Forget universal pre-K. Obama should launch a program to fund homeschooling

I wrote today about how Obama’s proposal for universal pre-K is stunningly out of touch with the realities of today’s society. It’s clear that most mothers do not want to work full-time when they have kids, and it’s clear that Obama is advocating school as a daycare system rather than an educational system. You can read the whole post here.

But what I noticed, as I was writing it, was how mainstream media manages to report this story without mentioning homeschool. What is best for kids when they are four years old? Unstructured play. This is well documented, but if you push parents to provide unstructured play to a four-year-old it’s like pushing them to provide breastfeeding to a one-year-old: maybe it’s too hard on the parent!

So it’s not politically correct to tell parents to suck it up and do what’s right for their kids. And it’s not politically correct to advocate spending tons of money to let low-income parents stay home with their kids. But it is politically correct to tell low-income parents to drop their kids off at daycare even if they would rather stay home with their kids?

It’s obviously ridiculous, but it’s in keeping with the way media reports on homeschooling, which is that they ignore it. Mainstream media misses the opportunity to point out that homeschooling works for everyone, no matter where they are in the economic spectrum.

The Economist says that the average homeschool family in the US does not earn any more money than the average stay-at-home parent family in the 1970s. Which means that homeschooling doesn’t take a lot of money. What it takes is basic respect for parents and kids, recognizing that their time together is more valuable than trying to teach four-year-old boys to sit still and do math.

This is an enormous missed opportunity to close the education gap by enabling all parents to homeschool, no matter how rich or poor they are. The best path out of poverty is to have self-confidence and a strong sense of how to leverage your skills to fit into society. We don’t know how to give that to poor kids yet, but I know it’s going to come in the form of getting them out of a system that teaches them to be spoon fed, test-takers, limited by what they can learn from a baby-sitting teacher in a traditional classroom.

34 replies
  1. MoniqueWS
    MoniqueWS says:

    I have ZERO interest in accepting funds of any sort from the government to homeschool my kiddos. Once you take Caesar’s coin you dance to his tune.

    Universal pre-school is just another way to (even earlier) take control of children and start programming them. There is ABSOLUTELY nothing about early education as the government proposes that is in line with the scientific research. Young children need play and pretend and time to ponder not more drills.

    “It isn’t a coincidence that governments everywhere want to educate children. Government education, in turn, is supposed to be evidence of the state’s goodness and its concern for our well-being. The real explanation is less flattering. If the government’s propaganda can take root as children grow up, those kids will be no threat to the state apparatus. They’ll fasten the chains to their own ankles.” ~ Lew Rockwell

    • Julie
      Julie says:

      We participate in a homeschool assistance program through our school district and love it. However, participation is not mandatory and I think that is what makes the difference. Nobody has to join, they have other options in our state for hsers (standardized testing or a reviewed portfolio). The district gets a third the reimbursement from the state that they get for a child enrolled full time in a school. Last week the assistant superintendent had a meeting for parents (nobody required to attend but a lot of parents showed up) looking for feedback about the program.

  2. Jana
    Jana says:

    “What it takes is basic respect for parents and kids, recognizing that their time together is more valuable than trying to teach four-year-old boys to sit still and do math.”

    Nailed it Penelope! Think of how poor neighborhoods would change if moms were around all day and kids were not left to fend for themselves. And kids didn’t have to go to school when they are sick because their mom has to go to work.

  3. Jennifer
    Jennifer says:

    Reading “The Christian Science Monitor” last night and this article made me grin:

    “Teaching kids word power: New study focuses on vocabulary in context” —

    “A useful understanding of vocabulary goes beyond recalling a dictionary definition….[Teachers] often use words that the kids already know…but they’re not attending to the meanings of words kids are meeting in texts.”

    With the “economically disadvantaged” the “barriers” are “not having enough reading materials at home, not having a support group to encourage visits to the library…or simply not being read to…”

    The solution is to “routinely stop when reading passages aloud to ask questions and hold conversations….Children need to learn a rich vocabulary in a variety of contexts in preschool or before.”

