Education in Montana is not black and white


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Gov. Martz' remarks to a convention of home-school families earlier this month have stimulated heated exchanges in the pages of state newspapers about the merits of home schooling and the costs of public education.

Unfortunately, most of that debate has been characterized by a lack of social and historical perspective, the use of statistics without their context, and a tendency to paint complicated, multi-hued issues in black and white.

The first thing that needs to be said is that many, many families who teach their children at home (and probably all of those attending the home-school convention in Missoula) do an excellent job. These families are motivated, child-centered, and obviously willing and able to place the education of their children at the center of their families' lives. They possess or find the educational, financial and emotional resources necessary to undertake this task. In most instances, their children thrive and learn in the supportive environment and with the individual attention received by students in a good home school.

It should not be surprising that such students generally do well. Educational research indicates that low student/teacher ratios and a home environment supportive of learning are among the most important factors contributing to student achievement.

Home-school families take advantage of the freedom that parents have always enjoyed in this country to educate their children privately whether at home or in a private school. The only limitations placed on this freedom are occasional state requirements that minimal educational standards of achievement be met or that private schools meet basic safety requirements. I am aware of no movement afoot to eliminate the right of parents to choose private education for their children. The apparent feeling on the part of some home-school proponents that they are threatened is unwarranted.

What does all this have to do with public education and the issue of adequate funding of Montana's schools? The short answer is absolutely nothing. The vast majority of American parents always have and always will choose to have their children taught in public schools. (In fact, many home-school families enroll their children in public schools for periods of time or seek to send their children to public schools part time.) Nonpublic school enrollment in Montana is fairly stable at under 10 percent, with home-school students constituting about 2 percent of the school-aged population.

This also should not be surprising. Public education is as American as apple pie. It is the engine of social mobility in our egalitarian society and the means by which the children of recent immigrants are integrated into American life. The opportunity for a free public education is the foundation on which both our democracy and our economic prosperity rest. It is no coincidence that all prosperous democracies in the world support systems of universal public education and that those countries mired in economic and political backwardness rarely do. For most of human history the only options available were private schools, home schooling or no schooling, a situation that was accompanied by widespread illiteracy, poverty, economic stagnation and social inequality.

As new communities spread across this country, the first communal building in most settlements was a schoolhouse and one of the first volunteer local organizations was the school board, which immediately hired a teacher if one could be found. Settler families, by and large, did not choose home schooling when other options were available for the same reasons that most families do not do so today. They were busy making a living and/or lacked the educational background or resources to teach their children adequately. It was fairly widely understood that a good education was the key to economic advancement for their children and for the country and that public schools were the means to that end.

What is surprising is that, at the beginning of the 21st century in the most economically and technologically advanced country in the world, anyone should be seriously questioning the value of public schools. This can only be the result of historical amnesia and the all too common phenomenon of taking for granted the things that are most basic and important to our way of life. Those who lament the cost of public education and suggest that home schooling provides a money-saving model that can be applied to all, need to get "back to the basics" and commit to supporting, nurturing and improving Montana's public schools. The small number of families who successfully home school their children deserve our admiration. The more than 90 percent of Montana children who attend public schools deserve our continued support for our sakes and for theirs.


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