‘We do it so wrong.’ Kansas lawmakers disparage public education to home-schoolers | Opinion

Four Republican Kansas state legislators, including the chair of the Senate education committee, state Sen. Molly Baumgardner, recently headlined an event on the future of home schooling.

Their comments at that event, as reported in a publication of the Herzog Foundation, a nonprofit whose mission is “to catalyze and accelerate the development of quality Christ-centered K-12 education,” showed disdain for the public schools they’re legally responsible for fully funding.

The other lawmakers at the Aug. 21 forum, which was sponsored by the home school nonprofit Midwest Parent Educators and held at the Indian Creek Public Library in Olathe, were state Rep. Chris Croft, who is the House majority leader, state Sen. Beverly Gossage and state Rep. Rebecca Schmoe.

Schmoe reportedly told the group that when she was a paraeducator in public schools, “the accountability in how the money was being spent was nonexistent. You guys are doing it right. Your kids are not just numbers in a formula to get more funding.”

That’s almost funny, as unlike public schools it’s home schools that are unregulated. So the state isn’t tracking whether or to what extent “you guys are doing it right.”

And the blanket indictment that public schools see students as “just numbers” is a calumny against the hardworking educators who see many state lawmakers trying harder to defund than to defend them.

Schmoe and Gossage each told me to send them my questions, but then did not answer them. Croft did answer my written questions, and Baumgardner defended her views in a long telephone interview.

“Baumgardner agreed” with Schmoe’s comments, according to the story in the Herzog publication, The Lion.

She “urged parents to stay updated on current efforts in the Legislature to make all-day kindergarten mandatory in Kansas and provide pre-K or ‘tiny K’ classes for ages 3 and up,” the story said. And Baumgardner promised, the piece went on to say, to oppose any effort to mandate the home visits that would provide oversight for home-schooled children.

All four lawmakers, the story in the Lion said, “discussed how more public school students are failing basic academic standards.”

Baumgardner told me she is not familiar with the Herzog publication, The Lion, had not had a chance to read the story I’d sent her about the home schooling event and would never say such a thing about public schools: “I have never said public schools are failing and I never will.”

She said she does support public schools, but “I always will support a parent’s choice” and does not see those things as in competition, though they certainly can be.

Small loss of students devastating in rural districts

The vouchers and education savings accounts that Baumgardner supports would not, she said, impact the public schools from which home school students withdrew, because the school district would still get that funding for the following two years. But eventually, serving fewer students would cost the district, right? “Eventually, the money goes away,” she said, “but the expense for the child is no longer there.”

In rural districts in particular, even the loss of a small number of students can be devastating.

Baumgardner said she opposes mandated all-day kindergarten and pre-K because those aren’t right for all children and their families, and because Kansas is already having trouble finding enough teachers to staff its K-12 classrooms. “What’s missing in the article is that there are reasons why” she opposes mandates. “I look at things from a very practical standpoint.”

Gossage, a former teacher who left her classroom job to home-school her son to help him overcome his dyslexia, reportedly told the group that she had to come up with her own lesson plans because “we do it so wrong in the classroom. Thank you for home-schooling your children.”

Gossage is 73, so this was presumably decades ago, at a time when all special needs were less well understood than they are today. But it is true that special education is not currently fully funded by the state in Kansas, which means that districts have to cover the difference themselves, at the expense of other programs. And this is money that could otherwise be spent on hiring more teachers.

Croft, who has a daughter who home-schools, “encouraged home-schoolers to surround themselves in a community around a legislator ‘champion’ and start sharing their ideas and thoughts now before the legislative session starts.”

He told me the education savings accounts that would give a percentage of the state portion of per-student funds to parents, are not designed to undermine public schools. “I can assure you,” Croft said, “that the intention is not defunding public schools. In my district, I have two public high schools and I am an advocate for their success. The intention is to allow students and families to have a choice if they wish. Right now, we only have school choice for families who are able to afford it. The 2023 bill was an attempt to provide school choice for all, not just those who can afford it.”

The ESAs would cover only a fraction of the tuition of most private schools, and whatever the intention behind them, would hurt public schools, which Croft said he does see failing in some ways.