    This excited me– we often talk a lot when we’re reading to one another. We don’t fly through books the way the kids were encouraged in school (to get “points”).

    We’re absorbing them.

    The kids get stuck on a word, we get the pronunciation right then. They stop me (or I stop myself) to explain a word or phrase or situation.

    That would be madness in a room of kids, no matter how bright the kids or gifted the teacher.

  4. Susan Ryan
    Susan Ryan says:

    I’d often wondered why most of our representatives don’t tout the joys of staying home with little ones and how that would/should be the government’s goal to help families out. Most parents would find it ideal to have a parent(s) or other family member home with their kids.
    Then I noticed govt agencies wanted day care providers to be licensed and pre-school teachers should be certified.
    And I realized this wasn’t about the children.
    Our broken/broke state representatives are now trying to push through compulsory attendance age being lowered to 5 from 7 years of age. Doesn’t make any sense, kid-wise or financially, and definitely out of touch with families’ every day realities.

  5. Ellen
    Ellen says:

    Is there a basic underlying assumption by large intrusive government that lower income families are not capable of providing their children with meaningful interactions in a positive environment, therefore the need is not to promote families being together but rather to aid the families in being free from caring for their own children in order to earn more and broaden the tax-base? In this nation we wrongly believe that more money always equals a better life.

  6. channa
    channa says:

    Head Start provides a ton of unstructured playtime, and my daughter’s private preschool is nothing but. Just because the government is paying doesn’t mean they are going to ignore the research and make them do math drills all day.

    • crunchymama
      crunchymama says:

      I substituted long-term in a Head Star classroom last year and while I was there I put more unstructured play INTO the schedule. These 3- and 4YO’s were expected to spend a good 45 minutes a day tracing letters, many before they were even really ready to have a pencil grip, but even though I started in May and finished out the school year, *I* was the one who had to teach them how to ask another student for a turn and how to say “Excuse me,” because there had been so much focus on skills – the regular teacher was so proud that “her” kids had learned to recognize nearly ALL the letters of the alphabet instead of the 10-15 mandated by the Feds, because she had spent so much time on THOSE instead of the free play.

      Once I took over, I made sure the kids got extra time outside when the weather was good, and plenty of unstructured and loosely structured time inside as well. If that class was any indication, Head Start could use more of the kind of free learning that helps kids learn the non-academic skills they need to take the most advantage of more formal learning later: persistence, risk-taking, creative thinking, social skills and how to interact appropriately with peers and with adults – things like that.

  7. Francesco
    Francesco says:

    Maybe the President’s proposal is stunningly out of touch with reality on purpose. When you are pushing a society towards Brave New World, you don’t really care about the education of all children; only the alphas.

  8. Karen
    Karen says:

    The President should skip all the fanfare about early childhood education, and increase the tax breaks and/or subsidies for raising kids. I’m fairly certain we have one of the lowest subsidy rates for raising kids among developed nations. I don’t believe for a second that the government can keep its controlling hands off some type of homeschool subsidy. It would be loaded with requirements: attendance, “school hours”, curriculum, assessment, oversight, etc. State requirements are bad enough. Imagine the monstrosity the federal government could create with a homeschooling subsidy program. (I think we should float your name for Undersecretary for Homeschool Education as soon as the program gets off the ground.)

    A straight child subsidy increase keeps the government out of of the way, while still promoting the goal of early education. It could even be just an increased subsidy for the 0-5 aged kids. If Obama’s early ed program is really about making quality early education available to more kids, and it’s based on the argument that families can’t afford it, then an increased child subsidy meets those goals.

    In my opinion, the early education program is really about creating a new social welfare program for the poor. I believe the studies that show gains for kids that go to preschool show the biggest (or only) gains are for kids that come from poor families. But Obama knows he can’t sell a new social welfare program for the poor to Congress, so here’s a “universal” program that helps the middle class too. (I don’t believe he can sell this program to Congress at all – it’s probably DOA. The question is what he pitches as the Plan B scaled back plan when it fails – maybe expanded Head Start eligibility? All I know is that it won’t be a direct subsidy that parents could actually control – Obama is a big government guy who truly believes that society functions better when the government makes decisions for most people.)

    • Commenter
      Commenter says:

      Karen, I’m having a hard time understanding how federal support of universal preschool is a “new social welfare program for the poor,” but an increased child subsidy wouldn’t be.

      I don’t think that the promise of cash from the feds would affect the child-bearing decisions of upper-middle class families very much. But how about those folks who are already on government support of some kind, or are living in poverty?

      It seems to me that direct cash subsidies of child-bearing would tend to increase fertility most among those least prepared to raise their children, leading in the long run to increased poverty and other social ills.

      I’ve worked in social security courts before, and it seemed to me that SSDI fraud was pretty common, everybody hamming it up and parents coaching their kids to act disturbed to justify higher benefits. It’s a long way around to get a few hundred bucks a month, but it beats working at burger king. If just having kids in the first place resulted in cash money, you’d see a poverty-level baby boom.

      Is an increase in government dependency and higher taxes to support it the outcome you were looking for?

      • Nonnie
        Nonnie says:

        Surely the cost of having and raising a kid (even a poor kid) is much, much more than whatever the subsidy would be? I’m not decided one way or the other on subsidies, I just find your argument somewhat bizarre.

        I suppose I can imagine some rare, badly abusive situations in which people purposefully get pregnant then totally neglect a resulting baby just for the monthly check…

        • Elizabeth
          Elizabeth says:

          Thanks to healthy rates of immigration and fertility (for a first-world country), the US has little incentive to increase the birth rate via subsidies.

          The situation where parents have had children for childcare subsidies has been prevalent in Socialist countries – the French writer Christiane Rochefort satirized it in her book Children of Heaven:


          In the UK, I met people who had had a child in order to get priority on council housing (like Section 8, but better – a free apartment). It bumped them to the top of the list.

    • Karen
      Karen says:

      I don’t think i’m arguing that one is social welfare and the other is not. Both universal pre-K and an increased child subsidy are social welfare programs for the poor and the middle class: they just differ in scope, probably cost, incentives, and extent of direct government control over kids and families. We already have child subsidies (other than the obvious “welfare” ones) that target middle class and poor familes: the Child Tax Credit, the standard income tax deduction, and the earned income tax credit. Just because you’re not handed a check to deposit in the bank every month doesn’t mean you aren’t being subsidized.

      My straight subsidy argument is in response to Penelope’s argument that we should subsidize homeschool. I just don’t believe that the government would do this without creating lots of requirements and oversight surveillance. Do you honestly think the government would allow for unschooling under such a subsidy? An increased child subsidy (based on income and the chils’s mere existencd in the family (which is what happens now) ) would accomplish what Penelope is talking about without government interference in homeschool education.

      I think it comes down to this: if you think lower and middle income families are mostly bad at making decisions for their children, then increased government programming is the way to go. If you think people tend to make good decisions for their kids, then a subsidy just helps them to make them with slightly better financial decisions on their side.

      Overall, the pre-K debate is likely to be a reflection on what people think about the role of government in people’s lives.

      • Commenter
        Commenter says:

        I think people are mostly rational and most typically concern themselves with their self-interest in the short term. If all it takes for the government to give a broke woman a few thousand bucks is to have another child, it’s only logical for her to get pregnant as frequently as possible. There’s nothing nefarious about it – it makes the same kind of sense as me maxing out my pretax 401K contribution.

        A cash subsidy for birth is naturally a policy to inspire a higher birthrate, especially among the cash-poor. In contrast to many European countries, our birthrate is doing just fine. I wouldn’t place declining birthrate among our country’s most pressing problems.

        I also don’t think we need to raise taxes to create a new expensive federal social welfare program right now, no matter what the details of its administration and requirements for participation.

  9. Caroline
    Caroline says:

    I can see it now: govt forced core curricula & political correctness…. Oh yeah, that’s already going on in Canada’s homeschool regulations & govt funding. No thanks. Government should not fund education. It screws everything up it touches.

