About this Issue

Libertarians tend to support school choice. But for whom? In the voucher model, parents may choose among various private schooling options for their children and designate their vouchers to the schools they’ve selected.

But what if school itself is a matter of choice? And what does it look like when students and parents choose unstructured learning instead? Is this unconventional choice an option that libertarians should prefer? Perhaps: much about the conventional experience of primary and secondary schooling is the product of bureaucratization and standardization—and much of that comes directly from state involvement in education.

So what is the relationship between libertarian politics and unstructured schooling? How seriously should libertarians take the idea of scrapping school as we know it, and replacing it with child-directed learning?

Our lead essayist this month is education policy writer and unschooling advocate Kerry McDonald, who argues that we should indeed rethink conventional schooling. While each of the respondents is to some degree sympathetic to unstructured learning, the question we’re focusing on this month may still divide them to some degree: Is being open to unstructured learning implicit in the recognition of children’s rights, if only as an option? Joining us to discuss the question will be Corey DeAngelis, Director of School Choice at the Reason Foundation; author and educator Michael Strong; and Professor Kevin Currie-Knight of East Carolina University. Each will write an essay, and conversation will continue through the end of the month. Comments will be open for one month as well, and readers are invited to join the discussion.

Lead Essay

Unschooling: Shifting from Force to Freedom in Education

How can we expect young people to grow up to be flourishing members of a free society if they spend so much of their childhood being educated by force? This is the central tension between the coercion that undergirds most American education and the values of liberty and responsibility from which freedom spreads. Much of this coercion originates from compulsory schooling statutes that were enacted beginning in the nineteenth century to mandate school attendance under a legal threat of force. A child is compelled to learn. But educational force is not only present in institutional schooling. Even many homeschooling parents who reject institutionalized education continue to replicate school at home, importing forced schooling’s authoritarian tactics and similarly dulling a child’s free will. As the author and former New York State Teacher of the Year John Taylor Gatto, once stated: “When you take the free will out of education, that turns it into schooling.”[1] One way to reconcile this tension between force and freedom in learning is to separate education from schooling, including school-at-home approaches, and grant children the opportunity of self-determination.

Children do not need to be forced to learn in order to become educated. In early childhood they have an intense, evolutionary drive to explore, discover, and synthesize their world. “This amazing drive and capacity to learn does not turn itself off when children turn 5 or 6,” says Boston College psychology professor Dr. Peter Gray. “We turn it off with our coercive system of schooling.” In Unschooled: Raising Curious, Well-Educated Children Outside the Conventional Classroom (Chicago Review Press, 2019), I explore the philosophy of unschooling, or self-directed education that occurs without coercion. At its core, unschooling is about disentangling education from schooling and shifting from force toward free will in learning. In this essay, I describe unschooling theory from its historical roots to its modern practices and suggest that the future of learning will look less like schooling and more like unschooling.

The Philosophical Roots of Unschooling

Gray, who writes the Foreword to Unschooled, traces the origins of self-directed education to our millennia spent as hunter-gatherers. He argues in his book Free to Learn that we humans are biologically designed to educate ourselves when in community with others. While our biological inclinations toward self-directed education may be long-established, non-coercion and self-determination as an educational philosophy can be traced to the Enlightenment Era and, particularly, to the writings of John Locke. In 1693, Locke published Some Thoughts Concerning Education in which he warned against compulsion. According to Locke: “For a child will learn three times as much when he is in tune, as he will with double the time and pains when he goes awkwardly or is dragg’d unwillingly to it.” Locke goes on to suggest that we shouldn’t be surprised when our coercive educational tactics lead a child to dislike or avoid learning. He writes: “And indeed it would be ridiculous, when compulsion and blows have rais’d an aversion in the child to his task, to expect he should freely of his own accord leave his play, and with pleasure court the occasions of learning.”[2]

