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Corporate Homeschooling

Lawrence Williams, Ed.D.

This year marks the thirty-eighth year I’ve been involved with homeschooling. When I look back on the last four decades, it’s been an amazing experience—not only for me personally, but for all of us involved in this profound educational movement.

What has made the homeschooling movement most remarkable is that it was not guided by one charismatic leader or driven by a small group with common political or religious beliefs. Since the modern homeschooling movement began in the 1960s, it has always been composed of a wide variety of thinkers and doers: back-to-the-land homesteaders, new age hippies, right-wing fundamental Christians, academic idealists, public school educators, and many others. This diverse group, united only by love for children and a desire for educational freedom, has dramatically changed the educational landscape throughout the U.S. and created new opportunities for learning throughout the world.

Beginning as a small movement of about 10,000 students, amidst laws that banned it in almost every state, homeschooling gradually became a recognized, legal option for parents throughout the U.S. and a significant player in the educational field. There are now over two million students [nheri.org], dozens of homeschooling magazines and websites, hundreds of homeschooling curriculum providers and K-12 distance learning schools, and thousands of local homeschooling groups.

THE EARLY DAYS

I became involved in homeschooling in an unusual way—by starting a small school in California. It was 1975, and I had just completed teacher training at the Waldorf Institute in Garden City, New York. I was unable to find work as a Waldorf teacher, so I took a job as the business manager for Happy Valley School in Ojai, California and moved there with my wife, Bonnie, and our three children.

After a few months we found that the local school wasn’t a good fit for our children, and we started thinking about teaching them ourselves at home. Being young and naive, I called the state Department of Education and asked how we could do it. It turned out to be a life-changing conversation.

“Do you have a state teaching credential?” asked the man on the phone at the DOE.

“No,” I replied, “but I have a Master’s degree in education.”

“Nope, that’s not good enough,” he responded. “You need a state teaching credential.”

I couldn’t believe that was the end of it. Looking for some unofficial advice, I asked, “Isn’t there another way we could do it?”

“Well, you could start a school,” he replied. Start a school? Unbelieveable.

“And could my children be part of that school?”

“Sure. You could teach them and as many kids as you want.”

Dumbfounded, all I could say was, “Thanks for your help!” I hung up the phone. Standing there, looking out the window, my mind exploded. Start a school! Why not? I had a degree in business, experience as a school business manager, and I was a trained Waldorf teacher. Bonnie was a skilled administrator and loved working with children. So we started Oak Meadow School and began teaching our children and about 40 others.

Thirty-eight years later, Oak Meadow is still going strong. Since then, we’ve become an international provider of independent, creative homeschooling curriculum materials and an accredited distance learning school for homeschooled children in grades K-12 around the world.

HOMESCHOOLING AS BIG BUSINESS

Although the recent growth in the homeschooling movement has benefited homeschoolers by providing more support, it has also introduced new players in the homeschooling field—large corporations, political lobbyists, investors, and power brokers. As the recognized Next Big Market, with billion-dollar annual purchases and rapid growth, homeschooling has entered a new phase in its evolution. Now, homeschooling is not just about a shared love of children and a desire to help them learn, it is also about money. Big Money.

Of course, many for-profit companies, including Oak Meadow, have provided a variety of curriculum materials and educational programs for homeschooling families for decades, so the entry of more for-profit corporations into the homeschooling marketplace didn’t suddenly change the nature of homeschooling. What has changed is the sheer size and the business practices of the companies themselves.

Two examples of these new corporate players are Connections Academy (owned by Connections Education) and K12 Inc. Both of these are for-profit corporations, and both gain most of their income from agreements with public schools that allow them to receive public funds for online public school enrollment and thus, like all public schools, provide enrollment free to students. With 40,000 students enrolled in 21 states and annual revenues of $190 million, Connections Education was recently acquired for $400 million by Pearson, an international media company with businesses in education, strategic business information, international television production, and consumer publishing.