“What I believe this is referring to” in the line in the Lion story about public schools failing basic academic standards, he said, “is the lack of college-readiness of Kansas high school graduates. A large number of our graduates are requiring remedial education once they reach college, which really says that a great deal of our students are being left behind. We need to make sure that our schools are providing our students with a well-rounded education program so they are better equipped to specialize in their chosen field in college and in life.”

No one could argue with that.

But what’s surprising to me is that Kansas schools, after being underfunded for years under former Gov. Sam Brownback, are doing as well as they are: Kansas is actually one of only six states where ACT scores held steady last year, even as nationally, scores declined more steeply than in a decade.

Kansas ranks 13th in student outcomes, though 28th in per-pupil spending. And last year, a record 89.1% of Kansas students graduated on time.

State senator: Home visits don’t measure learning

An agenda for the Olathe home schooling event said it would help parents stay informed about legislation limiting home school freedom, but that portion of the program can’t have taken long since there haven’t been any bills that have gotten a hearing that would do anything to restrict the freedom of home-schoolers.

Baumgardner said that two sessions ago, a bill was proposed that would have made kindergarten mandatory. It never got out of committee, she said, but had it passed would have restricted the freedom of home-schoolers. But mandatory or not, they could still opt out of public school in favor of home schooling.

And right now, here’s the onerous process forced on Kansas home-schoolers: The parent or guardian just has to go online and check a box that says the student is being home-schooled.

You have to register your home school with the Kansas Department of Education and write a withdrawal letter to the child’s current school.

Midwest Parent Educators offers this advice on the withdrawal letter: “We’ve heard of some schools that want parents to sign a withdrawal letter that the school has already written. Sometimes these letters contain statements or intrusive documentation that you are not required to give (such as what curriculum you intend to use). As a result, we strongly recommend that you do not sign any pre-formulated withdrawal letters, but come up with your own.”

Missouri law requires home-schoolers to document at least 1,000 hours of instruction during the school term, but Kansas does not even require that. Baumgardner said there’s no reason the state should be “collecting information that’s never going to be scrutinized” or “submitting things that mean nothing except to check a box.”

Still, there are no check-ins and no monitoring, no testing or curriculum requirements.

Baumgardner is not for home visits of home schools, she said, because those wouldn’t measure “whether the child is learning,” just as surprise visits to classrooms didn’t in her view yield anything useful back when she was teaching.

The proof that no more monitoring is needed, she said, is that “we’ve got a lot of home school kids earning college credit while being home-schooled,” and later doing well in college.

Do parents always know what’s best?

Doesn’t it make sense to think that surely some home schools do a wonderful job and others are subpar, just as some public and private schools are great and others are not? Why do home-schooled students not deserve the same oversight and protections that kids in more traditional settings have?

Croft said, “I don’t think this is an issue of wanting no oversight, but instead wanting the government to work for the people, not against them. Our home-schooled children are widely succeeding in education and career, and their families have some really innovative ideas to foster that success. … I certainly don’t want to take action that could get in the way or favor one style of home schooling over another. Parents know what’s best for their children, it’s not the job of the legislature to direct the upbringing of their children when these students are performing very well.”

Unfortunately, all parents do not know what’s best; in 2021, according to the National Children’s Alliance, 77% of abused children in this country were hurt by a parent. This does not implicate home-schoolers any more than other parents, but abusers do tend to isolate their victims.

Baumgardner harshly criticized public schools for using online learning during the pandemic, and in 2021 supported the “Back to School Act” requiring schools to discontinue online instruction.

But online learning is the primary learning methodology for the home school and private microschools she supports, so why is that different?

She said that “my criticism was the inconsistency of the delivery” of online learning during the pandemic rather than any general opposition to it.

I have nothing against either home schooling or faith-based schools like the Catholic elementary school and three Catholic universities I’m grateful to have attended. But I never thought that the state should pay for that education.

And I do hear comments that “we do it so wrong in the classroom,” where students are supposedly seen as “just numbers” as both unfair and all too common from those whose actions, even more than their words, say that they do not oppose the privatization of public education.