Liberals who homeschool, special needs, and diversity

The perfect learning environment. (Source)

The ever-present homeschool debate recently landed on my radar thanks to an emerging argument that liberals owe it to society to place their children in public school rather than homeschooling them. These children, Dana Goldstein argued in Slate, will lift everyone up toward the light through the beneficence of their “peer effects” on the less fortunate among them. The idea made me laugh because even though I’m pretty liberal and I homeschool, I know without a doubt that my children aren’t quite what people have in mind when they ask me to return my children to public school. My children, you see, are special needs children, and I’ve never encountered an expectation that their presence would lift up anything in a public school except costs.

I also find the idea of these positive peer effects ironic because we pulled our oldest, autistic son from public school precisely because of his peers--and because of an administration that looked the other way with every instance of bullying and every failure of staff to adhere to the content of our son’s individual education plan, or IEP. We stuck it out from kindergarten to halfway through third grade before a set of bloody fingernail gouges in our son’s face from a long-time playground nemesis led to a final rupture.

We homeschool because we have children with special needs, and many public schools simply don’t have what it takes to teach them and keep them safe. The special needs population among homeschoolers is not negligible--in a 2009 U.S. government survey [PDF], 21% of respondents cited “special needs” as one of their reasons for homeschooling, and 6% cited health problems or special needs as their main reason.

Goldstein writes about having benefited from attending “one of the most diverse and progressive school districts in the United States.” That’s lovely, but the fact is that as of 2009, public schools nationwide were more segregated than they were in the 1950s. And very few schools seem to consider “diversity” to include the special needs community of children.

The core of Goldstein’s argument is that you can’t be truly progressive if you homeschool because that “go-it-alone ideology” doesn’t serve society as a whole. Low-income kids have better test scores when schooling with middle-class children, she writes, a phenomenon known as “peer effects.” But “peer effects” can go both ways. My children attended public school for a few years. It was not a success for them, in part because they have special needs, and in our former district, anything except perceived “perfection” was socially unacceptable. Homeschooling immediately relieved the family-wide daily stressors we experienced because of public school, which ranged from “peer effects” like bullying that included physical attacks to special education services promised but not delivered.

I don’t feel liberal guilt because we have the wherewithal to give our special needs children the stress-free, individualized education they need with a standardized curriculum that many states use for online schools. It would be great for school districts to recognize the gifts of diversity that come when special needs students are included in every facet of school life. But we’re not going to offer up our children as guinea pigs for achieving that lofty goal, watching them be bullied and fall through large economic and academic cracks as their childhoods slip by. Without deep social change beyond the classroom, all aspects of diversity--socioeconomic, ethnic, ability--will remain out of reach for many schools.

And why homeschooling liberals, specifically? Why not appeal for the wealthy to pull their children from the rarefied atmosphere of our nation’s private schools and plunge them into public school for the common good? I don’t understand why only “liberal” homeschooling parents should express their progressivism by catapulting their children into public school--particularly the more common schools on offer where standardized testing takes precedence over a progressive or diverse curriculum. Further, I’d argue that it’s conservative to assume that everyone will benefit from the same experience, i.e., public school, and progressive to understand that choice is important.

Would society be a better place if all children had the option of a public education in one of the most “diverse and progressive school districts” in the country? Sure it would, especially if “diversity” also included--wholly and completely--the special needs population. But that’s not a reality, and current reality is all we have to work with in educating our children right now. There are no do-overs on childhood. Once the time has passed, it is gone. What matters is what you do with it when you have it, and for my children, we are making the most of that time. At home.