As states and localities battle over issues from how or even whether to re-open schools, all the way to defining the circumstances under which small children will be required to wear masks, a devolution of decision-making is certainly welcome. Hybrid homeschools can provide many more families with a way to both get past virus-related issues and rebuild local cultures.

Schools were understandably incredibly disrupted in March as states scrambled in various ways to close them down in efforts to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus. Unfortunately (although in some ways, again, understandably), many are still struggling to figure out how to re-open in just a few weeks. Schools are considering whether to re-open full time, to go back to fully online instruction, to open a few days per week, or some combination of these.

Some school systems are giving parents options regarding which format they would like to use for the upcoming school year. This is a welcome nod to individual families’ needs. A schooling model has existed in the U.S. for several years, however, which has already been used to better serve a variety of families’ needs and desires, and which has seen much less disruption compared to conventional five-day schools: “hybrid homeschools.”

In their most common form, hybrid homeschools enroll students who go to a school building, with classmates, teachers, desks, etc., 2-3 days per week, and are homeschooled the rest of the week. In many cases, teachers provide instruction on school days, and then upload lesson plans for the home days. Students can work at their own pace on home days, parents work through lessons with them, either teaching them or checking over work, and then grades are ultimately assigned by teachers, not parents. While this format is common, there is wide variation in terms of how much seat time these schools require, how it is arranged, how much the school community sees itself as a “school” vs. a more formalized community of homeschoolers, etc. What many of them have in common is that they felt much less disruption due to the Coronavirus this spring and are facing fewer difficulties in re-opening this fall.

Why are many parents exploring the hybrid homeschool option? The (scant) research literature to date has uncovered a variety of reasons. Curriculum is one, as is the case at most private schools. Some homeschool parents move their students into these schools once they reach the middle or high school years, as the curriculum becomes more specialized and complicated. Religion is another related reason, although not all hybrid homeschools are religious in nature.

The fact that students are not spending nearly as many hours on formal school, yet still being educated, is another common reason. Spending around 30 hours per week in a conventional school building, and following that many nights with homework has become a burden that fewer families are willing to accept; many hybrid homeschool parents mention the quantity of time they can reclaim to spend with their children is a major reason for their decision to use this option. How exactly families use this flexibility in their weekly schedules, though, varies quite a bit.

One very significant reason families choose this model is cost: Because the schools typically employ mostly part-time teachers and do not carry their own facilities’ costs, tuition is much lower than most private schools: often in $3,000-$6,000 range annually rather than the $10,000-$12,000 or higher tuition associated with 5-day per week private schools. The price by itself likely does not drive large numbers of families to seek out hybrid homeschools (especially as there is also the hidden cost of foregone earnings from a parent who must be at home several days per week to work with their children). The average current hybrid homeschool family is more than solidly middle class. But the lower price point probably does put this option in a realistic financial range for a number of families.

Parents often say these schools combine the best aspects of homeschooling and private schooling. They provide family time, flexibility, and individualized instruction, while also giving parents external accountability, expertise in content and pedagogy, and, often, accredited diplomas and access to state college scholarship programs. (It should also be said that they face a unique combination of hurdles as well—they face governance, personnel, fundraising, and other challenges, just as all private schools do, all while trying to serve the independence of homeschool families). Hybrid homeschools may not be a panacea for providing middle-class families with school choice, though there is certainly room for more of them. Something like a $5,000 education savings account (ESA) would get within range of providing full tuition at many of these schools. But these schools do not have to be a panacea. There is no “best practice” that is the optimal solution for every family. There is room for many answers to the question of how to best serve all students. In the case of many hybrid homeschools, small, local communities are pulling together to create solutions that serve their own children well.

Little Platoons vs. Big Battalions

The phenomenon of hybrid homeschools has several philosophical and practical roots. Milton Gaither mentions hybrid homeschools as a recent branch in the fuller course of homeschooling in America.[1] At a higher societal level, hybrid homeschools are a part of the move in American society back toward a desire for hyperlocal institutions. Americans have grown increasingly fond of local solutions—craft beers, of farm-to-table restaurants/shops, and just-in-time, individualized experiences in a variety of other areas. As Edmund Burke originally put it: “To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.”[2] In its original context, Burke coined the term in the process of describing the social strata that existed and were in conflict during the French Revolution (which he criticized). In modern use, the phrase “little platoons” has come to mean something more like small, voluntary associations focused on local community-building and fellowship. This modern view of the phrase, especially as developed by Russell Kirk, in his 1977 speech at Hillsdale College, [3] is the view that informs this piece and serves as a useful descriptor of the groups of families and educators who populate hybrid homeschools. To the extent that they are small, high-identity institutions and have relatively well-defined missions for themselves, hybrid homeschools do form Kirk-style “little platoons.” Edmund Burke’s concept of the “little platoons” that form society may be a bit overinterpreted, but Kirk’s reinterpretation of the concept fits well.

