Julie Gunlock joins Inez Stepman in a pop-up episode to discuss her frustrating experiences with the public school system, making the big choice to begin homeschooling her son, and how exercising education freedom has made a difference in her family’s lives.
Hey everyone, it’s Beverly Hallberg welcome to a special pop-up episode of She Thinks, your favorite podcast from the Independent Women’s Forum, where we talk with women and sometimes men about the policy issues that impact you and the people you care about most. Enjoy.
Welcome to She Thinks, the podcast for the Independent Women’s Forum. I’m Inez Stepman, and I’m a senior policy analyst here at IWS, and I am so glad to be joined by my colleague, Julie Gunlock, who is the director of Independent Women’s Forum Center for Progress and Innovation, and also the author of a book, From Cupcakes to Chemicals, How the Culture of Alarmism Makes Us Afraid of Everything and How to Fight Back. And fighting back is a bit of a theme for this episode because we’re going to talk to Julie about her experiences with her local public school for her three kids. And we’re going to talk a little bit about how she has been fighting back to try to get her kids the education they deserve. So welcome, Julie.
Thanks for having me on. I like to talk about this subject so much because it’s quite a story.
So, let’s get into that story. You have three kids in Alexandria Public Schools, or at least you did, or perhaps that’s a little bit of a reveal or we’re showing the end before the time, but-
And we’re done.
Yes. That’s it. What has your experience been with your public school both before this pandemic, and then the school closures that have changed everything? So a little bit about the pre-corona life and what you thought of your public schools then, and then how that has changed or not changed in the last, let’s say, eight months.
Well, I was never really happy with the public schools. I had noticed things that were bothering me about my children’s education long before coronavirus. And I think I’m like a lot of parents that I really, it became much clearer the problems. I started to hear what they were being taught. I started to see the problems, not just with the curriculum, but the fact that certain things that they don’t use worksheets anymore. Everything is computer-based. There are almost no books being read.
There’s an astonishing number of things that started to really come into sharp relief. So I wasn’t really impressed, but I wasn’t really fully aware before coronavirus. And as I mentioned, then coronavirus hit, all my kids were home and it was pretty dismal when the virtual school started for all of my kids. What I found, there was very little one-on-one time with the kids. It was all, “Okay, we’re all in this classroom together learning virtually.” There wasn’t a lot of opportunities for kids who might be having problems with the subject to get extra help. We did that in the spring because this happened in March 2020, when the schools closed down, there were some teachers that were willing to, for instance, my son’s math teacher had a private Zoom meeting with him and helped him through some of the math problems that he was struggling with. And so, there were some exceptions, but by and large, it was just, again, these big classrooms, everyone virtual and they used so many platforms. So, the kids would have to go to this other platform.
I wrote about this and I think I counted up something like 13 different platforms that they would use in one day. Plus there are temptations, some of the teachers, “Oh, okay, go watch this YouTube video and then come back to class.” Well, the fact that YouTube is available to the kids. Now you can, as a parent, block it, but you then have to unblock it if they have to watch a video and then re-block it. So sometimes kids are tempted. And my son, was nine years old when this started, and that is an enormous temptation for kids, YouTube, and some of these other platforms. So you also struggled with that and the only way to stop that was to sort of hover over your child. So it didn’t go well. The answer is already too long. The bottom line is I was feeling uneasy about my children’s education before coronavirus, and all of my fears were confirmed post-coronavirus.
So a friend of mine, Mary Katherine Hamm, she calls it Zoom butlering, the hovering that you’re mentioning. She felt like she was being nothing more than a Zoom butler to her kids, which I thought was such a good turn of phrase. I think it resonated with a lot of parents. Did you feel that the school was trying to work with you at all with your concerns? I guess what I’m asking is, was it a matter of oversight? Was it a matter of having too many kids and it being an extraordinary time, did you feel like the school and the district were listening to you?
