Sunday, June 19, 2005

Cottage schools: Where the free market meets education

By Natalie West Criss
Assistant Editor
Metro Business Chronicle
Copyright June 2005

In a state where public education has become synonymous with “dysfunctional bureaucracy” in many circles (and “sacred cow” in many others), parents surveying the possibilities outside the public institutions generally opt for private schools while an increasing number of parents, like me, have chosen to educate their children at home. However, private schools can be prohibitively expensive and even if a family can swing the time management and income challenges of homeschooling, frankly, it isn’t for everyone. Well, leave it to the free market to find newer and better solutions.

An option that is becoming increasingly popular across the country and in Mississippi is the “cottage school,” an alternative method of education that blends the best of the classroom and homeschool environments. In a cottage school, one or more teachers instruct children outside the home for a limited time (such as ten hours a week broken up over two or three days) while the rest of the week is spent completing assignments or receiving additional instruction from parents at home.

So what does this have to do with business?

Unlike cooperative schools, or co-ops, which are largely dependent upon volunteers and often short-lived, cottage schools are private, home-based businesses owned by degreed and non-degreed facilitators (usually women) with the goal of helping children reach their greatest potential through individualized instruction. Unlike private schools, they cost far less offering an equally rigorous curricula (if that is appropriate). Unlike in homeschooling, the parent’s guidance is supported and supplemented. Unlike in local school districts, parents opting for cottage schools become direct partners and participants in their children’s education with direct access and input to administration. In other words, private money is invested and the results are generally better and more efficient than the government-sponsored equivalent.

While not considered philosophically “pure” homeschooling, cottage schooling is indeed legal in Mississippi and falls under the same few laws that apply to home schools (and other non-public schools). This means there are no mandatory curricula, no required testing, no record keeping and no compliance with No Child Left Behind. Therefore, there is no bureaucracy, no red tape, and no flaming hoops through which to jump.

This distinction is important to note because while their privately funded, relatively regulation-free, highly individualized nature makes cottage (and home) schools uniquely useful and successful, this causes concern for many bureaucrats whose livelihoods depends on government control of education (aka “educrats”).

Slovak School, a cottage school in Pearl operated by Karen Slovak, was recently featured in a news article in which two education authorities were critical of cottage schooling. David Easley of Mississippi Home Educators Association, a statewide Christian homeschooling organization, objected on ideological grounds. However, Peggy Peterson, Director of Compulsory Attendance stated her objection based on lack of government oversight.

In the face of legal obstacles, at least two cottage schools in the Metro area have been the targets of harassment. Neither operator wished for her school or identity to be published. One cottage school was nearly shut down by an over-zealous elected official but managed to survive. The other was subjected to repeated requests for unnecessary information from the Department of Education and the Department of Human Services. She is no longer teaching. Both women have provided a sound educational environment in which students thrived.

Why did this happen? The prevailing theory is simple. Public education in states like Mississippi is operating in the red. Test scores and attendance rolls provide the slide rule with which federal and state funding is determined. As more families opt for alternative forms of education (from private to cottage to home schools), districts receive less funding. Understandably, we alternative schoolers are beginning to look like gold, if only certain public schooling proponents could figure out a way to mine us.

Increased and expanded regulation via “compromise” would accomplish just that by chipping away at educational freedom and limiting educational choices. By promising free (read “paid for with taxes”) computers and curricula to home schools, many states have outlawed cottage schools and replaced them with home-based cyber charters that expand public school into the family den. In exchange, students are enrolled with the local school district as a public school student. That student is then required to perform on tests mandated by the state and by NCLB. With alternative schoolers now registered and performing on tests, the school system wins by a mile.

Many proponents of public education fail to see that the end—students who excel at taking tests but possess no love of knowledge—does not justify the means—propping up an antiquated system and postponing its inevitable demise. Bright students who do not fall in the median range of test scores are deemed less valuable and cast aside as arrogant troublemakers (typical for assertive “gifted” students who demand better quality instruction than the current “teaching to the test”) or learning disabled failures because they process information differently. Neither is adequately served in the current public school environment.

The niche that fills this gap is privately run cottage schools. Families in Mississippi have far more to lose than the school system has to gain if these businesswomen are forced out of existence by bureaucracy.

No comments: