Kid with letters
James V. Shuls

When financial guru Dave Ramsey takes a call on his radio program from a young couple who have paid off their debt, house and everything, he often shouts, “I’m talking to weird people!” These people have made sacrifices to live frugally and get out of debt. That’s just not normal in our society.

I had the same thought recently while attending a curriculum night at my child’s school. As a former first-grade teacher, I’ve conducted curriculum nights myself, and I’ve never seen anything like this. In one session, our school principal explained how and why the school has students learn all of the phonograms. She explained how explicit phonics instruction “unlocks the English language” for children. The parents ate it up. They kept peppering her with questions and they dared not interrupt her (even though she went 10 minutes past the ending time). Fortunately, her husband prompted her that we needed to stop or we might have been there another hour.

Looking around the room at the parents so eager and excited for explicit phonics instruction, I knew that I was talking to weird people.

A year earlier, my wife and I decided to pull our first grader out of our highly touted public school district. By all indicators, our former school is doing very well. In fact, we bought our home in this school district (zoned for this elementary school) when our son was born because of the quality of this school. Then, just after his first year in the school, we decided it wasn’t right for us. We reached this decision after attending the school’s curriculum night. That night made us very concerned about what the school was teaching our child. For starters, the teachers did not believe in explicit phonics instruction or in teaching spelling. To paraphrase one teacher: “It’ll just click one day.” That was the day it clicked for us; we did not share the instructional philosophy of our child’s school.

The very next week, we enrolled him in the school he now attends. The school has a classical education model. They explicitly teach phonics, spelling, penmanship, and diagraming sentences, among other things. In hindsight, we wished we would have enrolled him sooner. At the time of our decision, however, we questioned ourselves. I asked my wife why we couldn’t just be satisfied with our public school. Most people send their children to public schools and are perfectly happy. Why couldn’t we? Are we just weird? She assured me that we weren’t weird. We just liked a different type of educational model.

Now, I’m pretty sure she was wrong—we are weird . . . and we’re not alone. Parents all over the place, even in the best school districts, are dissatisfied with their local public schools because they want something different. I heard it from parent after parent as we discussed why we made the switch to the classical school. They were dissatisfied with their child’s school. They wanted something different. This isn’t a criticism of public schools, although there are some abysmal public schools. It is just a statement of fact that a school cannot believe in explicit phonics instruction and whole language instruction at the same time. Individual schools simply cannot be everything to everyone.

The fortunate weird parents, like my wife and me, can afford (or can sacrifice like the Dave Ramsey callers) to pay for private school tuition. Many others cannot. They are trapped in schools that don’t meet their needs or share their beliefs.

It is time for Missouri to change this. All parents, not just the fortunate, should be able to choose the school that aligns with their vision of a quality education. We all deserve to find our group of weird people.

About the Author

James Shuls
James Shuls
Distinguished Fellow of Education Policy

James V. Shuls is an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and Distinguished Fellow in Education Policy at the Show-Me Institute.