At the beginning of 2023, I created a personal self-directed learning project for 2023: to learn about the state of public funding for homeschooling in the United States.
I live in Massachusetts, and despite being someone who follows the news, I knew almost nothing about the current school choice movement. In Massachusetts, school choice includes charter schools and inter-district public school choice, but there are no vouchers or funds for private schools or homeschooling. I thought that was the norm, more or less, across the country. (Currently, a conflict about intra-district choice for elementary schools is generating local newspaper headlines.)
I am the co-founder and executive director of North Star: Self-Directed Learning for Teens, and since 1996 I have been working to make school optional for any interested teen in the Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts. North Star mostly supports teens who are feeling limited or harmed by school (both public and private) to use homeschooling to claim their freedom and then use our center as much as they wish for classes, tutorials, and socializing. We have an increasing number of independent homeschoolers who join us, as more families are experimenting with the approach over the last few years, but most North Star members would not be choosing or sustaining an independent approach without our presence.
In 2013 we created a separate organization, Liberated Learners, to handle the consulting side of our work to share our model with others. We have helped more than 40 people start their own programs, and we currently have about 15 centers in the network. We offer free monthly webinars, one-time consultations, and a Starters program for those interested in building a new center.
A major obstacle to spreading our model is financial: it is extremely difficult to create an educational alternative that has a moderate fee and also pays professional wages to its staff members. This problem extends to all private models, not just ours, and at the end of last year I felt some despair as three close allies had closed their programs in 2022. I decided I needed to learn about public funding options, which I’ve written about on my blog on several occasions.
I started my exploration with some trepidation based on my political bias: I come from liberal roots, and I thought I was entering, in this current moment, a mostly libertarian and conservative movement. I had the good sense to ask for help from my colleagues Kerry McDonald and Kate Baker, and I found my way to edchoice.org. My first conclusions of the year are that while the current school choice movement is being led by conservatives, 1) edchoice.org is indeed non-partisan, 2) the school choice movement has at least a few liberal roots, and 3) I’d like to encourage more liberals to join me in having these conversations to bring our visions and concerns to a wider audience.
In my work, North Star must be non-partisan as well. On a personal level, though, I’d like to contribute to a bi-partisan (or multi-partisan) conversation on school choice. In particular, I’d like to invite more Democrats and progressives to consider these issues, and realize that both historically and philosophically, school choice has some firm roots from these perspectives. Using public funds to empower all families to have an option to fulfill an essential need is a concept that bridges multiple political and economic perspectives. I’d love to hear Republicans, Libertarians, Democrats, Independents, and other interested folks openly discuss these questions.
This is where I’m heading in 2024. More conversations about the modern school choice movement, bringing along my concerns out loud. As the momentum continues, I would like to see self-directed and unschooling approaches included, and promote conversations about “youth rights” as much as “parent rights.” I hope to focus our consulting at Liberated Learners on states with ESAs and other public funding to see whether these tools will offer a more successful basis for offering our approach to entrepreneurs and families.