No, no, no, no, no, no. And Alexandria School is really well known for two things. One is the absolutely horrible way they treat parents, and two, they have a really bad special needs program. They are well known in the Northern Virginia area to have very poor services for special needs. For instance, Alexandria Public Schools have been closed now since March, 2020. And what’s so astonishing about that is that there are children with very particular special needs who simply cannot learn in a virtual setting. And we’re talking about kids on the spectrum, severe cases of autism, where you simply cannot sit still and stare at a screen, and children with Downs and other developmental issues. There aren’t that many. I don’t know the total, but there are kids, a small demographic of children who have very special needs. They didn’t even bring those kids back.
They certainly have enough protective gear and they certainly have enough space. Alexandria City Public Schools, there are several schools. They are all sitting empty. And so if you took that small number, I would suspect there are under a thousand kids. I could be off on that. But even if it’s five thousand, I don’t know, a couple of thousands. With the buildings being empty, they could divide those children and space them out and help them, and offer some more one-on-one. But they haven’t even done that. Kids that are learning English as they’re learning, those kids also have not been brought back. And so you have those two, but also just regular parents who were having trouble. You can have a kid who doesn’t have an IEP or any special needs or speaks fluent English and they still are going to have problems with virtual learning.
Parents endlessly complained about this. We have had so many school board meetings. There have been so many letters written. There have been letters to the editor. Just two nights ago, a father went on WJLA, which is the local Channel 7 news, and talked about how his children are struggling and ACPS does not listen. They just don’t listen to the concerns of the parents. And the worst part of this is that you’ve got a one-party system here in Alexandria, Virginia, all Democrats on every single elected official in Alexandria, Virginia, is a Democrat, a liberal Democrat. The mayor, the city council, the school board, the superintendent, everybody is these liberal Democrats who all sit around and pat themselves on the back. There is massive group thinks going on. Nobody asks challenging questions. There’s zero curiosity about ways in which systems can work better.
And so that is a really dangerous situation because I sit there in the school board, I sit there and watch the school board meetings and the school board does not ask the superintendent any tough questions. It’s sort of like watching the media interview Obama. It’s sort of that same kind of thing where there’s just a lot of laughter. Like, “What’s your favorite kind of poppy? What is your favorite kind of beer?” There’s not a lot of-
What has most enchanted you?
And then you actually have a situation, one of our school board members, Margaret Lorber, who’s retiring, thank God, who, by the way, has no children at home. She sits on the school board and she’s much older. And her children have all left. They’re adults. I think she has grandkids now. So she literally has… And her grandkids are like babies. So she has no children currently in the school suffering from this distance learning.
So just last week, during a school board meeting, she said, “Look, parents have to choose between educated kids and dead kids.” And this was in response to parents who were saying, “We really want you to open the schools. We really need our kids to go back to in-classroom learning.” And so she literally says to parents, “Look, it’s choice. Dead or educated.” And I’m not kidding you, nobody on the board, the superintendent, nobody objected. When she said that, there wasn’t even a sort of, you know the side-eye emoji, no. There wasn’t even a side-eye. In fact, the camera immediately switched over to Superintendent Hutchings because I think he shifted in his chair. So he made a noise. So the camera went to him and he was just scratching his nose and looking off into space, didn’t even resonate with the monstrosity of that statement.
And so, again, I think parents really have realized during the coronavirus response is that they have no one to go to. There is no advocacy for parents and for children, except the parents, but they’re not heard. In fact, they’re sort of made fun of. It’s sort of this collective eye-roll that you get when you complain. So it’s really troubling, but it’s also been a wake-up call. So there might be some changes afoot.