The bold idea of preserving a child’s free will in learning gained traction in the early twentieth century when some educators created new, non-authoritarian learning models. In England in 1921, A.S. Neill founded Summerhill, a self-directed, non-coercive school in which classes were offered but attendance was optional; students had a central role in the school’s governance; and freedom was balanced by personal responsibility, or “freedom, not license,” as Neill termed it.[3] When Neill published his book Summerhill School: A New View of Childhood in 1960, reflecting on his nearly four decades of running the school, it sold two million copies in its first decade in print and influenced many authors and social critics during the 1960s and 1970s. One of those authors was John Holt, a teacher who wrote the bestselling books How Children Fail and How Children Learn in 1964 and 1967, respectively. At the time, Holt believed that conventional schooling could be reformed to be less coercive and more learner-driven. But after he met and corresponded with Ivan Illich, a Catholic priest and scholar who wrote Deschooling Society in 1970, Holt recognized that free will in education could only be retained outside of forced schooling. As Illich wrote: “School prepares for the institutionalization of life by teaching the need to be taught.”[4]

Searching for alternatives to school, Holt discovered a small number of parents who were removing their children from school and homeschooling them, despite vague and often restrictive compulsory schooling laws that limited the practice. Inspired by this parental action toward educational freedom, Holt launched the first newsletter for homeschooling families, Growing Without Schooling, in 1977 and coined the term unschooling that same year to mean “taking children out of school.”[5] He was one of several pioneers who helped to usher in the modern homeschooling movement, connecting parents and providing support in court battles that ultimately led to homeschooling becoming legally recognized in all US states by the mid-1990s. Holt also encouraged parents to resist the urge to replicate school-at-home and to instead embrace non-coercive, self-directed education, or what we think of today as the more contemporary definition of unschooling.

Unschooling Today

Today, unschooling principles are applied in many ways by a diverse set of individuals and organizations. Some homeschooling families embrace the philosophy of unschooling in their homes by avoiding authoritarianism and strict adherence to an imposed curriculum and instead facilitating their child’s learning by connecting interests to available resources. This method seems to be gaining popularity among the nation’s nearly two million homeschoolers. According to federal data, the number of homeschooling parents who say they take an “informal approach” to homeschooling increased from 13 percent in 2012 to 20 percent in 2016.[6] Similarly, many educational entrepreneurs are responding to growing interest in unschooling ideals and are launching self-directed learning centers and micro-schools that allow families who are registered as homeschoolers to attend part-time or full-time. These organizations help to make self-directed learning more accessible to more families and use homeschooling as the legal mechanism to shift education control away from the state and back to parents, with ultimate flexibility. Full-time unconventional schools, like the Sudbury model, are also expanding across the country, prioritizing non-coercion and free will. Preliminary research suggests that these unschoolers turn out fine, often leading fulfilling, entrepreneurial adult lives tied to interests that sprouted in their youth.

Despite their variety and difference, the common feature that unschooling families and organizations share is the fundamental belief that children should not be forced to learn. Autonomy and individuality are paramount. In these homes, centers, and self-directed schools, a young person’s distinct interests and talents are appreciated and supported, leading to authentic, enduring learning. There may be some curriculum or classes offered, but they are not mandated, and children always have the freedom to say no. As Neill wrote: “The function of the child is to live his own life—not the life that his anxious parents think he should live, nor a life according to the purpose of the educator who thinks he knows what is best. All this interference and guidance on the part of adults only produces a generation of robots.”[7]

Still, there is a general understanding among most unschooling families and organizations that freedom must be balanced by personal responsibility. Freedom cannot turn into license, or permissiveness, where one person’s freedom negatively impacts the freedom of another. In most Sudbury schools, for example, the students are integral members of school governance with equal authority as the adults in setting, enforcing, and abiding by community rules. In many unschooling homes and learning centers, there are expectations around respectful behavior, cleaning up after oneself, service to others, and accountability to one’s family or learning community. Parents also have the ultimate responsibility to ensure that their children are highly literate and numerate. Freedom and responsibility may be interpreted and enacted differently depending on a family’s values or an organization’s vision, but both are crucial components of the unschooling framework.

