to me, being "progressive" actually means supporting family diversity and resource equity -- not just putting the kids in public school

So Dana Goldstein has a piece over at Slate.com about how "progressive homeschooling" is an oxymoron because parents who remove their children from the public school system are thumbing their noses at civic responsibility. She argues that: 
[Liberal homeschooling and unschooling] is rooted in distrust of the public sphere, in class privilege, and in the dated presumption that children hail from two-parent families, in which at least one parent can afford (and wants) to take significant time away from paid work in order to manage a process—education—that most parents entrust to the community at-large.
The idea that education outside of school is the sole province of crazed Christian fundies and upper-middle-class elites would certainly surprise my partner, whose family lived below the poverty line for much of her childhood and yet still chose to home-educate her until ninth grade. It would likely also surprise the family of my best friend growing up, whose mother was a divorced parent who worked part-time and yet still homeschooled her two daughters throughout their childhood. The notion that homeschooling requires "at least one parent ... to take significant time away from paid work" to function would surprise another friend of mine whose parents both worked from home and thus shared the parenting and income-earning responsibilities equally when their children were young.

I realize that anecdotes do little to refute data, and it is certainly irrefutable that financial and cultural resources (i.e. social privilege) confer choices.  The ability to sit down as a family and co-create a home life that runs counter to the dominant culture is, no doubt about it, much, much easier when (and therefore, more prevalent in families where) you're not juggling multiple minimum-wage jobs, worried about losing your mortgage, or wondering whether you can afford to get that needed root canal. This ability to not only name our desires but also (at least to a point) act upon them is a function of class privilege, and in evidence among families where children attend public school as it is among families who make other arrangements.

Sure, there are homeschooling families who are privileged assholes (I've met some of them), but privileged assholery is not a symptom of home-education. It's a symptom of, well, being a privileged asshole.

See, I think Goldstein's argument about how education that takes place outside of school (whether we call it "homeschooling," "unschooling," or something else entirely) is crap progressivism turns family diversity into a proxy for talking about class. Because class is really hard to talk about in American culture. We don't want to talk about the unequal distribution of economic resources, and how we've lost the war on poverty (or just surrendered to it). We cling to the notion that education (via public schools, or charter schools, or elite prep schools, whatever) is the pathway out of that inequality when, in fact, better distribution of economic resources is the pathway out of that problem.

Maybe schools should be better. I'm not, as a person who grew up outside of school, opposed to that. My siblings both made use of the public high school in our town. A lot of families I know who have engaged, or currently are engaging, in some type of home-based education avail themselves of the public school resources they pay taxes to support. Home-educated kids often go to colleges, some of which are state-supported. Goldstein sets up a world in which there are two oppositional communities: families who use public schools, and families who home-educate. This simply isn't what the world looks like. While I don't necessarily fault her for this outsider's assumption -- much of the literature in the lefty home-education movement does see institutional schooling as fundamentally flawed and/or inhumane -- that narrative ignores the reality that these two populations are flexible, fluid, and inter-twined to a high degree.

Since homeschooling families stopped living in fear of prosecution if they were discovered by local authorities, many kids move back and forth between out-of-school learning and institutional learning. Whether it's participating in extracurricular activities, attending one or two classes a term, going to school for a year or two to try out that way of life, or some other creative option, civic involvement in the form of using public school resources is often a daily reality for home- and un-schooling families these days. There are public school teachers home-educating their kids, and former unschoolers teaching in public schools. Goldstein's all-or-nothing argument values rhetoric over reality.

That's the "we're more normal than you think" point. Now I want to make the "why are you scapegoating our non-normative lives?" one. Goldstein's argument is that all "good" or truly progressive families should support the public school system by sending the school-age members of the family to school. Because:
Government is the only institution with the power and scale to intervene in the massive undertaking of better educating American children, 90 percent of whom currently attend public schools. (And it’s worth remembering that schools provide not just education, but basic child care while parents are at work.) Lefty homeschoolers might be preaching sound social values to their children, but they aren’t practicing them. If progressives want to improve schools, we shouldn’t empty them out. We ought to flood them with our kids, and then debate vociferously what they ought to be doing.
I agree with Goldstein that high-quality socialized childcare and education should be available to families that want them. And I imagine that a majority of families would take advantage of those resources, if the continued feminist-led campaign for affordable high-quality daycare is any indication. The life choices of middle- and upper-middle-class families who have viable options suggest that few families these days would opt for full-time parenting and out-of-school learning for their youngest members. So I don't think full-scale flight from institutional schooling is any realistic vision of America's future. As much as it might personally pain me to say it, unschooling will never be a majority family-life choice.

But neither will polyamory, or open marriage. And data suggest that even acknowledging human sexual variety (and right-wing fears to the contrary) the majority of households in our country will never be headed by couples, threesomes, or moresomes of the same sex and gender identity. Dykes To Watch Out For is (again disappointingly!) the wet dream of our future utopia only in my little corner of the universe.

Yet I doubt Goldstein would argue that supporting the ability of people to form consenting, mutually-supporting relationship agreements of whatever kind works best for the folks in question is not a "progressive" (dare I say liberal? leftist? radical?) value. If families work best when they are organized to meet the needs of their constituent members, then it seems common-sensical that there would be no one-size-fits-all solution to dependent care-giving, to wage-earning, to physical home arrangement, to negotiations over who does what, when, where, and with whom.

In fact, it seems fundamentally non-progressive to argue for a one-size-fits-all model for parenting and education -- which is what Goldstein is essentially doing when she argues that good liberals should all use public schools. How is that different from the conservative argument, all evidence to the contrary, that children thrive best in a two-parent household in which one parent is a man and the other is a woman? How is that different from the argument mothers are innately suited to care for dependents? How is that different from asserting that the heterosexual dyad is the only type of union that should be recognized by the sate?  It's not. It simply replaces one restrictive notion of good parenting with another. Instead, we should be recognizing that "good" parenting, and meaningful education, will inevitably have as many embodied forms as there are human beings to embody them.

I'd argue that, rather than re-hashing the tired argument that non-school-based learning is inevitably the preserve of the elite, we should be asking ourselves how to more equitably share our resources so that all families will have the highest degree of agency to decide how to put together the activities of parenting, employment, and learning. Bickering about which site for learning is optimal for most obscures the reality that no single site of learning will ever be optimal for all. It also perpetuates the myth that public school education can fix the problems of inequality -- when, in fact, only fixing the problems of inequality will fix the problem of inequality.

Don't make children and parents whose lives are atypical scapegoats for a society that has failed, en masse. to deal with its issues of class privilege.


  1. Here here! Saw this article yesterday, and was hoping you would do a take down of it.

  2. You're welcome! I thought at first that it probably wasn't worth responding to, since its claims are so been-there, done-that. But I just kept feeling frustrated over it. Writing out the rant helped me put it down! And I hope, even though it is a rant, that it might help some people think about the essentially reactionary position of the "all children and society are best served if everyone attends school" argument.