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Memo 02.12.2021 5 minutes

Homeschoolers Use the Internet, Too.

Happy girl with mother studying online at home

Expand Internet connectivity for all kids, not just those in public school.

As pandemic lockdowns linger, the “homework gap,” a growing divide between students with online access and those without, is attracting increased attention. With nearly 17 million students on the losing end of this digital divide, closing the gap is an  necessary goal. As many schools continue remote learning indefinitely, students without Internet connectivity are falling further behind.

At the same time, partly due to the limits of public schooling amid the lockdowns, homeschooling is growing in popularity and importance. The COVID pandemic has demonstrated the failure of many public schools to adapt to remote learning programs. Often, at the behest of teacher unions, school districts across the nation are refusing to go back to full-time in-person learning. Millions of children have lost a year academically, trapping them and their parents in an educational purgatory. While hard to track the exact numbers, recent reports suggest the percentage of families choosing to homeschool during COVID is  unprecedentedly high, with many families planning never to return.

As Michael Hansen, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institute said: “COVID-19 has helped people to see that there are other education options out there that they had never seriously considered before. It allowed people to see flexibility and think outside the box about what schooling means and how it works best for their children.” But homeschooling families are in danger of being relegated to the wrong side of the digital divide.

Under pressure to prop up the fortunes of public “Zoom schools,” Congressional Democrats are poised to appropriate an additional $7 billion for the E-Rate Program, a broadband fund for eligible schools and libraries administered by the FCC. Lawmakers need to make homeschooled families eligible, too. A spigot like this, turned on as a slush fund for public school interests, should not leave homeschooling parents high and dry.

In light of the prevalence of “Zoom school,” newly-appointed FCC Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel  has recommended  agency rules to count students’ homes as classrooms to qualify them for funding. She recently released a proposal to authorize existing federal funding to buy hot spots and tech devices for students learning at home who currently lack them.

If we accept Acting Chairwoman Rosenworcel’s premise that all students should be connected at home, we should not limit the eligibility to those locked into the public school option. We should expand the E-Rate program to include families pursuing other options, including homeschooling. Parents who want to do what’s right for their kids should be empowered to seek out all the available alternatives. And for parents of homeschoolers, the idea that the living room or dining room table is a classroom is pretty standard. Families across the country have been using their homes successfully as full-time schools for decades. Increased funding for student connectivity would enable families who never considered homeschooling before the pandemic to have that conversation now.

It is still too difficult for many families to explore homeschooling as an option. Beyond the stigma and unfair characterizations faced by homeschool parents, many families find it financially impossible to pursue alternative education. This is especially true if both parents are working and unable to dedicate the time needed to step in as teacher. These barriers to homeschooling rise higher for families who lack Internet access or have limited connectivity. In the 1990’s, when I was homeschooled, we relied on Usborne and Saxon Math books; current homeschool curricula incorporate a blended educational approach, with online learning experiences as well as in person instruction. True, some homeschooling parents may be skeptical of the strings attached to E-Rate dollars, but at least they should have the option to be considered. 

Homeschooling should not be reduced to a luxury for the well-off, or an eccentricity for the self-marginalizing, but made an opportunity for all families. Unlike the prevailing stereotype, the decision to homeschool isn’t one just made by religious families or hippies. Reporting shows that many new minority families are also homeschooling as an alternative to state-sponsored education. Otherwise, it’s obvious that closing the “homework gap” is not a serious effort to connect all students, but just another slogan to protect the union-beholden public schools who continue to put the interests of teachers ahead of children.

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