So how does a child learn this way? It can be difficult for many of us to imagine how young people will become educated if not commanded to do so. After all, most of us went through forced schooling, and we may remember that we only read Shakespeare or learned algebra because it was required. We fail to recognize that our personal agency in learning was diminished through coercive schooling. We learned to be taught. Our curiosity and childhood drive for discovery were likely eroded, and many of us may have internalized a false belief that learning is drudgery. More troubling, our own self-worth might have been defined by how we performed at school. But schooling was the problem, not learning. If we retain, or rekindle, a learner’s free will, education becomes a joyful act of self-discovery.

My 12-year-old daughter, Molly, provides a case in point. Like my other children, she has never been schooled and learns by following her curiosities and exploring her interests, while being supported by the adults and resources of her broader community. A couple of years ago a new martial arts studio opened in our neighborhood. It had a film running in the window, showing various martial arts techniques. Molly was intrigued so she took a trial class and soon began training there three days a week. A year later, her expanding passion for martial arts led to an emerging interest in Korean language, history, and culture. She took some online Korean language courses. Her interest grew and she wanted something more rigorous, secure in her self-imposed goal to become fluent and travel to South Korea someday. I found a native Korean speaker as a tutor and Molly now takes language lessons with her at our local library several times a week. She follows a standard Korean language curriculum, and has formal homework assignments and assessments, but Molly is the one driving the process. I didn’t tell her to learn Korean or to study a foreign language. She chose to learn it, selected her teacher, and is pursuing a personal goal. She also knows she has the freedom to quit.

Unschooling and the Future of Learning

Humans are hard-wired to learn, and we are quite eager for it and good at it until we enter a coercive classroom where education and schooling become conflated. When the free will in learning disappears, education becomes a mechanical, often unpleasant process, and we become that “generation of robots” of which Neill warned. The concern is that now we live with a generation of actual robots. To distinguish ourselves from artificial intelligence we need an education model that preserves essential human characteristics like curiosity and ingenuity. The good news is that we don’t need to teach kids to be curious and creative. They already are. We simply need to stop destroying these qualities through coercive schooling practices.

The technology that gives us robots may also be what saves us from their full takeover. Never before has free will in education been supported as it is today with our vast technological platform and networked world. Access to information, skills, and mentors is now often literally at our fingertips, enabling each of us to ask questions, seek answers, spread ideas, and explore our enthusiasms in ways that were unimaginable only a couple of decades ago. The pursuit of knowledge has become decentralized and democratized. As we increasingly reconnect with our self-educative drives in adulthood, facilitated by technology and tied to our own interests, we may wonder why our children must continue to learn by force. When more of us realize that children don’t need to learn this way, that is when true educational change will occur. That is when freedom will triumph force in education.

Homeschooling and other alternatives to school provide an initial route from force to freedom in education, as more parents gravitate toward unschooling at home or take advantage of private unschooling centers and self-directed schools. Standardization and testing, curriculum constraints, and bureaucratic controls make self-directed education difficult to accomplish within the existing public schooling system. For instance, Meraki High School near Sacramento, California opened in the fall of 2017 under the name UnSchool San Juan, touting unschooling ideals. The school emphasizes passion-driven, project-based learning, but must adhere to state-mandated core competencies, testing, and graduation requirements that limit student autonomy. Similarly, Powderhouse Studios is a self-directed public high school near Boston, Massachusetts that has been in the planning stages for seven years and won a $10 million XQ Super School innovation grant, but in March the local school committee declined to approve its scheduled opening for this fall.

The reality is that the vast majority of American youth attend an assigned district school with little opportunity to opt out of coercive government schooling. Education choice mechanisms, particularly Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) and tax-credit scholarship programs, can provide access to funds that expand unschooling options to more families and encourage education innovation. For example, New Hampshire’s tax-credit scholarship program is available to homeschoolers, including some who use that scholarship money to attend a self-directed learning center. While concerns about increased regulation associated with education choice programs are legitimate, particularly regarding homeschooling, more parents deserve more pathways out of forced schooling and, should they choose, into educational environments that prioritize freedom and self-direction. More parents should have the freedom to choose freedom for their kids. Minimizing regulation of education choice programs is an important step in ensuring that non-coercive learning models don’t ultimately emulate the forced schooling structures they are attempting to avoid.