  10. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I think the mainstream media is ridiculous also but probably for different reasons than you cited in this post. Where is education mentioned in the U.S. Constitution? It’s not an enumerated power granted to the federal government. Education was meant by the framers of the Constitution to be managed by state or local government, or by the family. Dual sovereignty. The Founders understand the importance of limiting and dividing power to protect individual freedom and the sovereign rights of the people.
    Here’s a quote from economist Thomas Sowell (senior fellow at the Hoover Institute) on politicians solving our problems – “No one will really understand politics until they understand that politicians are not trying to solve our problems. They are trying to solve their own problems– of which getting elected and re-elected are number one and number two. Whatever is number three is far behind. Many of the things the government does that may seem stupid are not stupid at all, from the standpoint of the elected officials or bureaucrats who do these things.”
    So I agree with the “Forget universal pre-K”. part of the title of this post but disagree with the “Obama should launch a program to fund homeschooling” part of the title. Leave it to each state and local government where it belongs and can be more efficiently managed.

  11. Heather
    Heather says:

    With respect Penelope, your take on this (and that of some of the commentators), kinda pisses me off. This kind of political correctness is what makes us liberals look like we ride around on unicorns.
    Are we really picturing the majority of low-income families – statistically mostly single moms with kids – happily home all day cooking and playing and learning together? Hello! As someone who worked in Community Health nursing, I can tell you I was sorrily disabused of those notions.
    More mandated and earlier schooling might be a real bummer for well-eductated parents who homeschool their kids – like you and me – but for many kids in a low-income population, school is the only chance they have at a decent meal, health-care, counseling and some education.
    Anyone here have a better plan than Obama’s?
    Heather Bathon

  12. mh
    mh says:

    I’m sure I’m not the only person who sees government funding of homeschooling as a bad idea.

    The federal government should get out of the education business, period.

  13. Penelope Trunk
    Penelope Trunk says:

    Okay, point well taken about government funding homeschooling. That is a big mess. I agree.

    I guess what I mean is that if we are going to spend a ton of money to encourage families to make certain decisions, why not encourage them to have someone stay home instead of encouraging parents to go to work?

    We know that homeschooling is better for kids than school. And we know that parents are terrified to do it, even if they agree that it’s better. So we could use money to somehow give parents confidence to make better decisions instead of pushing parents to go to work.


    • Mary Thompson
      Mary Thompson says:

      “We know that homeschooling is better for kids than school?” We do? In exactly what regard? For what purposes? Keeping your kids isolated and “protected” from mixing with (being contaminated by?) all different kinds of people? I’m very happy with all my kids are learning spending their day in a racially, ethnically, religiously, linguistically diverse setting. THAT, in itself is an education. Wow. I can’t even believe what I just read.

      • Heather
        Heather says:

        Hi Mary,
        I completely understand the points you’re making; I held them myself for years. As someone who currently home-schools, I invite you to take a closer look at the many educational and social advantages enjoyed by this community.
        For example, home-schooled kids participate in regular classes out of the home and online, with other kids – often with a variety of ages – as well as get-togethers, field trips etc. Many museums, science centers, aquariums, zoos offer classes specifically for HS’ers. Unlike a public school, these classes attract kids from a wide geographic range. Many HS kids are regularly put in the position of interacting with a broad range of ages and ethnic and religious backgrounds. I don’t know about your public school, but our local elementary school had very little diversity although it is a large one. I understand that may not be your case.
        Perhaps you’re under the impression as I was, that the HS crowd is uniformly right-wing and religious. Again, this may at one time have been the predominant culture but it is not now.
        As for the education side of things, I think HS offers real benefits as well; there is a lot of ground to cover on that topic and this is not the venue to do it. Public school is not inferior but rather, represents an almost opposite perspective to that of HS’ing on what it means to be educated and how to go about it.
        I wish you and your family the best,

  14. Anastasi
    Anastasi says:

    Homeschooling is wonderful, but unfortunately not widely accessible to those without the financial resources. Ideally, as a society, we would better financially support families for the first 5 years of a child’s life. Allowing moms or dads to stay home and raise the best possible children they can. But I find it very unlikely that we’re going to put in the resources needed to do that. Universally ACCESSIBLE (not mandated) early childhood education is the next best thing (particularly considering that it seems to lead to much better outcomes for kids from families that might not have the intellectual or emotional resources they need at home to thrive, which is sad, I agree).