Absolutely. And I think that one of the underrated, since we’re doing this podcast for School Choice Week, one of the underrated consequences of passing a School Choice Program is often for those families who actually do stay with the public school, who maybe don’t want to leave the public school for whatever reason, they like their teachers, or they like a lot of things about the school or their kids have good friends there, whatever reason, it would really, I think, help to get a little bit of attention placed on the satisfaction of families and parents and students when that paycheck is actually connected in any way, shape or form to how parents are experiencing school and how their kids are experiencing the school. But speaking of paychecks, so the response from a lot of folks on the left or from districts themselves have been, “Well, we don’t have the money to do this. We can’t possibly adapt to safely to be able to reopen in-person school because we don’t have the money to do it and those evil Republicans and evil Donald Trump have not given us enough money to do that.”
So, the average per-pupil expenditure in the state of Virginia is around $12,000 overall. But Arlington County, where your kids are going is around $19,000 per student. I know you said that in fact, you went to go check how much one of your kids has earmarked for his education. And it was… Why don’t you just say what the eye-popping of that is?
Yeah. So I’ve looked into this too because I’ve heard that excuse as well. And not only, it’s interesting, you don’t just hear that from school officials and school board members, you actually hear it from parents who are legitimately worried about teachers. So they say that because they heard it somewhere and they actually believe it. And so I, several times, had to put the picture up of the Alexandria City School budget. And I’m like, “Hey folks, it’s actually around 18.5 per student.” But my child has an IEP. An IEP is an Individualized Education Plan. And so for instance, my son has attention issues, like many, many boys, not that interesting, frankly. But he is given certain accommodations, a little bit longer time to take a test or he can cut it up into bits or he can have a quiet part of the classroom, little things like that. He also has people who come around and make sure he’s actually doing the work that he’s supposed to be doing. So it’s sort of like some prompts and some reminders.
Anyway, there are several little things that are in my son’s IEP. And this is a federal law. The schools have to make these accommodations for kids. Well, for IEP kids, Alexandria City, for my child, my child was worth $32,000 to the school. Think of what I could do. And for that, Oh my gosh, so I mentioned earlier, Alexandria City is known for a couple of things and one thing is their really abysmal special ed services, special needs, IEP. And this runs the gamut. This runs from problems with attention deficit disorder to downs syndrome. There’s a whole slew of things, conditions that would warrant parents to get an IEP. And so they have terrible services.
In those years, I experienced things like being told… So one thing that my son has struggled with is actually, physically writing. Basically, the theory is that he’s able to read and he’s very verbal and he’s frankly rather gifted in terms of his verbal abilities. So he will have these racing thoughts, and it’s just very hard for him to keep up with it. When he was very little and learning to write, it’s frustrating because kids are learning to write and they don’t get their letters right. And so to have all these racing thoughts, and then not to be able to put them on paper. So he really hates writing. He hates it. And then at some point, he just decided I don’t like it. And he was very stubborn about it. I was told to give up. It got so bad that I had to have a meeting with the head of special services for the entire, the head honcho of the City Public Schools special ed had to meet with me to convince me that it was not worth fighting and that I should just give up.
So, they gave him some word to text technology, so he could talk basically into his computer, which frankly was embarrassing for him in class. So there were a whole set of issues associated with it. I will tell you, Inez, I know I’m racing ahead here, but I ended up pulling him out this year, mostly because of the virtual schooling, but also because of my continued problems. Within two months of doing the homeschooling with him, his penmanship is beautiful, straight, he doesn’t reverse his letters. He has actual beautiful handwriting. He’s more than willing to do it. He’s picked up the pace. It took two months. I was told for years by the Alexandria City Special Education Department that my son, “Hey, don’t worry about it. Let’s just…” And it was because he was a problem in the classroom.
They did not take special time with him. They just wanted to find some sort of technology that would fix it so they didn’t actually have to teach. So that is one of the things that I constantly need to remind myself I’m doing the right thing, the penmanship, the writing alone, but not even with $32,000, that’s what I got. I got, give up and he’ll never do this, and it’s better to just give up on him, essentially. That’s what $32,000 gets you in Alexandria City Public Schools.