Human curiosity and imagination will be increasingly essential as we move from the Industrial Age to the Innovation Era, not only to differentiate ourselves from robots but to create the inventions that improve our existence and help us tackle global challenges. Children are naturally curious and imaginative, and they can retain these qualities into adulthood if allowed to learn in freedom. Their education does not need to be forced; rather, it needs to be facilitated by adults who support their interests and talents, connect them to available resources and opportunities, model responsibility, and ensure their overall well-being. When granted this freedom, young people—like all of us—thrive. Their knowledge, creativity, and individuality deepen, and they internalize the ideals of liberty by learning freely, rather than by coercion. If, as Gatto suggests, removing free will from education is what turns it into schooling, then fostering free will in education is unschooling. Nurturing an unschooled but well-educated citizenry is the principal pathway toward a free and flourishing society.

Notes


[1] Roland Meighan and Clive Harber, A Sociology of Educating, 5th edition (London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2007), 156.

[2] John Locke, Some Thoughts Concerning Education 2nd ed, (London: Cambridge University Press, 1889), 53.

[3] A. S. Neill, Freedom—Not License! (New York: Hart Publishing Company, 1966), 7.

[4] Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society (London: Marion Boyars, 1970), 47.

[5] John Holt, “Growing Without Schooling,” Issue 2, November 1977: https://www.johnholtgws.com/gws-volume-1

[6] U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, “Parent and Family Involvement in Education: Results from the National Household Education Surveys Program of 2016,” Codebook, https://nces.ed.gov/nhes/data/2016/pfi/cbook_pfi_pu.pdf; U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, “Parent and Family Involvement in Education: Results from the National Household Education Surveys Program of 2012,” Codebook, https://nces.ed.gov/nhes/pdf/userman/NHES_2012_pfi_codebook.pdf

[7] A. S. Neill, Summerhill School: A New View of Childhood, Rev. (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1992), 15.

Response Essays

Political Liberty and Unschooling Need Not Go Together

Broadly speaking, I am a political libertarian; I believe in free markets and put prime value on individual liberty. I am skeptical of centralized authority and planning, and I believe people should have wide latitude to pursue their conception of the good life as long as they are not harming others. Of late, I’ve also become a champion of unschooling, giving educational freedom to children to learn what they want, how they want, without being forced into conventional schools.

One might think these beliefs—libertarianism and unschooling—are related or connected in some way, because of the similar value they place on liberty. Actually, I see them as quite separate. I came to both of these positions at very different times for very different reasons. I like to say that these two positions are separate enough in my mind that if I were to completely change my mind on the one, the other would be left wholly intact.

As such, I am in almost full agreement with Kerry McDonald’s lead essay, rightly extolling the benefits of unschooling. Where Kerry and I potentially part ways is in seeing unschooling as any sort of logical extension of a politically libertarian position. In this response essay, I will do two things. First, I will add to Kerry’s already quite impressive list of reasons to support unschooling. Second, I will try to make clear why the best reason to support unschooling is that it seems to work well at equipping children for adulthood, and the worst reason (because quite tenuous) is that unschooling aligns with a libertarian political position.

To do this, it might help to start with how I, a faculty member in a College of Education, became persuaded by the philosophy of unschooling. The story begins several years ago when I was, ironically, preparing for a class I teach (to soon-to-be K-12 teachers) on the theory and practice of learning and human motivation. While reading through literature on these subjects, I came across some curious things. A good many studies, for instance, show that students who are given more choice in what or how to learn tend to be more motivated and learn better than less-free peers. I also came across research showing the powerful role of both interest and intrinsic motivation—learning because one wants to learn, not to gain rewards or avoid punishments. Finally, other strands or research indicate that a good many students experience conventional schooling as something like a game, where the goal is less to learn than to please school authorities so as to gain grades and credentials.

Wow!, I thought. This research doesn’t easily fit with how we do things in conventional schools! Conventional schools are governed by structures that deny students autonomy; force them to learn what the curriculum, rather than their interest, dictates; and put most of their emphasis on playing the game of getting grades and moving along. I decided to see if there was any research showing what happens when learners are allowed to learn outside of “school” constraints (like class periods, fixed curriculum, and grades).