As large as Connections Education may be, it is a far second to K12 Inc., a for-profit education company founded in 1999. Like Connections Education, K12 sells online schooling programs to local and state governments for use in public or charter schools, and these schools then provide the K12 programs to homeschoolers as alternatives to traditional public education. Through its network of 54 schools in 33 states (including such “homeschooling schools” as Laurel Springs and Keystone), K12 enrolls about 110,000 students in its programs and has grown in the last six years from $141 million in annual revenue to $848 million [2013 K12 Annual Report]. As with Connections Education, the most interesting part of K12’s growth is that the vast majority of its revenue comes from taxpayers.

According to sourcewatch.org, $730.8 million out of the $848.2 million K12 earned from its operations in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2013 came from U.S. taxpayers. How is this possible? Through extensive lobbying. K12 has used lobbyists and political contributions to change state laws to enable the company to receive money directly from state and local governments for their online programs. According to PRWatch.org, K12 Inc. hired 153 lobbyists in 28 states from 2003 through 2012.

The money that K12 and Connections Education are paid is the same amount that public schools receive for each student, even though their online programs have no brick-and-mortar classrooms and therefore many fewer expenses. As U.S. taxpayers, we are all providing the money for the growth of these companies, whether we’re using their services or not. Homeschooled students flock to these companies because enrollment is free. However, as sourcewatch.org points out, “the services are far from free as they divert taxpayer dollars from the public school system to a private for-profit firm.”

Clearly, K12 and Connections Education are no mom-and-pop businesses created to provide educational resources to homeschoolers. This is Big Business, designed from the beginning to make a few people very, very wealthy. With the advent of these and other large, aggressive corporations, homeschooling is no longer growing by parents talking to their friends and neighbors. The growth of homeschooling is now being driven by large corporations intent upon maximizing profits for their shareholders and doing whatever is necessary to make that happen.

FOR THE LOVE OF THE CHILDREN

I’ve been an entrepreneur for most of my life, and I have nothing against money and corporations. We’ve all benefited from the vision and genius of entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, and Arianna Huffington. There’s nothing innately wrong with investors looking for opportunities in a new market; their profits enable them to grow and more effectively meet the needs of their customers.

The corporate invasion of homeschooling, however, is different. Homeschooling is education, the end users are children, and children are our future. Letting Big Business into that realm jeopardizes our children and our future so that a few can become wealthy. We’ve monitored the educational results of large for-profit corporations and have seen the damage caused to parents and children who have enrolled in these “free” corporate programs through public schools (for more, see Stephanie Saul’s “Profits and Questions at Online Charter Schools,” New York Times, December 12, 2011; and Wesley Blixt’s “Say ‘no’ to K12,” The Recorder, June 17, 2013).

In the early days of homeschooling, those of us who were involved weren't interested in changing the educational establishment. We believed that the existing educational system was so broken that it couldn’t be fixed, so we weren’t even going to try. We simply believed that homeschooling would help make the world a better place—that the most powerful way to change the world was by providing opportunities for children to express their innate intelligence, sensitivity, and creativity. Homeschooling has grown as quickly as it has for one reason: it’s motivated by love for our children and the beauty and potential we see within them.

These same ideals remain at the heart of Oak Meadow today. As we’ve grown over the years, we’ve tried our best to stay close to that vision. As we were developing Oak Meadow, we organized it as a for-profit corporation because that enabled us to be more nimble, flexible, and responsive to the changing demands of the homeschooling marketplace. At that time, we believed that schools and other educational companies could be organized as for-profit businesses without sacrificing the quality of education. To some extent, I even believed then that non-profit schools were a relic of the past and that more innovative educational approaches could be found in for-profit corporations than in non-profit organizations.

BECOMING A NON-PROFIT

There are certainly some innovative ideas coming out of for-profit organizations, and there are clear examples of non-profit schools that have become old, stodgy, and unresponsive to the needs of their students. In the past few years, however, as I’ve watched the tactics of for-profit educational corporations in the homeschooling arena and witnessed their efforts to constantly maximize profits at the expense of educational quality (even when those profits are already substantial), I now understand why educational institutions have traditionally applied for and been granted protection as non-profit organizations.

