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Expanding school choice takes commitment

by Steve White
| January 23, 2022 12:00 AM

It’s easy to take homeschooling for granted in 2022. Easy, that is, if you haven’t been watching the legislative action in Montana over the last 40 years. The opportunities homeschoolers have today are the result of thousands of families joining forces and speaking up, time and again, for the right to choose their child’s education. This National School Choice Week (Jan. 23-29), the uphill climb for homeschooling in Montana is a reminder that expanding choices for our children requires hard work and stick-to-it-tivity.

Just think back 40 years. Nearly 10,000 Montana students identified as homeschooled last school year, but in the early 1980s, school choices were few and far between. Parents like us who wanted to home educate their children faced big legal challenges. This didn’t change until 1983, when an extraordinary bill provided an ‘exemption’ from public school enrollment for students attending nonpublic or home schools. Parents from across our state filled the hearings to overflowing, showing support for the flexibility and opportunity afforded by school choice. The Legislature overwhelmingly supported the bill too.

Imagine how the recent pandemic — when the rate of Montana households homeschooling jumped from 8% to 18% in a six month span — would have hit families even harder if we hadn’t stood up for that choice then. Both then and now, when families’ freedom to choose the best educational fit for their children expands, it’s worth celebrating. But it also requires commitment for educational freedom to last. Community organizations and regular meet-ups can be invaluable ways for parents to stay invested in preserving and expanding learning opportunities. In fact, that’s why other parents and I originally formed the Montana Coalition of Home Educators in 1988.

As a case in point, just a few years after the Coalition formed, a bill was introduced that would adversely affect homeschoolers. In response, we worked together to draft a bill spelling out our God-given right to be responsible for the educational philosophy, curriculum, instruction, and testing of our children.

What took place in that 1991 session has not been forgotten by those who were there. Our bill (with 48 co-signers, both Democrats and Republicans), passed out of the Senate and into the House. Again, the room was filled with supporters from across the state. Through the hard work and commitment of those willing to speak up for choice, our bill passed in the House, was signed into law with zero changes, and is an important component of Montana homeschooling law today.

The battle for greater educational opportunity continues for Montana families. Encouragingly, in 2021, the door was opened for private and homeschool students to participate in public school extracurricular activities. This bill received support from both sides of the aisle. It represents a growing recognition that families need flexible learning arrangements, and hearkens to a future where hybrid learning opportunities will be more widespread.

These good developments, which recognize that families know their kids’ learning needs best, don’t come from thin air. They require steadfast commitment, like that of the more than 4,000 supporters of homeschooling who showed up in the 2007 session, making it the largest hearing turnout in our state’s history.

Challenges to parental rights in education remain. Parents, educators, and legislators must come together and continue the task of refining education law and policies. We must always appreciate and defend our freedom to be the primary educators for our children. At heart, that’s who the battle for school choice is fought for: our children, the next generation.

Steve White is a homeschool father and founding member of the Montana Coalition of Home Educators.