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Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Canyonlands National Park, Utah
Kimi & Shaun - On Top of the World!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Personal vs. Political: Choosing my Children Over Public Education

I was educated in the public school system.  There was no way my parents could afford any kind of private schooling.  Throughout my youth, my parents urged me to do well enough in school that I could get a scholarship to go to UMASS, the cheapest 4-year college they knew of.  It was their hope that I would be able to live a more prosperous life than they ever had - & a good education was the key to achieving that goal.

I did do well enough to qualify for scholarships but I didn't go to UMASS.  It turns out that more competitive colleges & universities will give financial aid to students who have the ability but not the funds.  So, doing well in school led me to being able to attend a prestigious college. which led to graduate school, which led to starting my career as a child therapist living in New York City.  I had achieved my parents' & my goal.

Phil also found public education to be his ticket out of a hard life.  His mother was not capable of providing proper care to him & his brothers - the schools he attended were his sanctuaries, providing a safe place to be & two hot meals five times a week.  He earned admission to one of the exam high schools - public schools that accepted students via exams.  His high grades here led him to be able to attend a prestigious college, with the help of financial aid & scholarships.  This led to his starting his career in high tech business living in New York City.  He had achieved his goal.

Now, in another post, we'll discuss whether these goals turned out to be the best goals to set for ourselves.  For the purpose of this post, however, I'll continue to simply focus on understanding that at a certain point in our lives, we both believed that job & financial security were extremely important & we credited our experiences with public education as helping us get there.

Compared to our upbringings, we were living a prosperous life together.  Even as a single-income family, we were in a high income bracket that many aspire to reach.  We explored sending our kids to private school - Montessori schooling seemed particularly attractive, as it seemed more child-centered - but we were reluctant to send our children to private schools when we valued publicly-funded, accessible to all schools.  After all, we benefited from public education, right?  So, we made a conscious decision to support our public schools as much as possible.

We bought all the various fundraising who-zits & what-zits to support the PTO.  I volunteered several times a month in both kids' classes - providing support for the teaching staff.  We donated classroom supplies, I chaperoned field trips.  Above all else, we sent our kids to school.

You all know we ended up not only homeschooling but unschooling - the details of that decision having been described in other posts.  Most of our friends & family have been very supportive of our decision - and even if they don't think this choice is right for them, they believe that we ultimately should have the ability to make this decision.  There were some dissenters, however, & one of the most vehement one was someone who could not understand why I would not continue to support the public school system.  To him, choosing my children over "all" children was socially & morally selfish.  AFter our interviews in various media, I saw a few people mention this, too.  Why not fix the problems from within rather than remove ourselves from it, in part because we could afford to leave?

I recently watched Herbert Kohl's keynote address from the 7th annual AERO conference.  One of his points was that choosing alternative education, be it charter schools, private schools or homeschooling, does society a disservice.  He looks at public education as a means toward social justice.  It's a challenging thought - particularly since it was a belief Phil & I held for most of our lives. 

We are all too aware that there are children out there who not only won't be unschooled but would be harmed by unschooling.  Without a committed engaged parent or parents working with the child to learn and explore the world around them, the child is unlikely to flourish.  When neglect or abuse is present, the parent is not the child's advocate.  Yet, I'm uncomfortable with the stance that since some parents, well, suck, then we should create social systems that assume all parents will behave badly.  So, how do we help the vulnerable children while avoiding the numerous negatives that currently embody the public school system?

Perhaps community learning centers are a solution.  These would be similar to "free" or democratic schools.  One example of how they work is Sudbury Valley Schools:

At Sudbury Valley School, students from preschool through high school age explore the world freely, at their own pace and in their own unique ways. They learn to think for themselves, and learn to use Information Age tools to unearth the knowledge they need from multiple sources. They develop the ability to make clear logical arguments, and deal with complex ethical issues. Through self-initiated activities, they pick up the basics; as they direct their lives, they take responsibility for outcomes, set priorities, allocate resources, and work with others in a vibrant community.
Trust and respect are the keys to the school’s success. Students enjoy total intellectual freedom, and unfettered interaction with other students and adults. Through being responsible for themselves and for the school’s operation, they gain the internal resources needed to lead effective lives.
My proposal, however, doesn't limit the learning opportunities to students up to age 18.  Imagine a learning center where:

  • All ages are present, since we never stop learning.
  • The knowledge & experience of older citizens can be shared with the knowledge & experience of youth.
  • Study groups and other collaborative learning groups are formed based on the participants' interests and abilities.  
  • People can explore an interest as deeply as they wish or move on as the interest leads to other interests.
  • "Teachers" are facilitators, becoming mentors or guides based upon their personal knowledge & skills.
  • True community can be created, since the community uses the space collectively.  The children are no longer artificially removed from the rest of their community.  Neighbors will actually know neighbors!
  • Self-reliance skills, be it growing/raising/preserving food or do-it-yourself projects, can be rediscovered - reducing the waste & dependence upon manufactured products & even manufactured food our society has become accustomed.
Is it possible to change the way we think about what education is all about?  Is it possible to change the priorities that our highly commercialized society tells us we should value - the ability to buy lots of "necessary" stuff.  Can those of us who value the principles of unschooling believe that these principles can be present within a publicly funded education system?  Is the current system ripe for radical change in what education really means or is it "too big to fail", not realizing that it already is failing?

What do you think?


  1. I share your vision, Christine. I truly hope that it will come to pass, but in the meantime, my daughter learns and lives outside of school and loves it.

  2. What a great post Christine! I have been talking about learning centers(schools)that operate like libraries, where folks of all ages could gather to learn about our world for years and years!
    I want to make this vision a reality...

  3. Hi Christine: thanks for writing this post!

    I hear the "you're doing the public system a disservice by homeschooling your children" *way* too often - last time was a few days ago.

    I have a master's degree, and was very supportive of ps for years, until I saw the reality of my children dealing with the system. I even served on my town's school board before pulling my children out to homeschool, and eventually unschool.

    When people say that homeschooling, charter schools, private schools, etc ., do the public system a disservice, I believe they really haven't thought about what they're saying.

    We live in a free-market society, where choice is valued. The idea that everyone should be expected or coerced to send their child to ps flies in the face of that idea. For that reason alone, it's an unrealistic argument. Just look at the hoopla around healthcare right now, and that's not as restrictive as requiring all children to attend public school.

    My master's degree is in library science, and I've working in public and academic libraries for many years. Since my daughters were born (they're now 12 and 14) I've worked part-time, but I anticipated going back to full-time work, hopefully as a library director, when the girls are older. And I have lots of ideas for how to run a library a little differently .

    Best wishes, Cara Barlow