In his 1977 speech, Kirk redefines the elemental “little platoon”—the “germ of public affections”—not as social class, as Burke had, but as the family.[4] He then extends that definition to include larger local communities and generations before and after the present. He criticizes the then-current trend of centralizing institutions, especially in education, which sought to take more and more control of basic tasks from families and reassign them to larger and more centralized institutions. Kirk is skeptical, for example, of “educationists” who sought policy goals like state infant care, universal early childhood day care, 9-5 schooling with after-hours services beyond that, social and health services run through schools, and more.[5] While many likely see this list and think, “That sounds like a good start,” Kirk was concerned that such centralization of responsibilities, combined with a centralization of decisions about the purposes of schooling, would be extremely detrimental to families, and therefore to society as a whole. It would mean taking daily and long-term decisions out of the hands of those with most connection to and knowledge of the children involved. The social bonds that would result from every family sending every child to 40+ hours of centralized schooling each week would eventually look very different and be a sorry imitation of the social bonds that are supposed to come from cohesive families and smaller, more local communities. One hybrid homeschool’s website describes the phenomenon well in its “student life” section: “Ideal community springs from good families and friends partaking in good activities together.”[6]

Kirk understood his opponents, and the centralizing tendency in education he criticized in 1977 has mostly continued. And while a centralizing impulse continues to direct education policy at the local, state, and national levels in many ways, parents have started looking for smaller answers. It was in the 1980s that homeschooling (and an array of published materials and groups and services to support it) began to grow more substantially. The first charter schools were approved in the early 1990s (this is also when the first modern hybrid homeschools began to appear). Since then, school choice has become more normalized, and an array of smaller policy options like vouchers, tuition tax credits, education savings accounts (ESAs), and others have appeared. School and class sizes ballooned in many areas (as have school administrative staffs), curricula have narrowed in response to a ham-fisted view of standardized testing, and states and districts around the U.S. have binged on those standardized tests and test prep.[7] At the risk of understatement, this approach has not resulted in great improvements in performance or services. American schools have seen increased spending over the past 40 years, but flat academic results.[8]

But the economic results of flat performance are not the reason for the existence and growth of hybrid homeschools. The growing desire for smaller and more personalized tastes Americans have developed over the last 20 or so years, enabled (or perhaps driven) in part by improvements in technology, has surely been a major factor. Families are being “pushed” out of increasingly large public schools, in a sense, because they feel less welcome there and less able to control or even monitor their children’s education. To the extent they recognize that students are individually very different, with very different needs and interest, they tend to simply increase in size and complexity to address those differences. The machinery only gets bigger. Schools in many places have ceased performing their function as mediating institutions, tempered by local preferences and serving as buffers between families and large formal agencies, and simply become larger and larger and more impersonal “institutions.” Education policy is slowly changing here and there, though. Many reformers, having been through a Moneyball-style technocratic phase in the 2000s-2010s [9] and looking for more and more precise school improvement metrics, have been embracing more holistic measures of school and student success and questioning what it is exactly Americans want from their schools.[10] But families are also being “pulled” back into more local associations, whether neighborhood-focused groups, or “Benedict Option”-style, [11] loosely intentional communities of one form or another. With hybrid homeschools, families have begun to look for and to create new smaller, more local options. This smaller scale approach to schooling is at the heart of hybrid homeschooling. Groups taking on the tasks of both raising their children in nontraditional environments, while also starting up what are essentially small nonprofit entities, is likely only done either out of a great sense of desperation or a great sense of purpose. Hybrid homeschool families evince both and are simply taking on the job on their own. Though in many places, localities will defend the idea of “local control” of schools, the reality is that school sizes have been growing and school districts have been consolidating (declining in number by about 84 percent from 1949-50 to 2010-11), a combination that renders public schooling less and less responsive to individual families.[12] And so: flat test scores. More spending. Less interest in those test scores among parents. Larger schools. Less direct responsiveness to parents. A desire among parents for more individual responsiveness. This combination is not a recipe for continuing the trajectory of the status quo, especially at a time when general respect for large institutions, especially public schools, is at near-historic lows.[13] As Kirk says later in this Hillsdale speech, “we begin to look to the little platoon. The big battalions are failing us.”[14]