Admittedly, there wasn’t a lot of this research. Education researchers tend to focus on learning that happens in school. But the research that did exist was really compelling. First, learners who learn outside of school really do learn. Without being forced, these learners still learn a lot of things I expected could only be learned in school, like how to read, write, and do math. I read as many narratives as I could of unschoolers and their parents writing about unschooled learning experiences. What became evident to me was two things: (1) if the research above (about the importance of autonomy, interest, and intrinsic motivation) is accurate, unschooling seems to be the superior way to learn; and (2) the structures used by conventional schools—bell schedules, formal classes, curriculum, grades—might not be necessary after all.

As Kerry’s daughter Molly illustrates, unschooled kids learn by harnessing the most powerful motivator known to humans: their own passions and interests. They are free to come to a subject when the proverbial iron is hot rather than because a teacher and curriculum make them. And rather than learn, say, math from classroom instruction, worksheets, and school-sanctioned learning apps, they learn by encountering math in the real world and realizing that they need it to do something they want to do (tell time, count money, measure something). Oh, and these kids—who often had no experience in formal classrooms let alone transcripts—have no trouble pursuing higher education, and go on to do quite well as adults.

Most of us in colleges of education believe that such a task as reading requires years of rigorous and carefully sequenced instruction. But the literature I was seeing about how unschoolers learn to read (and this is probably the most thoroughly documented area of unschooling research) sketched a different picture. Not only do a great many kids learn to read on their own—asking peers and adults for guidance when needed—but also when we let kids wait until they have something they are interested in reading, reading can often be learned quite rapidly (likely because the learner is now interested and hyper-motivated).

While I was wading into this research, in fact, a relative of mine told me a related story about her ten-year-old son learning to read. She and her husband homeschool their kids, and because of (we’ll call him) Lucas’s aversion to reading, they stopped trying to force it. Several months later, Lucas decided he really wanted to read C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia series. His parents helped him only when he asked them. Almost entirely on his own, and in a way that still leaves his parents mystified, he figured out how to read the books in the series and has been a voracious reader ever since. (Last I knew, he was devouring historical fiction and books on nature journaling.)

I go on at length about my journey into the unschooling literature for two reasons. First, I want to add to Kerry’s wonderful attempts to convince the unconvinced that unschooling really is a viable alternative to conventional forms of schooling. Given a supportive and resource-rich environment—a vital ingredient!—it seems that children can learn quite well outside of conventional schools. Secondly, though, I want to bring the reader’s attention to the fact that none of the above arguments for unschooling depend in any way on whether one is a free-market libertarian, a standard-fare liberal, a committed socialist, or any other political position. The best reason to support unschooling is not that it is most consistent with a libertarian framework or stands the best chance of raising little libertarians. It is that unschooling seems to be an impressive way to equip students for adult life, especially in a post-industrial age.

As something of a political libertarian myself, I can understand where libertarians would see affinity between their political beliefs and unschooling. Libertarians are in a good position to appreciate the beautiful things people—children included—can do with liberty. Our approach to politics is based largely on a skepticism of central planning (and what is school but a centrally planned learning environment?). Conversely, libertarians (at least those who, like myself, have an affinity for its Hayekian strand) are probably quick to appreciate unschooling as a powerful spontaneous order. And since public schools are government institutions in their purest form, it is natural for libertarians to celebrate methods, of which unschooling is one, that subvert those institutions.

My concern starts when Kerry begins her essay by noting the “central tension” between “expect[ing] young people to grow up to be flourishing members of a free society if they spend so much of their childhood being educated by force.” The implication is that the only or best way to raise individuals who can participate in a free society is if they are educated in ways that respect freedom. I understand the force of this idea, but strictly speaking, this doesn’t follow. I suspect that a great many people who have proved capable of functioning in a free society, including many libertarians, have been educated in coercive schools. Conversely, I see no reason to suppose that being unschooled would make any learner more likely than conventionally schooled peers to adopt more freedom-embracing ways of life.

