“It’s hard to be different
It’s even harder when you wanna fit in
High School was a catastrophe
It was a failure factory”
In 2015 my husband and I had the chance to see an artist we had loved since 2007, Brett Dennen, at the gorgeous Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, Arizona. They have my favorite local concert hall, with acoustics that you wouldn’t believe. Anyhow, I was a bit surprised that Dennen was playing at the MIM, but I was ecstatic to see him live (one of my absolute favorite songs of his is Out of My Head). Dennen was fantastic but the crowd was…interesting. Dennen’s usual fans were there- used to being in livelier venues. Then there were what seemed to be MIM season ticket holders – an older and well-behaved crowd you could say. The tension was palpable: Dennen fans in the front, singing along, shouting from the audience their favorite requests, and generally having a wonderful time. Then there were the season ticket holders who, well, seemed slightly disturbed at the behavior of the rest of the audience! Even I felt like I wasn’t sure whose side I was on! It was a memorable concert experience to say the least.
A lot has been written about Dennen and his homeschool experiences and some jarring experiences he had in high school. The tension I felt at his concert is a tension that a lot of homeschoolers and homeschool supporters seem to feel about ESAs. Which leads me to my topics for this week’s mixtape: the tendency of homeschoolers to oppose or hesitantly support ESAs and the need for policy makers to craft ESA programs with homeschoolers and ESA home educators in mind.
Homeschool families should support ESAs
First, let me explain that states like Arizona have laws that legally distinguish homeschoolers from ESA families. Therefore, families who choose to utilize an ESA are “home educating” on an ESA. They are not legally homeschooling. This distinction is important and something that other states appear to be considering as they craft their ESA programs. This ensures homeschooling families are not impacted by the implementation or changes to an ESA program.
As a former homeschool family – now an ESA family for the past five years, I get the concerns from homeschool families. My husband has written on these concerns, “Why Homeschoolers Should Support (Or At Least Not Oppose) ESAs”. In his article, he argues that Arizona ESAs have not encroached on homeschool freedoms nor have they encroached on the freedoms of private schools or ESA home educators: “Arizona’s ESA laws expressly protect private schools and ESA home educators from state control and supervision. Besides the five-subjects requirement, the state does not impose any additional requirements regarding what curriculum or textbooks are used.”
The reality is that many families struggle to afford either private school or homeschooling. ESAs provide a way for homeschooling families to afford curriculum, online education programs, and frequently, therapies or specialized instruction for their children who qualify with special needs or learning disabilities. While all states do receive Proportionate Share funding for services for homeschooled children and children in private schools, these funds are next to impossible to get districts to let go of, and even more confusing to get services with.
Many homeschooling families find their way onto an ESA because of the astronomical costs of special education curriculum and tutoring that they couldn’t afford any other way. It’s one reason why states should allow homeschoolers to switch to an ESA without any public school attendance requirement as well. Arizona finally removed this requirement with the passage of their universal ESA bill in 2022.
States should craft ESA programs that take into account the unique needs of home educating families
In 2020 I had the opportunity to participate as a parent in the ESA rulemaking process, led by the fantastic staff at the Arizona State Board of Education. In 2023, I was able to participate again – but this time as an appointed member of the Arizona State Board. The incredible feedback from families, many of whom were home educating with an ESA, is what made the rules what they are today. Like all administrative rules they aren’t perfect, but they do seek to provide definitions, flexibility, and innovative thinking that works for home educating ESA parents. The rules can still be improved (I’d like even more flexibility, and I will always argue for it), but ensuring approved items like curriculum and supplemental materials are well defined has empowered families to confidently access a broader array of educational resources for their children.
Gone should be the days of only allowing books and bound curriculum textbooks as approved expenses. Customized educational STEM delivery box kits, science programming with in-person experiments and online programming, and interactive classes and cohorts with programs like OutSchool and Synthesis and Curious Cardinals, those are the options our kids deserve access to.
1. When crafting ESA programs, policy makers should legally distinguish homeschoolers and home education with an ESA. If a statutory definition for homeschoolers doesn’t already exist, it should be added. We must always protect homeschoolers who choose not to accept scholarships from the state.
2. Homeschoolers should look at actual research on ESA programs, similar to the article I linked above, when formulating their opinions. Just because ESAs may not be a good fit for every family, it does not follow that ESAs should therefore be denied for all others. Policy makers should spend significant time helping alleviate the concerns of homeschoolers about ESAs from the beginning of policy conversations.
3. Policy makers should continue fighting to ensure ESA programs allow homeschoolers to switch into the program. They should also ensure approved items go beyond printed books and curriculum, but also include therapies, tutoring, online and in-person educational programs, and more.
The beauty of ESAs is their flexibility to meet the needs of an individual child – let’s not lose sight of that, and let’s show what the free market can do for our students and their education.