I’ve finally realized that education and for-profit organizations don’t mix. Perhaps the thrill of enormous profits inherent in the for-profit world is simply incompatible with the educational arena in which compassion, integrity, and self-sacrifice are valued so highly. If we want to teach our children to become strong, intelligent, compassionate adults—and thoughtful members of the global community—that can be best accomplished through a business structure that sets an example of disciplined, responsible, ethical behavior.

Over the years, we’ve had many offers to sell Oak Meadow, but on each occasion it was clear that the motivation of the buyers was for profit, not for children. Many other homeschool organizations have started, grown, and been sold to large for-profit corporations since we began, and the number of heavily-capitalized for-profit educational corporations seems to be increasing daily.

In this environment, we feel that allowing Oak Meadow to continue as a for-profit corporation jeopardizes our mission and our commitment to thousands of homeschooling parents and children around the world. For this reason, and to do our best to ensure that Oak Meadow’s compassionate, holistic, experiential form of education will survive for decades to come, we feel it’s time for us to swim upstream against the current, the way all reputable schools have over the ages. We have decided that Oak Meadow will cease being a for-profit corporation and will become a non-profit educational organization, irrevocably dedicated to providing quality education for the benefit of children worldwide.

In doing this, we realize that we’re giving up the potential to reap huge salaries, profits, and bonuses, but what we gain is much more important: the long-term stability and mission-focused dedication that enables Oak Meadow to continue offering the same progressive, high-quality curriculum and services that we have offered for almost 40 years. In the end, the children and future generations will be the big winners. For all of us at Oak Meadow—and for millions of present and future homeschoolers—that’s what is most important.

Lawrence Williams
Lawrence Williams
Lawrence Williams EdD is a pioneer and innovator in the homeschooling movement whose early work in the field helped homeschooling gain widespread acceptance and legal status. He has over 40 years of educational experience and is the author of numerous articles, books, and curriculum materials published by Oak Meadow.

 

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Ridge and Valley Charter School Teacher/Guide Position

Ridge and Valley Charter School (www.ridgeandvalley.org), a K-8 public school in northwest New Jersey, seeks experienced teachers/guides with strong team building and leadership skills to work as part of an energetic and collaborative team mentoring students in an experiential, multi-age setting.  Our mission is to connect children to the natural world through an innovative outdoor experiential, project based curriculum, with an integrated ecological and sustainable living focus.  All teachers/guides and students spend significant time outdoors.  NJ certification preferred.

Please send resume and cover letter to: Ridge and Valley Charter School 1234 Rt. 94, Blairstown, N.J. 07825  Phone: 908-362-1114  Fax: 908-362-6680  or email: office@ridgeandvalley.org

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An Interview with Rick Posner

The following interview is shared with you by both Rick Posner and Isaac Graves. To learn about this interview series and reproduction, citation, and copyright information, please click hereTo find out more about Rick Posner and his work, click here.

Rick Posner

Rick PosnerIsaac Graves:  What does community mean to you? 