Evolutions in Society, Technology, and Policy

As society is changing—looking for quicker, more bespoke, individualized solutions to everything—technology is changing as well, enabling more creative forms of schooling and making it more accessible. For these reasons, modern society is more amenable to Hess’s “greenfield schooling” approach than it has been for some time. American society is more willing to see people working from home, making new schooling models logistically plausible. As technology improves and policy evolves to keep up, more individualized models of school choice are becoming possible. Schooling models that were somewhat difficult to manage not long ago—homeschooling, online schooling, etc.—have become easier with an increase in the amount of curricular materials available, and hybrid homeschools often leverage these materials. State and local policymakers also, slowly, try to keep up, as more people seek more unique ways to educate their children. Policies such as education savings accounts, which allow families to use state funds for parts of their educational needs have passed in some states. Alternative forms of schooling are becoming more recognized in formal rules, policies, and laws, even if policy regulation remains blunt. These have all enabled more people to participate in homeschooling, online schooling, and a la carte educational services from a variety of providers. So, while many of America’s mediating institutions are breaking down, rigid definitions of the “grammar of schooling” are as well. Hybrid homeschools are an excellent example of this educational and institutional breakdown and reassembly, in terms of how they are run, why families choose them, and how policymakers are being forced to find new ways to deal with them.

As Yuval Levin notes in The Fractured Republic, “In our cultural, economic, political, and social life, this has been a trajectory of increasing individualism, diversity, dynamism, and liberalization. And it has come at the cost of dwindling solidarity, cohesion, stability, authority, and social order.”[15] Dr. Levin describes an uncomfortable new status quo, which Americans are attempting to navigate and re-balance in a variety of ways. He is right that increased diversity, dynamism, and liberalization, while they may be good, have societal costs. Newly-founded hybrid homeschools actually seem to have a good amount of solidarity, cohesion, etc., and they consciously try to improve on these measures, in ways that much larger institutions probably can’t because of their size, complexity, and regulations. Hybrid homeschools attempt to accomplish all of this on a much smaller scale and controlled by much smaller sets of people. If Dr. Levin is correct, and this trajectory continues, American society will need more small mediating institutions with the specific purpose of bringing people together and building community in order maintain any kind of cohesion, stability, or order.[16] Alexis de Tocqueville famously noted the number of “voluntary associations” in the United States. He writes, “Wherever, at the head of some new undertaking, you see the Government in France, or a man of rank in England, in the United States you will be sure to find an association.” He goes on, “I have often admired the extreme skill with which the inhabitants of the United States succeed in proposing a common object to the exertions of a great many men, and in getting them voluntarily to pursue it.”[17] More of Tocqueville’s voluntary associations,” or “little circles,” like hybrid homeschools, are going to be necessary to support the social cohesion Dr. Levin and Kirk desire.[18] And importantly, while formal school choice policy at the state and local levels can help or hinder these entities, hybrid homeschoolers are in many ways simply ignoring the fights over school choice and building their own small-scale institutions. ESAs, tuition tax credits, vouchers, and other policy initiatives might be helpful to them in various ways. But these schools are arising through civil society even without formal political help, through the efforts of founders and supportive families.

Families and educators seek out (or create) these schools for a wide variety of reasons. Some do it for the sake of better preparation for college. Some seek out particular curricular models (project-based learning or classical education) because they like those approaches for their own sakes, but are less concerned about whatever “college and career readiness” they might provide. Some seek out these schools because they want a religious/cultural/communal environment more to their liking. In survey after survey, families say that they are interested in different kinds of learning environments than they can acquire at their local conventional schools, or in more time for family and other activities. What they are not concerned about, in survey after survey, across state after state, is raising test scores. Many of them are not much concerned about college acceptances either. And they are often working to solve their own current particular problems on their own. To quote Yuval Levin again:

A modernized ethic of subsidiarity would therefore not yield a radical revolution in American life but an incremental revival. And it would not involve a checklist of public programs and policy steps. It would begin, instead, with an instinct for decentralization in our public affairs, a tendency toward experimentation and bottom-up problem solving, a greater patience for variety in our approaches to social and economic problems and priorities, more room for ingenuity and tolerance for trial and error, and more freedom for communities to live out their moral ideals, and so to each define freedom a little differently. It would involve greater attentiveness to the near at hand, and so a lesser emphasis on national battles—lowering the stakes, and therefore the temperature, of our national politics.[19]

Hybrid homeschooling founders and families are working on a kind of “incremental revival” of schooling in America. They have more interest in finding an environment that is a fit for their family and will serve their particular children well. They hope to either find or to create the right little platoons for their families. Many, probably even most hybrid homeschool parents do in fact have hopes that are similar to those of conventional school parents—they also hope their children will have meaningful careers, and often that those careers will result from attendance at a good college. But to assume that these schools exist primarily to improve academic achievement, that they are pushing kids to attend the most exclusive colleges, or to gain trendy vocational skills for economic reasons, and that they focus on this, is to make a category error. Most hybrid homeschools are playing a different game.

