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School Vouchers vs. Business Partnerships

The Noah Webster Charter Schools Controversy

By David Ayers
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #7, 1994.

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Dr. David Ayers

Imagine a network of alternative schools designed to support homeschooling. Imagine thousands of new families flocking into homeschooling because we are now able to provide support services such as tutoring and testing, curriculum products, libraries, and computer technology—none of it costing parents a penny! Imagine homeschoolers connected to each other state-wide by multimedia computers, satellite video, and toll-free telephone numbers. Imagine a free PC-compatible 486 computer and laser printer, plus free texts—for each homeschooling family! Imagine giving each homeschooled child $5,500 per year in products and services—with only 20 percent going to administrative overhead.

It’s not just your imagination. It’s real. What’s more, it’s happening in a state that was once among the most hostile to homeschoolers—Michigan.

What is it? The Noah Webster Academy, a “charter school.”

Noah Webster is the brainchild of Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) attorney David Kallman, who fought for the rights of homeschoolers in the well-known DeJonge v. Michigan case. Now Kallman has helped create a high-tech marvel which has already brought in over 750 students—many new to homeschooling. And he has helped birth the “charter schools movement” in Michigan. These schools, like Noah Webster, want to provide services that enhance and support homeschooling. They widen the net to include families who would not otherwise have educated their children at home.

Furthermore, Noah Webster plans to support the teaching of creation, morals, and the Christian religion for those who want it—namely, the majority of their homeschooling families.

As of September four new schools like Noah Webster were scheduled to open. Another 35 or so were in the planning stages.

Sounds great? Well, maybe not. You see, there is a large fly in the ointment. Every dime to support these “charter” homeschools comes from the state, at taxpayer expense. Charter schools are funded solely by government vouchers.

Needless to say, the whole thing has stirred up a hornets’ nest in Michigan. We are not surprised to find the NEA pouring money into suits filed against Noah Webster, or the ACLU preparing to join the fray to oppose what they view as public funding of religious teaching.

Some major homeschooling leaders also oppose Noah Webster. Inge Cannon, of the National Center for Home Education, told PHS that NCHE is against using tax money for homeschooling. HSLDA informed us that they also strongly, and officially, disagree with the Noah Webster concept. Well-known author and educator Sam Blumenfeld agrees: “The all-powerful state will not pay homeschoolers to be free. They will pay them to become slaves.” Strong words!

Eugene Newman, the President of the Christian Home Educators of Michigan (CHEM), has been particularly vocal in his opposition to Noah Webster—in spite of his long-standing friendship with Noah Webster’s founder, David Kallman. Newman recently issued a detailed position paper warning of moral problems and practical dangers associated with any private or home school accepting tax money —especially if they are fully state-funded. Its central points were reprinted in the Blumenfeld Education Letter.

Newman thinks local homeschool groups should refuse to give goods and services to state-funded homeschoolers. He feels it is unfair to have some parents pay for services (such as field trips) out of their own pockets, while others buy them with state dollars. And Newman is squeamish about homeschool support groups accepting state voucher dollars for their products and services, in light of the government strings that follow any receipt of tax dollars.

Needless to say, the situation within the Michigan homeschooling community has become tense. The arguments on both sides are essentially the same associated with any talk of government vouchers for private education. Is this simply financial help to allow people of any income and education to have decent education free from government tentacles? Or does it extend the reach of state control, and blur the distinction between the private realms of family and church, and the public domain of the state?

Newman admits that what Noah Webster plans to actually deliver is exciting and valuable. Meanwhile, Kallman admits that state money could lead to unacceptable restrictions in the future. He says that when and if this happens, homeschoolers involved in charter schools will have to leave the public coffers and fend for themselves.

So why does all this educational and technical wizardry have to be done with state money? Why not create similar charter schools and co-op schools with volunteers, a small professional staff, and significant grant money supplied by corporations? Why not tap private capital and initiative to support private, innovative, alternative education?

This brings us right back to the subject of business partnerships with homeschools. PHS asked both David Kallman and Eugene Newman this question: “Why not avoid all the potential problems of accepting state money by asking private corporations to supply much of the needed capital, and even technical support, to make projects like Noah Webster happen?”

