Record: Aaron Saiger, “Homeschooling, Virtual Learning, and the Eroding Public/Private Binary.” Journal of School Choice, 10, No. 3 (2016): 297-319. [Abstract]
Summary: Aaron Saiger is a Professor of Law at Fordham University. In this article he argues that with homeschooling, virtual schools, and charter schools, the classic regulatory dichotomy of public and private schools is no longer adequate.
Since homeschooling is considered by legislatures as a variation of private schooling, they have similar regulations. For instance, while private-schooling and homeschooling parents must forfeit their entitlements to state educational funding for their children, these schools enjoy similar freedoms when it comes to teacher certification, curriculum, and school structure. Determining whether a school is private or public is important because depending on the decision, the school will have very different regulations when it comes to whether it can receive public funding, teach religion, or deny admission to students that it does not want to teach.
While public schools are assumed to be free of charge to parents, governed by a local school board, open to all, supported by taxes, and completely secular, this conception of public schools did not exist before the 20th century. In fact, even in modern times, not all public schools demonstrate these characteristics. For instance, there are “public” schools with admissions criteria (i.e. magnet programs or specialized schools for the blind, deaf, or disabled) and different forms of governance (i.e. the New York City school system is controlled by the city’s mayor instead of a school board). In the case of Rendell-Baker v. Kohn (1982), the Supreme Court found that a school in Massachusetts which received nearly all of its income from the government to educate children with special needs at no cost to the families was actually a private institution, despite its similarities to a public school. While these variations in determining what is a public school were relatively trivial several decades ago, today it has become more important to define what is public and what is private due to the school choice movement.
Charter schools are an example of a movement that has breached the gap between public and private schools. While, like public schools, charters may not charge tuition or discriminate against students in admissions, they are privately managed, and they are regulated much less heavily than public schools. The charter school industry, its customer base, and nearly all states’ charter school statutes insist that charter schools are public because charter school proponents are aware of the financial and political benefits of this categorization. However, given that charter schools share so many characteristics with private schools as well, Saiger describes this situation as, “an attempt to place a square peg in one of two round holes” (p. 303).
Virtual schools are another disruption to the public/private binary, and they can be divided into three broad categories. First there is blended learning in which students receive some virtual instruction and some instruction from a teacher. Second, there are part-time virtual options that allow students to take a couple classes online that may not be offered at their high school. Finally, there are full-time virtual schools that are operated by school districts and charter schools.
All three of these options represent a shake-up in the educational world because of the removal of local control of education, once considered the defining quality of education in the United States. For example, the school district of Fairfax, Virginia has an online program that receives students from all over the country and even the world. While this wealthy, primarily White school district and others like it have historically been adverse to admitting students from outside the district in their physical schools, they have no problem enrolling and taking money from families outside the district for their online programs. Also, in some states such as Florida with its Florida Virtual School, the state directly created a non-geographically-based public school.
Virtual schools also disrupt the so-called “bundling” of public schools because if the public school lacks a certain course (i.e. Chinese or Calculus) or perhaps if the parents disapprove of a certain curriculum (i.e. because of the teaching of evolution), they can elect to enroll their child in one or several virtual classes without completely changing schools. Saiger notes that this unbundling threatens the school community that many people consider a central part of public education. While virtual schools do offer some community, it is a different kind of community than what is traditionally expected.
Finally, Saiger discusses some effects that this unraveling of the public/private divide will have on homeschooling. On a basic level, virtual education makes home education easier if the parents’ goal is simply to keep the children at home, learning at their own pace, etc. Furthermore, if there is a class such as advanced chemistry that is beyond the possibilities of the home, homeschooled children can take an online course or, where it is legal, a class in the public school. Historically courts have been unfriendly to partial enrollment in public schools because they viewed school enrollment as an all-or-nothing affair. However, as public schools become increasingly perforated by virtual education, this argument will become increasingly difficult to make. As Saiger points out, what is the difference between a cyber-charter student and a homeschooled student who uses online courses? Suddenly a “private” homeschooled student looks quite similar to a “public” charter-schooled student. Another effect of online learning is that socialization, once seen as a major argument against homeschooling, may no longer be seen as such a problem. Online-schooled students also lack a traditional socialization at school, and few people seem to care about that. With the normalization of virtual schools, it will be harder to reject homeschooling as a legitimate educational option.
Appraisal: The interesting thing about this article is that Saiger writes as if disassembling the public/private binary would be good for homeschoolers because it would lead to, “greater fiscal and political resources and greater legitimacy” (p. 313). However, given that increased funding would lead to increased oversight and regulation, I doubt that most homeschoolers would be as thrilled about changing the status quo as Saiger expects.
While Saiger is very justified in arguing that regulations based off of the public/private school binary are no longer adequate to encompass the broadness of the school choice movement, the biggest problem with the article is that, having identified this problem, he discusses no possible alternatives. What can the United States do to update its school regulations without significantly altering the nature of each school choice?
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