Suggesting that preparation for life in a free society requires a freedom-respecting education is what philosophers call a category mistake. That is, it employs the term freedom in two different ways without recognizing the distinction between those ways. An example of this mistake would be to say that the only way we can prepare children for life in a democratic republic is to make sure they are raised in houses that are democratic republics. The problem is that x as an approach to education is a very different category than x as an approach to politics or a social order. Freedom in one’s learning bears no obvious connection to freedom in a free-market society.

Another difficulty I have with the notion of a connection between political libertarianism and unschooling is that, historically, libertarians have rarely seen any obvious connection between supporting a free society and extending freedom to children. Libertarians tend to argue for granting liberty only to those believed to have the capability to exercise it responsibly. Thus, most libertarians have not often sought to extend liberty to children.

For instance, despite his glowing defense of individual liberty, William von Humboldt excepted “minors, lunatics, and idiots” from its blessings, owing to their lack of ability to make wise use of liberty. John Stuart Mill made a similar exception, noting that when we grant liberty, “we are not speaking of children, or of young persons below the age which the law may fix as that of manhood or womanhood. Those who are still in a state to require being taken care of by others, must be protected against their own actions as well as against external injury.” When he went on to speak of liberty in education, Mill did not have in mind the liberty of the child, but the liberty of the parents, “or as law and usage now stand, the father,” to choose the child’s education. The same holds true for Milton Friedman, whose defense of liberty in education assumed that the family, not the child, was doing the choosing. One can, of course, extend the belief that people should have liberty down to children, but even within the libertarian tradition, such an extension is not obvious or necessary.

As for the names Kerry invokes in her article, only Locke—whose status as an advocate of children’s freedom I am skeptical of—is uncontroversially the type of libertarian we are talking about. Ivan Illich tended to identify as an anarchist, but seemed quite favorable to a libertarian form of socialism. (He believed that schools were largely tools governments used to create consumers who would support an unjust capitalist system.) Summerhill’s A. S. Neill was not vocal about his political views, but depending on who you read, he was either some type of liberal or an anarcho-socialist. John Holt—who, contra the libertarians listed above, very much did want to extend liberty to children—considered himself only a “small ‘l’ libertarian” who was against coercion, but he was vague about any political program entailed by that.

I go into this level of detail to enforce the idea that there is no necessary or obvious connection between libertarian political values and unschooling. I can certainly see why Kerry or others might want to connect these two, but they need not be connected. Believers in unschooling can certainly be, but need not be, libertarians. Nor must libertarians endorse unschooling. The only beliefs necessary to endorse unschooling are the ones Kerry’s article (and mine) spend the most time on: this form of education through freedom seems to work at least as well, if not better in many ways, than coercive educational structures. By allowing children the freedom to learn what they want when and how they want, remarkable learning occurs, the kind that prepares kids to become happy and capable adults. That’s all we need to know.

Unschooling and School Choice: A Complicated Relationship

I agree with Kerry McDonald’s assertion that unschooling could produce a well-educated citizenry while preserving individual liberty. While the evidence on home education is limited, the rigorous research on private school choice programs tends to suggest that educational freedom works. And expanding school choice programs to allow for unschooling would further increase educational freedom.

But the expansion of school choice programs is unlikely to lead to more unschooling. And it’s possible for school choice expansion to make unschooling less meaningful. Here’s why.

The Evidence Supports Educational Freedom

The most comprehensive reviews of the evidence find that student exposure to homeschooling tends to be associated with better academic achievement, social development, and long-term success. However, most of the scientific evidence on home education is limited by selection bias. Advantaged families are more likely to have the resources needed to opt their children out of the “free” government schools to educate them at home. In other words, the improved outcomes experienced by homeschooled students may be the result of family background rather than educational setting.

While the studies on home education are limited, the preponderance of the rigorous evidence suggests that more freedom in education leads to better results for students and their communities. The majority (ten) of the sixteen random assignment studies on the subject find that winning a lottery to use a voucher to attend a chosen private school increases student test scores overall or for subgroups—at a fraction of the cost. Only two of the sixteen evaluations—both of the highly regulated Louisiana Scholarship Program—find negative effects on student test scores.

