Alternative Education: The Choice Is Yours


educationToday is exactly the kind of day that reminds me why our family has periodically sought alternatives to public education. It’s a spring Tuesday, a school day, and at 11:00 AM, our daughter is two hours from home at a soccer talent ID center. She’s thirteen. And (gasp) we are completely supportive of that. Years of experience with elite youth sports has emboldened our confidence levels and decision-making skills as parents… and so have two decades of educating our kids on our terms. It’s gutsy. It’s difficult. It’s unconventional. And, most recently, it’s gaining momentum.

According to the US Census Bureau and the National Center for Education Statistics, about 1.7% of families homeschooled in 1999. In 2020, that jumped to 11.1%. More than one out of every ten families are seeking alternatives. This acceleration can be credited to COVID-19, but post-pandemic, there’s evidence of rapid growth in educational technologies and learning models to serve learners outside of mainstream public education. These alternatives, once only for marginalized groups, are now sought after by families wanting personalized, self-directed educational opportunities for their children. Low student-teacher ratios and high levels of flexibility are prime motivators as well. E-learning, for example, takes 40% – 60% less time to complete than traditional classroom learning, making it ideal for those families who wish to enrich their days with other passions like the arts, sports, or travel. Some simply seek a less stressful or structured schedule. Initially limited to homeschool or public schools, parents now have a variety of options from which to choose – start-ups, online public schools, language immersion, Montessori, micro or magnet schools, and more.

There are always choices. If our daughter attended a public school, she would rack up an unexcused absence today, putting her at the mercy of educators who may or may not allow her to make up the work. But, we have chosen something different for her, an independent micro-school. And consequently, she thrives in a flexible environment that supports her outside-of-school passions. Because her school is independent, no punitive repercussions are linked to attendance rates. And this is just one reason why, over the last twelve years, our family has made many unconventional decisions about our eight children’s education. Public school, private school, homeschool, hybrid, online school – we have (and are) doing it all. As a professional educator, I vouch for (and support) teachers in all sectors; they are smart, compassionate, hard-working, and dedicated individuals. It’s not the teachers that have driven our decisions. It is the systems: cultures, procedures, environments, schedules, and resources. And, because not one system fits all, we do not limit our family to one option. Every child and season of life calls for a re-evaluation of those systems. We’ve pivoted on both choice and necessity. When our family needed a reboot, we took the kids out of public school and homeschooled them for fifteen months. I wrote the curriculum, and we controlled our narrative and schedule. At the time, it stirred up quite a bit of controversy, but we knew it was right for our family, and the kids grew smarter, healthier, happier, and more responsible.

In addition, it may surprise you how readily available and accessible alternative educational opportunities can be for almost any family. Though some consider options only for a “privileged” demographic, some alternatives cost virtually nothing. But, every choice (even public school) comes with opportunity cost. What is your family giving up with each option? Is it freedom? Time? Income? Flexibility? Mental, physical, social-emotional, or spiritual health? Homeschooling, for example, requires work flexibility, commitment to rigor, and intellectual and material resources. As someone who has temporarily set aside a career to homeschool, I understand the extensive effort, energy, patience, and sacrifice required to traverse a less-traveled path. Yet, the choice remains.

In conclusion, when evaluating what best fits your child’s (and family’s) educational needs, consider:

Class size
Skill foci
Subject foci
Religious alignment
Special needs or behavioral needs
Academic rigor and support
Flexibility and schedule
Culture and social environment
Accessibility and location

As this school year comes to a close, take the time to seriously evaluate what’s working and what isn’t. Make a list of your options, visit schools while they’re still in session, and do your research. But most importantly, if needed and when needed, have the courage to try something new for your family. After all, in the words of one self-educated man, “The best way to predict your future is to create it.”

(Thanks, Mr. Lincoln, I think I will.)