1. Education as Homecoming
By Allan Carlson
Conservative and libertarian critics of contemporary public education commonly reject the argument that “common schools” are necessary for the unity and cohesion of a community or nation. They see this claim as a smokescreen, hiding an assault on parental rights and the imposition of a liberal agenda on the young.
All the same, nagging questions remain. Is shared moral purpose truly not possible? Do neighborhoods and local communities have some legitimate claims on a child? Are there ways to reconcile parental authority and family autonomy with the claims of a community?
To begin to answer these questions, we need to reframe our understanding of education. The Kentucky poet and essayist Wendell Berry points to the strange nature of modern schooling:
According to the new norm, the child’s destiny is not to succeed the parents, but to outmode them. … The schools are no longer oriented to a cultural inheritance that it is their duty to pass on unimpaired, but to the career, which is to say the future of the child…. He or she is educated to leave home and earn money in a provisional future that has nothing to do with place or community.
These are the symptoms of a pervasive homelessness, one vastly broader in scope than the “homeless problem” normally discussed in the media. The Christian scholars Steven Bouma-Prediger and Brian Walsh emphasize that true education “must engender an ethos of intimacy and affection,” one rooted in a geographically defined community such as a village or neighborhood, where we might “secede from the [post-modern] empire that has rendered us homeless.” Social analyst Bryce Christensen describes home as “a place sanctified by the abiding ties of wedlock, parenthood, and family obligation; a place demanding sacrifice and devotion but promising loving care and warm acceptance,” a place anchored in turn in a specific geographic locale. And nature educator Wes Jackson asks whether schools ought now to be offering a new major in “homecoming.”
Moving beyond the strict mechanics of “school choice” (charter schools, vouchers, etc.), what might a contemporary education for “home building” and “homecoming” look like?
The first principle is that all true and lasting efforts must flow from the primal or natural social units: families, villages, neighborhoods and faith communities. An effective long-term “education in homecoming” cannot be imposed from the top down. True “education in homecoming” will instead flow upward from the familial and spiritual foundations of a good society.
Second, “civic unity” will not be won by the imposition from above of the new ideology of “multiculturalism.” In fact, over the last 100 years, the only effective unifying metaphors of “the American Way of life” have come from the discovery of common affection for marriage, family and place: affections that transcend religious and ethnic divisions; and affections that also grow from the family home as the cell of society.
Allow me to illustrate this big idea with a little story. A decade ago, I participated in a debate over children’s issues on Wisconsin Public Radio, and at one point said something positive about homeschooling. Another panelist, a professor of Social Work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, responded sternly. Given all the new immigrants coming to America, she said, only the public schools could craft a necessary degree of public unity. “It was the values found in theMcGuffey Readers that unified this nation,” she concluded. I responded: “If you can show me one public schoolroom in this state where the McGuffey Readers are used today, I will concede your point. But I know that you can’t. For you see, the state of Wisconsin’s education regulations specifically ban the McGuffey Readers from use, because of their moralistic content. However, I could show you dozens, even hundreds, of home-school classrooms in Wisconsin whereMcGuffey is alive and well.” Unlike the state’s schools, these homes were – and are – still building respect for a unifying public morality.
Indeed, the most obvious path toward education as homecoming lies in these home schools. Here we find American families engaged in a fundamental revolution, recovering a vital family function lost to the aggressive state a century and a half earlier. With nearly three million children now involved, home-school families are reinventing American education.
The direct educational effects are broadly impressive. By grade eight, for example, the median scores of home-schoolers are almost four grade equivalents above those of their peers in publicand private schools.
Relative to homecoming, though, the more important traits of home schooling are the social and familial. Simply put, home education empowers “homemaking” families. According to one recent survey, more than 97 percent of home-school students had parents who were married, compared with a 72 percent figure nationwide. Sixty-two percent of home-schooling families had three or more children, compared with a mere 20 percent of the nationwide sample.