Why might hybrid homeschools be considered “little platoons” more than any number of conventional private schools would be? Or a homeschool co-op or support group? A conventional private school, even if it started out as a very small project, is still ultimately a conventional school. Parents may spend a large amount of time on homework at these schools (and likely do). They may be high-identity institutions with significant cultural cohesion. But the parents are not actively teaching their own children multiple days per week at home, with all of the particular work, struggles, and experiences that implies. Families in a homeschool co-op or who are active in a homeschool support group may have meaningful social interaction with other families. They may use a published curriculum and follow a pace developed in the main by someone else. The students may take a more formal class at times, whether online or in person. But these families are not submitting as completely to some outside entity’s curricular choices and live school culture, if they don’t want to (they can always adjust some things). They are not submitting to a formal school’s authority in the ways conventional schoolers or hybrid homeschoolers do. Hybrid homeschools in their various forms attempt to blend the aspects of homeschooling they value most—increased family time, schedule flexibility, a curriculum and religious approach they appreciate—with the aspects of formal schooling they find most positive—good teachers, the external accountability and approval to outside groups a school can provide, help with academics, and more structured social interactions. This blend includes both a means of fulfillment of a personal responsibility (educating one’s children and spending “quantity” time with them) and also taking on a role in what is often an all-hands-on-deck project that requires the work of a whole community. Though there are some policy changes states might consider in this space, most hybrid homeschools have been created by people simply ignoring larger political battles. In many ways, hybrid homeschools are the very best kind of example of civil society joining together spontaneously to serve a local purpose without involving politicians at all.

The purpose of these schools is not to head for the hills or to enable families to completely withdraw from a society they dislike. Theirs is not a bunker mentality. The purpose, typically, is to create a new form of community to help raise their children, at a level and at a cost that lets these families interact with other like-minded families and then interface with the outside world as it is. And they are able to do this outside of the usual political and legislative processes—they do not have to beg their local school boards to approve a charter, or work through a legislature to get a choice program passed, either of which may take years. To re-visit a statement from one independent hybrid homeschool, “Ideal community springs from good families and friends partaking in good activities together.”[20] These families will participate in broader society, but they want to do on their own terms, with more influence over their children and from within smaller, more human-scale institutions.

The Coronavirus will be something schools and families will have to deal with at least for this school year, if not longer. As states and localities battle over issues from how or even whether to re-open schools, all the way to defining the circumstances under which small children will be required to wear masks, a devolution of decision-making is certainly welcome. Hybrid homeschools can provide many more families with a way both to get past virus-related issues but also to rebuild local cultures.

This essay is a modified excerpt from Dr. Wearne’s book, Little Platoons: Defining Hybrid Home Schools in America, which will be published in Fall 2020 by Lexington Books.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

Notes:

[1] Gaither, M. (2017) Homeschool: An American History (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

[2] Burke, E. “Reflections on the French Revolution.”

[3] Kirk, R. (1977). “The little platoon we all belong to in society.” Imprimis 6, 11. Hillsdale, MI: Hillsdale College.

[4] Ibid. Kirk did not simply mean married nuclear families in an old-fashioned sense, but rather had an expansive, if local view. He describes his own family in the speech thus: “Until I attained my forty-fifth year, I wandered lonely as a cloud: but then commenced my duties as paterfamilias, nowadays my wife and I count about twenty-five members of our extended family in our village—not merely kith and kin by blood, but also ten Vietnamese refugees, two Ethiopian students, and a towering white-haired hobo whom we have taken off the roads. We do not seem to be disintegrating: rather, we are growing by leaps and bounds.”

[5] Ibid.

[6] Mater Christi Classical Academy. “Student Life.”

[7] Scafidi, B. (2017). “Back to the Staffing Surge.” EdChoice. Indianapolis, IN.

[8] Coulson, A. “Public school spending. There’s a chart for that!” Washington: Cato Institute.

[9] Lewis, Michael. Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. New York: W.W. Norton, 2003. The idea is that if we can just find the right metrics, like Billy Beane did with baseball statistics, we can get any results we want in schools.

[10] Forster, G. (2016). “The next accountability: Getting what we want from schools—without technocracy.” Indianapolis, IN: Ed Choice.

[11] Dreher, R. (2017). The Benedict option: A strategy for Christians in a post-Christian nation. New York: Sentinel.

[12] Scafidi, B. (2014). “The ‘fruits’ and the future of centralization in public schools.” Indianapolis, IN: Ed Choice.

[13] Gallup. “Confidence in institutions.”

[14] Kirk, R. (1977). “The little platoon we all belong to in society.” Imprimis 6, 11. Hillsdale, MI: Hillsdale College.

[15] Levin, Y. (2017). The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s social contract in the age of individualism. New York: Basic Books. p.2

[16] See also Carney, T. (2019). Alienated America: Why some places thrive while others collapse. New York: Harper.

[17] Tocqueville, Alexis, (1838). Democracy in America. New York: G. Dearborn & Co.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Levin, Y. (2017). The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s social contract in the age of individualism. New York: Basic Books, p. 6.

[20] Mater Christi Classical Academy. “Student Life.”

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