Rick Posner: Oh, wow. You know, I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately. As a matter a fact, the talk I gave in Florida, at this conference—this symposium, was really about self-directed communities and what a difference it made in my life. And I think you certainly talk about the Yiddish term: mishpoka, which means family and it means more than family—it means tribe, it means sense of belonging to something greater than yourself. Gosh, community is such a missing link in this culture of ours, in this country. There are so few people who have had any real experience with community. I have to talk about it personally because, I think, for me it’s been a search for family and belonging that I’ve been engaged in my whole life. And so when I came to the open school, it gave me all kinds of new views of community. But I think, to me personally, it means belonging to a family—it means what Studs Terkel said about schools as communities. And he said: school communities—why can’t schools be places where people help each other become their fullest selves? And I thought—when I heard that, it was right before Terkel died, it was a radio interview on PBS or NPR, and it was just so meaningful for me to hear that… powerful, really. This idea that communities—real communities, not artificial communities like, I hate to say it, but most conventional schools create these artificial communities with school spirit and what they really do is divide their communities into sub-communities, and not in a healthy way—but real communities: putting people together in a democratic way to help each other become our best and fullest selves, I really believe that. And I didn’t have much experience with that coming from teaching in conventional school settings for so many years. So when I came to the Open school, it was really sort of a shock to me at first. Like most people who didn’t have much experience with real community, I was a little skeptical and a little cynical about it at first. It took me some time to realize that I was being accepted as a valued member of a community—and it was a wonderful feeling when I finally came to the realization that I belonged to something. It was a great feeling for me. It was very liberating kind of thing. So, I think that’s what community means to me.

IG: How does community play out in your life?

RP: I sort of addressed that second question already, but I think community plays out in my life as a way of synthesizing things—making sense of my world and my own identity. By that I mean that, community crosses lines for me, or has come to do that in my life. I think there was a time when I compartmentalized my life into: professional relationships, personal relationships, family, friends, you know what I mean? …separated stuff in my life. I think the way community has played out in my life is by helping me synthesize, bring together these different compartments into a whole. It’s been synergistic for me. And I think that’s what community should do. Not that there should not be some lines between your personal and professional lives, but there should be some transition points too. …so that you could make sense of your world. And I think that’s what a good community does, and that’s what it has done for me.

IG: What do you find most meaningful about community?

RP: You know I think it’s the feeling of having a group of people that believe in you, and believes in your value to the greater whole. That you are valued, needed, and you have something to believe in and you have some people who believe in you. I think that’s the real value of a sustainable feeling of community. And that’s the other point, is that this isn’t something that just goes away when you graduate school or when you get bar mitzvah-ed or you get married or you leave the family—this is a feeling that you have throughout your life of belonging to something. And that, that’s the real value of it. You have this sustainable mishpoka, family or tribe that you belong to and feel valued by.

IG: What's missing in community?

RP: Yeah, you know I think in this country you can isolate yourself and not even know you’re doing it, very quickly. Some of it is just logistics. I grew up in Milwaukie: the city of neighborhoods. In other words, you could walk down the street and see people and meet people and talk to people. People walk to your house. A park is a block away, you go to the park, you play baseball with families and friends. That was an usual experience, and it was a great place to grow up because of that. But once I left and came out to the wild west, like you did, and you’re in the wide, open spaces and you’re in these pockets of people, you can’t walk out on the street anymore you have to get in your car. I miss that sense of accessibility to community and community life. And as much as I am attached like to the open school community, and what it’s done for me, I still feel a literal distance sometimes. And you have to be more creative and more intentional about bringing the community together when you can’t just walk down the street. Yeah, and now that I’m retired from the school, you know, I really miss that everyday engagement and connection that I had as a teacher in a vibrant community. It’s been hard for me. I’ve struggled with that a little bit.

IG: What is an ideal community to you?

RP: Ideal community would be to find a balance between the different parts of your life, but have the foundation of that tribal community-feeling underneath everything. It’s hard to explain. I think it’s a sort of a cycle-emotional feeling that I have about community that I want that foundation of belonging without the pressures of having to be there all the time, and be engaged all the time—especially when you get older and you become sort of an elder of the community. That’s one thing I’ve been really dealing with is: how do I transition into this role as an elder? What does an elder do? And I think in an ideal community, an elder doesn’t just sit back and dispense wisdom from the rocking chair but sort of gets to pick and choose how they want to be involved in the community. But I think that the ideal community, for me, is something that you never really reach. There’s no—you can’t reach this top of the pyramid, like Maslow’s self actualized kind of thing, but it’s something that you strive for. I think the ideal is to have that foundation—to know it’s always there, to know you can always go back home somewhere, to re-engage, to rejuvenate, and to re-attach if you need it. It’s like having a healthy family—that’s the ideal: a healthy, supportive family that you can go back to. 