That just breaks my heart, that you had to fight with them for so long and that it turned out to just need, your son just needed this small amount of attention. Obviously, you’re a great mom and a great homeschool teacher, but it just took two months after these years. And I’m sure it’s embarrassment and frustration for him too. He could have easily gone his whole life thinking that he hated writing.
This really important addition to that. And I’ll be quick. I think, Inez, you would characterize me as… On Twitter, you called me tenacious or something, which I thought was such a great word. But I think you know that I’m a pretty strong personality and I’m not one to easily give up. I gave up. I said, okay, after so many meetings, after it being beaten into me, they brought in specialists to talk to me about why it’s not worth the fight, why it’s not worth the effort. I believed them. And that is what parents will be told constantly in a public school setting that you don’t know, you don’t know your son the best. You don’t know your kid the best. And I am one of these people, I have always said you shouldn’t totally ignore the experts. I really think it’s important to consider what people say who are experts in a certain field, but it is often used, these technologies and this sort of give up mentality is used in public schools because they simply don’t want to do the work.
And I know that I’m in a school district with a sort of dismal department, a special needs department, and perhaps other school districts are better. This is what I’ve experienced, but it is kind of shocking to me when I look back on that, that I did. I fought. I fought for years, but ultimately, I gave in and that shocked me.
So, let’s go on a little happier note here.
Before I cry.
What have you been doing the last year… Before I cry. What have you been doing at home with your son? I think one of your kids is still in public school. So I would say, give our listeners a brief overview of what you do each day at homeschooling.
Yeah. So we do have one child still in the public schools and really it’s because he’s finishing up an elementary school. He loves his teachers and he really brings me back just to say, it’s an elementary school. It’s easier for us to deal with. And we actually have hired a tutor for him. So we feel like he’s in good shape, but all of our kids will be out next year. And my middle son, we enrolled him in a Catholic school. This is the first year for me homeschooling my oldest. And he’s the one with the greater needs. And I felt like I really needed to take some level of control and extreme control of his education.
So, it’s great. It’s really wonderful. I have always worked from home. So it’s possible. It’s been an easy transition. I know for others, it might be more difficult. Although I will say, I think businesses are going, after this whole episode, not to go off on another tangent here. I think businesses will probably ease up. I think people will have a lot more flexibility post-COVID-19 with their jobs. So I hope more parents are able to do this. But because I work from home, I do have that ability and what’s great about it is, we sort of concentrate on the other two in the morning, my husband and I get up, get coffee or getting breakfast, and we sort of get the other two situated. And then I let him sleep in a little and he is… Look, he’s 13. He loves to sleep. So I get him up a little bit later and then we go down and we actually set up an office. He has a little desk, I have a little desk and we work side by side. I work and then he does his work.
I use a curriculum called Memoria Press, which I love so much. I want to do advertisements for them, unpaid. I love them. It is a wonderful curriculum. And believe me, I am not affiliated at all with Memoria Press aside from buying their curriculum. They really help parents, especially starting out. It’s what’s called a school in a box. So literally, I have a guide every single week. I’m up to like, I don’t know, week 20 now in some subjects. And it says, this is the chapter you do, these are the workbooks you do, this is the work pages. It’s very easy to follow along. And so we have a real schedule. Each day, Tuesdays and Thursdays are math and science. The other days are the other classes. He’s finished an entire year of curriculum in three subjects. Before Christmas, he finished three subjects an entire year that quickly. He’s doing marvelously well. I’ve now had to buy the next year of the curriculum at Memoria Press because he’s working at such a rapid pace.
He’s a marvelously smart kid and he’s done so well. And I’m really able to see this. I think when he was in the schools, I felt worried and nervous and concerned. And now I see just what a bright… I always knew he was bright, but I can see his abilities and how capable he is to get through these subjects and he enjoys them. So it’s been a wonderful experience.