Eugene Newman, who is also a businessman and the vice president of a pharmaceutical company, was enthusiastic about the idea. He feels that, properly done, this could provide all the advantages of Noah Webster without the government strings. It also, he says, represents a good investment for corporations, who depend on a moral and educated work force for their survival. More from Newman:

    I think that having corporations back the kind of services that Noah Webster is trying to provide would be a very creative approach. This would be a helpful and constructive thing because business has a vested interest in a literate and competent workforce. To go to businesses—and religious institutions, too—and appeal to them for support is something that could work.

    First of all, it remains private. Second, the accountability of an effort by, say, a group of home educators going to a large corporation would be great. Large corporations are much more responsive—this is their money. It is also not a political process in the same sense as federal or state governments. Corporate politics are a more benign form of politics than what we see in state or federal governments.

    When you go to business the relationship you have with them is contractual—they can’t change the conditions later. And it is a much more professional relationship. They expect accountability and results. The success you can expect from this kind of relationship is much greater than one with the State.

    But most importantly, it’s not at the expense of anyone else! It’s not creating a situation that is going to be coercive for people who are not direct beneficiaries. This is voluntary for both parties. But the State must force people to give. Most people would not voluntarily give money to the State. They would rather contribute to private entities where there is more accountability and efficiency.

David Kallman agreed that, all things considered, private capital in sufficient quantities would be preferable to government dollars. He also pointed out that he had tried this route with little success:

    Big corporations won’t give you the time of day. If you can find someone who is going to be successful in saying to some corporation “Please give us 20 million dollars a year so we can have 3,000 students in a private school—we’re going to have computer networks and all that”—more power to you. It’s not going to work. And that’s what we’re talking about here, in terms of having companies supporting the charter schools.

    We tried to get money from corporations for this early on. You have to be the son of a CEO, or have an “in” with somebody, or they’re not going to give you the time of day. Even now, they won’t help us with the computer side of what we’re doing. You’d think they’d be busting down our doors—after all, we have over 700 families! But they see all the risks.

    Right now, corporations aren’t convinced that money spent on public education is wasted. So what we’re doing now is to try to get them to shift some of that money they’ve dedicated to public schools to the [public] charter schools. We’re saying, “Here is something new that might really have an impact—why don’t you try it out?” But corporations don’t want to spend money on something until it’s been tried and has worked. And they’re concerned about legal challenges—they don’t want to invest until all that is past.

Kallman’s experience brings a healthy dose of realism to the discussion about how to get corporations to back efforts by homeschoolers. We are not going to simply stick out our hands and have businesses fill them with cash!

Of course, the money Noah Webster has obtained from the state hasn’t come too easily, either. Nor, in the midst of numerous lawsuits, and the possible of future restrictions, is Noah Webster’s future very certain.

The fact that Kallman was trying to provide a total replacement for public schools undoubtedly made it tougher for him to raise funds. Such a radical idea is a political hot potato that could frighten away conservative corporate sponsors. Also, the hefty per-pupil price tag might have been a corporate stumbling block. More modest projects, such as a well-equipped educational resource library, might well do better.

Kallman did point out that he was handicapped in approaching corporations, because, unlike public schools with their hands out for funds, he did not have the support and help of any national organization. We can learn from his experience that we need such an organization to supply materials, information, referrals, and connections.

As a start, we are setting aside part of PHS’s new area on America Online (keyword: PHS) for our Business-Homeschool Partnership Project. Businesses that wish to partner with homeschool groups, and homeschool groups that wish to partner with businesses, are both encouraged to post their contact information in our area.

We also encourage any reader with experience or ideas about how to set up and maintain good partnership projects to post that information. We will be happy to allow this use of our online area as a clearinghouse and catalyst for groups to pull together their own projects. And of course, we hope to be able to report on some of your success stories in PHS!

Let’s think about building bridges to local and national businesses. Let’s pool our experience. Once businesses have tested and tried us, and seen the relative advantages of grants to homeschool groups versus grants to public schools, we are sure many of them will realize that working with homeschoolers is a “win-win” proposition!

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