  15. Jessica
    Jessica says:

    When your posts show up in my Reader, it makes my day.

    Given that homeschooling is preferable to traditional school, have you thought about how public schools are in some ways make-work jobs for the whole system (teachers, admin, auxiliary support, textbooks, etc.) and how that, possibly more than parents desiring free daycare, presents such huge resistance to alt. school ideas?

    How do you answer those who are upset about the prospect of massive job loss in education?

  16. Aquinas Heard
    Aquinas Heard says:

    A better and just idea would be a complete separation of school and state. Let people who want to fund others education do so out of their own private funds. No coercion involved – just like in unschooling.

  17. Manah
    Manah says:

    They won’t do that because people would FREAK OUT if someone from the government encouraged women to stay at home with their kids. They wouldn’t hear the “for the kids” part. They’d hear the “Stay at home” part and tack on “and be subservient to men” in their imaginations. That’s what happens in just regular conversations with regular people you’ve known for years, so I can imagine the outrage if some rich white dude in a suit with a state or federal budget at his disposal said it.

  18. Sam
    Sam says:

    As someone who works in no to low income areas with children and families I cannot disagree with you more when it comes to keeping children home rather than a Head Start or other publicly funded preschool program. Families living in poverty are in survival mode, they are trying to make sure their children have food and clothes and are healthy. Moms are stressed. They can’t afford to buy the toys and books that would make for a nurturing home environment so TV all day everyday IS the unstructured play. Many of the parents I see struggle to read a children’s book fluently and simply lack the resources to provide a stimulating environment for their child. So Head Start might not be perfect but at least it’s a safe environment where children will be read to and have toys to play with. Study after study has shown that low income children who attend preschool enter kindergarten ahead of their peers who did not. The fact that they do not continue to achieve is not the fault of the preschool program but the flawed education system. For these children home-schooling is simply not a viable option.

  19. Brooke
    Brooke says:

    As I read through all your home schooling posts I keep thinking- ‘how can we even try to convince people to home school their children, when we can’t even convince people to stay at home with their babies?’ It seems pretty standard that people send their babies to day care after staying home with them for a few months. Society is telling us that putting young children in day care is just ‘what you do’ (just like school) And women make these plans plan before having a baby, and then are often surprised that this doesn’t feel right. You wrote recently that an unintended consequence of feminism is to devalue the work of raising children. It reminds me of the Germaine Greer quote ‘the goal of feminism shouldn’t be for women to live the lives of unfree men’. l would love to read more about your take on feminism in relation to the outsourcing of raising children- it would make a great post.
    I read a lot from unschooling ‘experts’ but I have found it just as valuable reading about your journey, you questioning your decisions, doing your research and figuring out what works/ makes sense to you. Thanks for sharing your journey with us :)

  20. Kimberly
    Kimberly says:

    Regarding Sam’s comment, do you really think that a Head Start program would fix the problems of a dysfunction family’s impact on a child?

    Maybe you haven’t been in school for a while but most of us would remember that the kids who had problems in school received the same quality of education as us but couldn’t function. Most of these were kids who had been in daycare and preschool since they came out of the womb. (I know, I was one of them.)

    The problem was home life, not their need for more institutionalization.

    The fallacy is that, somehow, preschool will help create an escape for children. As politically incorrect this is, nothing substitutes the bond between the parents and a child. So if a child’s home life is bad, they will suffer no matter what type of Head Start initiatives are put in place.

    The truth is that staying at home with children during the formative years is not something that most people do, let alone poor people. Poorer people tend to not be as economically wise to see the fallacies of the two income trap and they are usually very irresponsible with money. So they will most likely put themselves in a position where no one can stay home.

    It’s very bizarre to hear people say that kids from broken homes benefit from preschool. When in fact, in my experience as both a student and a teacher’s aide, it often hinders the child from learning.

    It’s like saying, put a barren chicken in a room full of producing hens and they will somehow benefit from it.

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