So suffice it to say that I think you will not be returning to Alexandria Public Schools with your kids. But, let’s close on this note, your family has made some real sacrifices, obviously, it takes time. It is difficult even working from home, juggling school and work. And then for your other kids, you’re looking at putting them in private school. This has been a real sacrifice for your family, which you’ve made for your kids, but I know you’re very cognizant of the fact that not everybody is able to do that. Not everybody’s in a financial position to do it. But even for folks who are middle-class and relatively comfortable, this is a big sacrifice. So how would, if we add up the $32,000 for your son’s IEP and use the 18.5 for your other two kids, you’re looking at about 70, more than $70,000 a year that the taxpayers, we all are spending on specifically your kids’ education.
What could you do with $70,000? What would you do if we had school choice, it’s school choice week, if Alexandria was a universal ESA, Education Savings Account district, where they just deposited $70,000 in an account for Julie Gunlock’s kids, what would you do for them with that money? What would you do for their education?
I have to say, if I got that money every year, I know this certainly, I would probably quit my job and homeschool. If that could be transferred as a salary so I could teach, I would love… I, frankly, would love to do more homeschooling, but to think of the unique needs of my son, to hire more tutors for him, or to take him to see things, he definitely loves to learn by viewing things, but there are schools set up that are designed to help children.
This summer, he took some summer classes at a school that does one-on-one, one-on-one learning. It’s expensive, but it’s not 70,000 and it’s not even 32,000. We actually looked at actually doing that instead of homeschooling. And it would have been about, 25 to 30 really topping up at the upper 20s, but that would have been his own teacher for every single class. The innovation that is out there, if parents had access to this if that money were put in a savings account and then my husband and I could say, “You know what? My middle son is really into sports. These particular schools do a really great job at baseball. We could send him there. My other child is much artsier.”
It’s really interesting, I have these three very different children. He’s very artsy. He loves to write and he loves to do plays and art. And I would love to send him to an art school. And then again, my oldest, either continue to homeschool him with the added assistance of tutors or look at a one-on-one learning environment for him. The thing that has amazed me, and as, it’s funny because you came on board and I’ve been [inaudible 00:26:28] I swear since I was 16 years old, not quite that long, but you came on board and it’s like, I’ve learned so much from you about the issue of education. But part of the reason for my curiosity about education, I’d already sort of… I followed the school choice issue and I sort of knew about how public schools have always received butt loads of money. I knew those issues. But it became such a personal issue for me because of what happened with coronavirus.
And as I’ve said, I said to you and many others, a lot of people are like, “Oh, 2020 was the worst year ever.” I wrote about this, how I will always see 2020 positively because it really brought me to homeschooling. It opened my eyes to the possibilities for education, the innovation that’s out there to help kids. And I think there really are some affordable options for parents who are struggling. And I want to just also say, it’s never too late to start. My Jack is in eighth grade and I thought, “Oh, it’s too late.” It isn’t. It really isn’t. He has learned and grown so much in just a short amount of time and he’s never going to go back to a traditional school. So I’m really looking forward to these next years of helping him grow and in his education. So I encourage people to really look at these options but keep doing what you’re doing, Inez because I really hope more parents get the option to choose what’s best for their kids.
Well, right back at you, keep doing what you’re doing. Thank you for sharing. I can’t think of a better note to end this podcast on. Thank you for sharing these personal stories about your family. I really hope, I’m sure there’s a lot of families out there who are struggling with their schools or struggling with the same dismissal that you got and the same disrespect that you got when they’re fighting for their kids to have a quality education that’s going to set them up for life and happiness and success, which is what we all really want.
So thank you so much again for sharing your story. And to our listeners, this has been an episode of She Thinks, the IWF podcast. I’m Inez Stepman. You’ve been listening to Julie Gunlock and we’re talking about school choice week to celebrate school choice week that comes around at the end of January every year, but I think that 2021 has special significance given what we’ve all been through for the last year, especially in the educational system. Julie, thanks so much again. And to our listeners, thanks for tuning in.