IG: What does a democratic education mean to you?

RPWell, you know, I think it really means—you know I keep going back to Freire and some of his work and breaking down those hierarchies that we are so addicted to, especially in education. This idea of control and being controlled and having to control somebody and looking at the opposite of—or the feeling of loss of control as some kind of Lord of the Flies situation where students run wild and it’s all chaos and anarchy. So, finding a balance with sharing control and being able to talk openly about giving up and letting go of some of that control with the stipulation that you’re going to have some adult guidance in your community. Now, you know, the open school in the old days made all of their decisions by consensus and you can imagine how crazy that was—but how wonderful it was too. How wonderful and engaging and—well somebody said real democracy is like pulling nose hairs, you know? And I think of that a lot because in the early days in the open school, god it was excruciating but it was also exhilarating. That was my ideal democratic educational setting, was when you would just argue the hell out of something and work it to the point where you would have to have buy in from everybody. That was my idea of real democratic education. Now, over time we all know that especially public schools, public institutions get pounded down, they become a little more conservative, they become a little more conforming over the years, and part of it—we had a big open school become larger, it was harder to do that in larger groups with governance meetings. It went more to a representative democracy in some ways and we’re back and forth. So for me, the purest model would be the consensus model. The compromised model would be one person-one vote. That’s really the way it came down in my days at the open school. These days I think it’s become more of a representative thing and I’m not so sure I like it but in the old days, I’m telling you it was pure democracy. That’s what I would like to see—smaller groups that would have consensual decisions. 

IG: How does education play out in your life? 

RPYou know if I had to diagram my life, and I think I have been doing that a little for the last 5 years, I’ve been in traditional psychoanalysis and nobody does that anymore. You know on the couch, Freudian psychoanalysis where the guys behind you and you’re on your own, very self-directed kind of process. And you know what it is—it’s a personal journey, it’s a journey, it’s a self discovery journey and what I keep coming back to is you do sort of diagram your life and you try to put the pieces of your life together and make meaning of it. And for me, education is always right at the center of it. Everything sort of revolves around the idea of being self-directed but being self-directed in a community of learners. Whether it be family, friends, or work—it all revolves around teaching and learning. I think it’s been a very important centerpiece in my life. So it hasn’t just played out, it has been the fulcrum of my life. But it’s taken me awhile to understand that and to realize that it’s sort of the driving force in all the different parts of my life and I have to credit a lot of people for that—you know, my parents. My dad was a real self-directed, curious, vibrant learner. My parents took a lot of chances with their lives, and did a lot of traveling. And then, I caught that bug. I had the guts to make some good decisions when I was young about what I wanted to do with my life and it all gravitated towards education. You know what else I have to give a great deal of credit to is the influence of African American culture on my life. I’ve been doing a lot of writing and thinking about that lately. It’s been a great influence on me as far as education goes, and it’s played out—it’s been a very important part of my life. The spirit, the soul, the joy, the sorrow, too, of African American culture and history has been very important for me. That’s sort of been in the center of this education part of my life because, you know, I was the one who took kids down to the Delta and did the Blues trips and took kids to New Orleans for the Jazz Heritage Festival and did all the civil rights stuff. You know, taking white, middle class kids down to the Delta was like taking them to a different country. My mom would always say: “What the hell are you doing in Mississippi? You hanging out with the rednecks in Mississippi now?” I said: “No there’s more to it Mom, there’s to it than that.” But, education—it’s all wrapped up in the middle of my life. Thank god for it.

IG: What do you find most meaningful about education?

RP: Again, I find most meaningful the idea of synthesizing things in your life. I find that education is a vehicle and a center point for making sense of your life. And forming your identity as a learner who has courage, and foresight, and the guts to make decisions on your own, and the joy of learning new things—it brings everything together in your life. That’s what education does. And that’s what it should do. It should be a way of making sense of your life. …and I think that sense of personal power that you get from belonging to a community of learners and being a life long learner yourself—it’s a sense of power, not in an egotistic way but in a human way. I think it makes you more human.

