a sport, or participate in music. We still manage the highest SAT average in our county, and most kids do well on their AP exams.

        Our district is not training ground for future masters of the universe. We aren’t on the cover of Newsweek magazine, but our district is indeed a “good” place to raise and educate a human being.

        • EMJ
          EMJ says:

          You eschew “the system” but then use that same system’s rankings to figure out if a school is good.

          Yes, this thing exactly.

          I live in Madison, am pregnant, and am attentive to the school quality issue. However, I don’t think it makes sense to make location and schooling decisions in the absence of an actual child with known skills and needs.

          There are two things going on with your kids, Penelope — your desire for them to have The Best, because of how you were raised; and your acknowledgement that at least one of them has special needs that may not match the school attributes that typically get J. Random Rich Child into Yale. In my view, these two facts are in tension. It speaks well of you that you’ve (perhaps without realizing it) prioritized the second, but IMO you should also acknowledge that parents of kids with needs unlike your kids’ can choose public schools over both the options you outline, and that depending on the child, that can be a rational choice.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      This is a separate feed. You need to subscribe separately. You can subscribe at the top of the homeschooling sidebar.


  7. karelys
    karelys says:

    My dad is so wise even in all his messed up emotional life, his lack of formal education and his lack of social skills!

    He taught me from an early age the whole “you need to be around the same level of those people you hang out with (financially).

    Anyway, I found it interesting that you argue that an interesting life is better than a happy life when the pursuit will take all your time and attention. But once I got to the bottom of the post I realized that the math problem lead to happiness at the end :)

    And I love that.

  8. Greg
    Greg says:

    There is another alternative besides earning $150K or homeschooling. You could emigrate to a country that doesn’t have a broken school system.

  9. victoria
    victoria says:

    We don’t have $150K HHI, and I feel 100% certain that at this point in time my daughter’s school situation is better than I could give her homeschooling.

Comments are closed.