The Washington Times
April 30, 2004

Washington Times Op-ed — The Right Incentives Matter
by J. Michael Smith
HSLDA President

It has been documented that homeschool children are having great success both academically and socially. It's also known that providing one-on-one instruction can be a better method of education than an institutional classroom where one teacher commonly has to interact with up to 30 children. Are there other reasons why homeschoolers score on average, 20 to 30 percentile points above their public school counterparts in standardized tests and why a recent study by the National Home Education Research Institute (NHERI) found that homeschoolers were significantly more engaged in their communities than public school children? To give one example from the NHERI study, 76% of homeschooled adults aged 18-24 voted compared with just 29% of public schooled 18-24 year olds.

One-on-one instruction can account for a significant portion of the disparity in both academic achievement and societal involvement. However, a further explanation can be found in the incentives experienced by homeschool parents - particularly homeschool moms, who do the bulk of the teaching - and public school teachers.

It should be remembered that many public school teachers do an excellent job in very difficult circumstances - but the incentives offered to public school teachers can affect outcomes. A schoolteacher is paid a salary, but that salary has no direct relation to student achievement. It does not go up if students succeed and it does not go down if students fail. The pay scales for teachers track seniority rather than the ability to teach. Many good public school teachers have expressed frustration about this pay disparity. Why make the effort when a colleague can simply breeze through the day with no penalty.

In contrast, a homeschool mom is a volunteer who is directly invested in the outcome of her child's education. There are huge costs for homeschool parents who fail to educate their children successfully. A son or daughter who cannot read or who has difficulty socializing will be a tremendous burden on the family. In a homeschool environment the parents assume the direct responsibility for educating the children and preparing them for society. The focus is on the immediate family, which will last a lifetime, rather than a continually changing classroom of children. Therefore, it should be no surprise that homeschool parents go to great lengths to ensure that their children are being educated properly. It's not just a job, it's a way of life.

Differing incentives also are found deeper in the public school system. The average public school spends $6,000 per child per year, compared with the average homeschool, which spends just $600, on average, per child per year, according to NHERI. Amazingly, the education bureaucracy considers the $6,000 figure to be far too low and regularly calls for more money in order to successfully educate a child. Yet homeschooling families are proving daily that claims of a direct link between money and achievement are false. Even so, the public school has been successful in arguing that more money equals higher student achievement. It has a financial incentive to continue this argument. In contrast, homeschooling parents have an incentive to spend just the right amount of money in educating their children. In most well-run family budgets, there is little room for wasteful spending or experiments in social engineering. A homeschool family is spending its own money rather than taxpayers' funds.

The homeschool method offers parents the right incentives to produce high quality citizens, while other systems fall short of this ideal. The public school is free to continue its path, and taxpayers, who include homeschoolers, are free to continue pouring money into a fundamentally flawed system. Eventually, the truth about homeschooling will become common knowledge, and America will be able to regain its place of educational leadership as it moves away from the public school model.