The Great Untethering
The spread of school choice and rise of remote work are two of today’s most significant social trends. In the last year alone, seven states -- Florida, Indiana, Mississippi, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Tennessee, and West Virginia -- have followed Arizona’s lead in adopting statewide policies which fund families to educate their children in whatever way they wish. Parents in these states can keep relying on their local public school, but they can also spend their state subsidy on a private school, homeschool, private tutor, online academy, and even a mini school they create with neighbors.
At the same time, the work-from-home movement, which even before COVID had accelerated from just 3.5% of the non-farm workforce in 2000 to 24% in 2019, continues to grow. Today, according to Stanford University’s Digital Economy Lab, over half of U.S. employees work remotely at least part of the week.
And while many experts once believed that that pressure from bosses would eventually restore the five-day-a-week office routine, a recent study from McKinsey shows that bosses themselves like the option of working from home even more than their junior colleagues. Of those earning over $150,000 annually, a full third said they “strongly preferred working from home” and would even take a pay cut for the freedom to do it part-time. Kastle Systems, a nationwide provider of office security services, has similarly concluded that some combination of commuting and getting the job done from home has become the “new normal” and “is here to stay.”
Yet as important as both school choice and remote work have become, it is what they represent in combination -- the great untethering of the average American from traditional physical constraints -- which future historians will likely write about. If those in our own time do not yet appreciate this larger development, it is only because school choice is still seen almost exclusively as an academic reform, not as an escape from a needlessly costly and restrictive lifestyle.
Consider that up until now, the schooling of most children has meant sending them through a predictable thirteen-year program at the local public school. And since a family’s only way to control the quality of that program was to buy or rent a residence in the most affluent zip code it could afford, the parents had to accept considerable restrictions of their own. These limits included living in a certain kind of community, becoming slave to a high mortgage and property taxes, missing out on career and investment opportunities in less-developed areas, and associating with neighbors who are resigned to making the same compromises.
School choice clearly enables parents to pick the kind of schooling best suited to their child’s needs and personality. But it also liberates the parents themselves to live anywhere they wish -- to start a small business, to get an advanced degree, to help a favored charity, or simply to enjoy a different culture -- all without having to sacrifice the quality of their kids’ educations. As William Mattox, director of the Marshall Center for Educational Options at Florida’s James Madison Institute has observed, “If you remove the artificial [zip code] barrier to quality education, those that commute to work will be free to live in [other] places -- towns they once would not have considered.” And those who can work from home will be able to go as far out as they want, “even to another state.”
Add school choice to remote work and you potentially have one of the most significant social changes since the migration from farms to cities in the mid-nineteenth century, one that is being accelerated by technological advances which make it unnecessary to live near essential service providers. The most obvious example is the rise of online shopping, but Americans are also taking to online doctors, accountants, and other professionals.
Indeed, a recent study by the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society found that patients actually prefer to be diagnosed online for common illnesses, and almost half favor telemedicine visits when it comes to mental health care. Similarly, individuals, small businesses, and nonprofits are increasingly comfortable working with their accountants by email and video conference. Delta, United, Jet Blue, and other airlines have already changed their operating models to accommodate the fact that corporate executives are traveling less to meet with clients and subcontractors.
Exactly how this growing liberation from traditional physical constraints will reshape society is hard to predict beyond the obvious opportunity for people to live where they wish well before retirement. Anticipating this, Australia, Brazil, Dubai, Germany, Norway, Taiwan, and other countries have amended their immigration rules so that expatriates can continue to work for their home country employers without needing a work visa. What is clear from federal data is that the percentage of people with disabilities holding jobs has grown significantly in recent years. The Society for Human Resource Management attributes this development directly to firms’ growing tolerance for decentralized labor.
Another telling development is the upsurge in homesteading -- families seeking out tracts of land in remote areas where they can grow their own food and educate their children as they see fit. Unlike homesteaders of times past, who had to sacrifice modern conveniences and a good income for what they considered a healthier lifestyle, today’s settlers arrive with sophisticated technologies like solar power and the ability to work for distant organizations.
“These are not the isolated, paranoid prepper types that mainstream media mocks,” notes journalist Olivia Reingold. “Nearly 60 percent of homesteaders in the U.S. have a bachelor’s degree or higher compared to just under 40 percent of the general public.”
But perhaps the most intriguing trend is the growing number of parents who are starting their own homeschools or neighborhood collaboratives -- so-called microschools. Ten years ago, for example, Juliet Sanomi took advantage of a Florida school choice program for children with disabilities to create a curriculum for her autistic son Joshua and six other students. Today, she is principal of the Dickens Sanomi Academy in Plantation, Florida, which currently enrolls 170 students with diverse learning styles.
Kerry MacDonald, senior fellow at the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), believes that one consequence of school choice legislation is that parents will completely redefine what it means to be well-educated, finally taking that power away from teacher unions and graduate school departments of education. Indeed, this transformation is well underway. Don Soifer, head of the National Microschooling Center, estimates that there are already over 120,000 parent-run microschools operating in the U.S. today, collectively educating over 1.5 million students.
In 1893, an historian named Frederick Jackson Turner published an essay on “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” which was so influential that it is still read in U.S. history classes. Its basic argument was that the economic and political achievements of the American people were a product, not of some ideology or elite class, but of legions of brave pioneers pursuing their personal visions of a better life in ever-unfolding western frontier.
Today, those who agree with Turner’s thesis understandably worry that there are few places left in the United States, indeed in the entire world, which remain unexplored. They equate this lack of large, untamed regions with seeming indications of western decline: a loss of vigor, an increasingly banal popular culture, widespread rejection of traditional values, and economic stagnation. Robert Zubrin, author of The Case for Mars and founder of the Mars Society, has even gone as far as to argue that the best reason to colonize the red planet is not to advance science, but to provide future generations with a reinvigorating challenge.
Yet if we think of a frontier more broadly, not just as a geographic boundary but in terms of the social and economic constraints which limit individual behavior, it may be that an entirely new one is forming. School choice, remote work, and advanced communications are combining to vastly expand people’s expectations as to where and how they can thrive.
Dr. Andrews is president of the Children’s Educational Opportunity Foundation. His latest book is Living Spiritually in the Material World (Fidelis Books).