IG: What's missing in education?

RP: Well, you know I think you know and I know what’s missing and really it’s—I hate to be abstract about it but it’s heart and soul. That’s what’s missing. The idea of a well-rounded education—which I find traditional, if you go back to the Greeks and you know if you talk about the word traditionally and go back historically—that’s the traditional education, educare, right? The Latin root of the word does not mean to fill up; it means to draw out from. That’s what educare means—that’s the traditional sense of the word. We have lost that sense of what it means to be educated. Now, we’re finding out what we’re missing because our students don’t have 21st century skills. They keep talking about 21st century skills now… none of those skills are on the test—critical thinking, creativity, collaboration—none of these skills are on the test and what we’re doing is we’re teaching the test now. I think we’re playing into the hands, I don’t want to get too political here, we’re playing into the hands of the private sector. I really believe they’re licking their chops at this giant market out there for vouchers and privatizing education. They still haven’t changed the law, No Child Left Behind, with all schools being 100% efficient by 2014. I’m sure they want to—I mean we all want to, I’m not sure the private sector wants us to change that. I think it’s a way to discredit public education, but I don’t want to get too conspiratorial about it. The truth is we’ve taken the wrong turn. We need to head back to what the traditional really was—you know, I don’t call the schools outside of the Open School traditional schools; I call them conventional schools. I think the Open School, and places like that, and Justo’s school in Puerto Rico, are more traditional. The old one room schoolhouse where you pay attention to kids, there’s cross-age learning—that’s traditional. I would say we’re the ones who are traditional. They’re the ones who are conventional. I think that the shit’s hitting the fan right now. It really is and as I said, the time is right for looking at some of these things. But we’ve definitely gone the wrong way.

IG:What is an ideal education to you?

RP: An ideal education for me would be an education of the heart, soul, mind, and spirit. I don’t know if you do yoga or not or if you’re a yoga-ite, I am. I go twice a week to yoga. I practice yoga and I’ve done it for about ten years now. And what yoga has taught me is what education really is. It’s an education of mind, spirit, body, and heart. And an ideal education is just that. It’s a focus on social, personal, and intellectual issues in your life. It’s being able to understand how to form meaningful relationships and maintain relationships in your life. An ideal education, again, is a synthesis of the different parts of your life into themes that make sense to you as a person who lives in a democratic—supposedly democratic society. That’s what it is for me. It’s a sense-making engine. 

IG: What do you think people should know about the relationship between community and education?

RP: I think they need to know that it’s essential that—and you know I tried to stress this point at the self-directed learning symposium. Self-directed learning is not independent learning; it’s interdependent learning. One of the greatest self-directed skills, ironically, is knowing when to ask for help when you need it. I mean, a lot of people say: “Oh that’s giving in, that’s not very self-directed.” No, the idea is that community and learning need each other to thrive. You need a supportive community and you need a community where you can at least make some positive personal connections. Remember in the book I have that V-shaped model, you know it starts with the advisor and the advisee and then it goes out and up to the greater community and the greater world. That doesn’t work without a supportive community. They’re essential for each other. Even if your community is a relationship with one other person, it’s better than nothing. I will be very honest with you—a lot of kids have nothing these days. They have nothing. Did you see that thing in the paper a couple years ago? It said: “25% of Americans feel they have no one to confide in.” That means 1 out of 4 people you see on the street have no one they can talk to about anything. That is frightening. So, what I’m saying is that: the community part of this whole thing is essential. Even if it’s a small one-to-one community that it starts with—sometimes it ends there. It’s better than nothing and it’s chipping off some of that lower level of Maslow’s pyramid—whereas so many kids these days are just stuck at that lowest level of the pyramid. They don’t even have basic securities then, they have no one they can talk to. So, yeah, I mean they’re essential for each other, they’re reciprocal really.