But school choice does so much more than shape test scores. The majority of the rigorous studies suggest that private school choice also improves student attainment, civic outcomes, satisfaction, crime reduction, and safety. If expanding educational options to include private schools leads to better student outcomes, then we might expect that expanding educational options further to include home education would lead to even better results.

The evidence is largely on the side of freedom in education. And adding unschooling to the set of educational options available to families increases that freedom. But will school choice programs get us there?

School Choice and Unschooling: Friends or Foes?

Expansion of school choice could increase unschooling if the government allows families to spend program funding on home education costs. For example, families are allowed to pay for homeschooling expenses using New Hampshire’s tax-credit scholarship program. But using school choice funding for homeschool expenses is by far the exception, not the norm. In fact, the New Hampshire program cited by Kerry McDonald is the “only tax-credit scholarship program in which homeschool students also are eligible.” The vast majority of school choice programs can only be used to cover private school tuition and fees. The reality is that school choice appears to crowd out the least regulated forms of education. For example, a recent study published in Peabody Journal of Education—conducted by Angela K. Dills and me—finds that school choice expansion generally leads to less homeschooling in the United States, presumably because many families switch to the “free” alternative when given the option. We also find that enactments of private school choice programs lead to reductions in the likelihood that private schools focus on providing homeschool services.

But these empirical studies can only tell us about the effects of school choice programs on homeschool market share in the short run.

It’s entirely possible for school choice programs—which leave out home education options in the short run—to expand home education in the long run. School choice programs that do not allow families to spend program funding on home education could give families a taste of some educational freedom in the short run. Indeed, families might want even more educational freedom when given a small dose. And society might become more accepting of unschooling if families demonstrate they can make responsible education decisions for their children. In other words, exposure to restricted forms of school choice in the short run could lead to more unschooling in the long run.

But what if school choice programs did allow families to choose home education for their children?

Including home education options in school programs expands access but introduces another problem: program regulations would lead to less meaningful home education options. School choice program regulations may include state testing requirements, mandates for schools to accept all students at random, and requirements for schools to accept the voucher funding amount as payment-in-full. Private schools tend to be less specialized after school choice programs are enacted, perhaps because government regulations reduce autonomy.

Government funding could similarly bring government control into the realm of home education. Society’s concerns about how public education dollars are spent could lead to calls for homeschool accountability. It shouldn’t take much imagination to envision government bureaucrats going into people’s homes to administer standardized tests and inspect curriculum. We might also imagine requirements to accept all students into a homeschool community at random, in the name of fairness—even if the students are not particularly interested in the community’s specialized mission.

The Path Forward?

The path toward maximizing educational freedom isn’t immediately clear because in the United States the vast majority of students are currently stuck in residentially assigned government-run schools. School choice programs obviously lead to more educational freedom by expanding the number of options available to these families. At the same time, however, choice programs likely reduce the prevalence of unschooling because families are almost never permitted to use program funding to cover home education costs. And program funding could also bring government control into otherwise specialized home education settings.

The only way to expand educational freedom while eliminating regulatory risk seems to be complete separation of school and state. But that’s not going to happen anytime soon.

A feasible policy option to advance educational freedom while minimizing regulatory risk is a privately funded Education Savings Account program (ESA) at the state level. These programs allow families to opt their children out of residentially assigned government schools and receive a deposit of education funds into savings accounts. Families can use the funds in the ESA to cover approved education expenses such as private schooling, tutoring, online courses, and home education costs. ESAs are less likely to be regulated than voucher programs because it is far more difficult for a regulator to determine which service provider did or did not affect outcomes for each student—since families can customize their children’s educations with multiple providers. Heavy school choice regulations are also less likely to come with private dollars than public dollars.

Of course, it’s still possible for an ESA program to be heavily regulated. Advocates of educational freedom should watch for those regulations as ESAs are introduced across the United States.

As such, ESAs are far from a perfect solution. But it’s the best one we have at the moment.