How might public policy encourage home education? Home-schooling is now legal, with varying degrees of regulation, in all 50 states. The model statute may be Alaska’s, where the state’s Compulsory Education Law simply and fully exempts from coverage any child who “is being educated in the child’s home by a parent or legal guardian.” This freedom precludes registration, reporting or curricular requirements. In Illinois, homeschoolers can claim an Education Tax Credit of 20 percent on educational expenses, up to $250 per student.
Private and religious schools can also be centers for education as homecoming. The key here is deep parental involvement in the operation of the schools. The best ones are those built on a clear – and usually religious – moral vision and on the work, sacrifice and treasure of parents and students.
In this context, the approach of promoting universal state vouchers to advance “school choice” should be cautiously considered for two reasons. First, the potential for regulatory intrusion by state authorities here is real. And second, the availability of vouchers could lessen – perhaps dramatically – the spirit of family sacrifice and the personal parental involvement that animate the best independent schools.
An alternative approach to school choice that better avoids these pitfalls is the steady expansion of general child-sensitive income tax measures, such as personal exemptions and child tax credits, at both the state and federal levels.
In addition, a strong case can be made for treating all educational expenses as tax-deductible. Investments in physical capital by businesses currently enjoy favored treatment under tax policy: deductibility in some cases; generous depreciation tables in others. As an investment in human capital, educational costs should logically enjoy similar treatment: full deductibility.
This focus on tax benefits would prevent regulatory intrusion and spare independent schools from the loss of their peculiar and necessary energy.
What then about the public schools, which still embrace the great majority of American children? We should move toward a radical deconsolidation of the public system, down even to the single-school level. This would weaken bureaucratic and union strangleholds on the schools and so return them to real community control, where parental and neighborhood moral judgments could again play a role. This goal would rest on the finding, phrased in policy analyst Bill Kauffman’s words, that “every promise of the [school] consolidationists is, at best, an exaggeration, at worst, a lie.” Neither efficiency, nor improved outcomes, nor greater social equity have been gained.
Moving beyond “charter schools,” this deconsolidationist approach would come full circle and reground tax-supported schools in their places, their neighborhoods. Each school would have its own elected governing board and its own tax levy. Where the economic circumstances of a school district were inadequate, a state education board could make a supplemental grant out of general revenues. High-school districts could draw students from several independent primary districts.
The use of busing and magnet schools to prevent or reverse racial segregation would admittedly come to an end under this approach. However, recent reports from the Civil Rights Project of Harvard University have found American schools more segregated now than they were 40 years earlier when court-ordered busing first came into its own. Hundreds of billions of dollars have been squandered in this campaign. It is time to end this wasteful, fruitless and degrading exercise in social engineering and turn instead to building viable neighborhoods resting on good local schools.
Most importantly, these neighborhood, village, or township schools would be “open.” Like a community college, they would offer their learning and extracurricular opportunities to all studentsin the district but would compel none. Some families might choose a complete school day; others just a science or math class; still others, only choir or the basketball team. The local school would have a strong incentive to serve the neighborhood and its inhabitants, rather than to force them along a one-curriculum-fits-all path.
Once again, school boards could be expected to reflect and respect neighborhood values and sensibilities. The school should become the focus and pride of the neighborhood, village or township, so helping to unite all people – public-schoolers, private-schoolers, home-schoolers, and the childless alike – with their special place on earth. In these ways, parental autonomy would be reconciled with the claims of local culture and community. And by building on strengthened families and neighborhoods, we would be crafting the greater strength of Utah, and the nation.
The author, Dr. Allan C. Carlson, is director of Sutherland Institute’s Center for Community and Economy, president of The Howard Center for Family, Religion & Society, and distinguished visiting professor at Hillsdale College in Michigan. Dr. Carlson founded the World Congress of Families in 1997. He has written for numerous publications including the Wall Street Journal, National Review, and Intercollegiate Review, and is the editor of The Family in America. He is the author of nine books, including The Natural Family: A Manifesto (Spence, 2007), which he co-authored with Paul T. Mero.
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