Making Choices about Childhood Education

By Timothy D. Terrell
May 15, 2005

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, parents of school-age children have a much better set of educational options than their parents had. Government schools have so obviously and so generally failed that a significant influx of students into private and home schools is occurring. The home schooling movement has matured and is booming, with excellent curriculum choices available and organizations like the Home School Legal Defense Association for support. There are now large numbers of experienced parents who can lead novices through what was once uncharted territory. Meanwhile, Christian schools have improved tremendously. (Secular private schools are another beneficiary of the government school crisis, though Christian parents are more likely to choose one of the first two alternatives.) A broader consensus is building. James Dobson made national news recently when he publicly recommended that parents take their children out of public schools — which is what Rousas J. Rushdoony, Samuel Blumenfeld, and others have advocated since at least the 1960s.

As the occasional departure from public schools turns into a rush for the exits (and later, hopefully, into a stampede), a few people are getting trampled. Christian opponents of public schools too often settle on a favorite alternative and come to believe that the others must be inferior or even completely invalid. This tendency is probably more common among home schoolers, and understandably so. They have had to continually justify their educational methods to legislators, truant officials, and other bureaucrats, their own parents and the parents of other children, and countless others. The arguments in favor of home schooling are certainly powerful, but a few home schoolers have decided it is the only right way to educate children. Some home school advocates will argue that because education is the responsibility of the parents,1 no one should teach children but their parents (a potentially tragic non sequitur). At the same time, other Christians will strongly favor a classroom setting, and bring up the well-worn contentions that home-schooled children don’t learn social skills, can’t relate to peers, have time-management problems, don’t work well in teams, aren’t evangelizing their classmates, etc. For most home schooled students, these criticisms are either overblown or just plain groundless.

Certainly the discussion of the pros and cons of each alternative is valuable. Yet it might do home schoolers and Christian schoolers some good to acknowledge that their approach to educating their own children might produce vastly different results if attempted in another family. There are differences in families, and even among children in the same family, that might warrant home schooling for one, and Christian schooling for another. With my own children, I plan to use a mix of Christian and home schooling. There are no simple answers in the schooling decision, but understanding a few basic insights of economics might help structure the decision somewhat.

The first insight is that in any production process, whether the output is education or toaster-ovens, there are gains from the division of labor. Because a person can be more productive when they specialize in a small part of the total production process, a great deal more output can be generated if the process is divided up among multiple individuals. As Adam Smith famously observed in his Wealth of Nations, “[T]he division of labor…so far as it can be introduced, occasions, in every art, a proportionable increase of the productive powers of labor. The separation of different trades and employments from one another seems to have taken place in consequence of this advantage.”2 Christian schooling has an advantage here because each teacher specializes in teaching a particular grade level or subject. The second grade teacher knows, from experience with dozens or hundreds of second graders, the best way to communicate difficult concepts to this age group. The high school science teacher usually knows the subject matter better than a home schooling parent could ever hope to.

The other side of this is that individual attention to students amounts to specializing in the student — not the age group or subject. Home schoolers therefore have an advantage when it comes to understanding and accommodating the way in which their children learn. The problem of parental inexperience can be at least partially mitigated by the choice of a solid curriculum with good readings. Finally, some home schooling families have formed partnerships to enjoy the advantages of the division of labor — for example, once a week children from multiple families might go to one home for science instruction. This is really a compromise solution between the home school and the Christian school.

The second insight of economics that might be of some use here is the concept of opportunity cost. The opportunity cost of taking an action is the value of the foregone alternative. Even if people are unfamiliar with the term, most people implicitly understand the idea. The opportunity cost of going to college is, most likely, related to the salary of the full-time job one could have had for those four years. The opportunity cost of a mother home schooling her six-year-old is what she gave up to spend time teaching — maybe volunteer work, maybe a part-time job, maybe time spent hunting bargains. It is often difficult to put a dollar figure on opportunity cost, but it certainly is an important consideration. Opportunity cost could mean that the “low-cost” home schooling approach could actually be more costly if more than simply the expense of tuition is considered. On the other hand, if the cost to the teaching parent of giving up other activities is small, home schooling can make more economic sense than paying tuition at a Christian school.

The third insight of economics that could help is the idea of marginal cost — the cost of producing one more item. In this case, the marginal cost is the cost of adding another student. Once a school opens and begins accepting students, the cost incurred by accepting each additional student grows rapidly smaller. Imagine the costs of running a school for only one student. Teachers would still have to be hired, a building provided, etc. Additional students will cause the school to incur additional costs, but much less than that first student. The teacher will still be paid approximately the same salary whether her class has five students or fifteen. Preparing for class and teaching the class will not take any longer, though each additional student does require a small increase in the time spent grading papers. Nor does the student suffer a significant decline in teaching quality as the class size expands by one student. This is because teaching in a classroom is to a large extent a nonrival service, meaning that the service can be used by an individual without diminishing any other person’s ability to use the same service.

Contrast, now, the marginal cost of adding a student to a Christian school classroom to the marginal cost of adding a student to a home school. The first child to be home schooled entails a relatively large cost. One or both parents must give up some other activity to make time for learning the subject matter, teaching, and evaluating. A part of the house must be set aside for teaching, and a computer or other equipment may be needed. Additional children can be home schooled with not nearly as much additional sacrifice — marginal cost declines from the first to the second to the third child. This indicates that home schooling usually makes more sense economically as the number of children in the family to be home schooled increases.

All three of these economic considerations may seem to emphasize advantages of Christian schooling over home schooling. Yet other factors could understandably sway parents toward home schooling: parental control over the curriculum, the benefits a child receives from more individual attention, and the strengthening of bonds between parents and children. There will be tradeoffs with any decision, and parents must decide which approach is best suited for their own children. Let’s exit the public schools without trampling one another in the process.


1. See, e.g., Deuteronomy 6:7.

2. Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations (New York: Knopf), 1991 [1776], p. 6.

Topics: Dominion, Education, Family & Marriage

Timothy D. Terrell

Timothy Terrell is associate professor of economics at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. He is assistant editor of the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics and is an Associated Scholar with the Mises Institute.

More by Timothy D. Terrell