Should I Start a School?
By Bryan Caplan
When fellow professors discover that I homeschool my children, their most common reaction is: “How do you get any work done?” Hand to God, I’ve never found it hard. I started homeschooling my older sons back in 2015 when they were 12. They were already more mature than most adults will ever be, so Caplan Family School ran like clockwork. Since the pandemic, I’ve added my younger kids to my student body. While I don’t have Caplan Family School 2.0 running like clockwork yet, we’re well on our way. All kids have a schedule – and the schedule includes specific time slots for feedback from me. The rest of the time, my kids are supposed to work independently and let me do my regular work. Compliance, though imperfect, is high.
My system works so well that I’ve been toying with the idea of opening my own school. Legally, I would probably call it a tutoring center for homeschooling parents, but I’d use the same system for customers that I use for my own kids. As a professor, of course, I have immense freedom to manage my time as I see fit, so I wouldn’t have to quit my existing job to explore this entrepreneurial venture.
Why bother? Here are the positives as I see them.
1. I deeply enjoy teaching highly-motivated, mature students. If I were running my own school, I could select such students exclusively.
2. I like fostering my intellectual sub-culture – and my pedagogical approach is so radically different from the mainstream that I could realistically reshape my students for life.
3. I cherish making new friends and enriching existing friendships, and the pandemic has made both tragically hard. Running a school would give me much-needed human connection.
4. While I have little concrete use for extra money, earning money doing something I love is gratifying.
5. I’d like to have a viable family business to pass on to any of my children who want high autonomy.
6. I enjoy accomplishing things I haven’t done before.
The negatives, unfortunately, are weighty.
1. General rule: Almost everyone is bad at doing stuff they haven’t done before. “I’m good at educating my own kids, so I could run a school well” may well be akin to “I’m good at cooking, so I could run a restaurant well.”
2. I do not like dealing with mundane hassles, like getting a lease, setting up wifi, or keeping business records.
3. I intensely resent bureaucracy. I don’t want to figure out how to get a business license, file new tax forms, or learn about government regulations on running a tutoring center versus a school. Much of the appeal of running my own school is to get more autonomy, but in practice I’d probably have less than I already do.
4. Couldn’t I hire someone else to do this unpleasant work? Someone good enough to do the job could easily eat up my whole budget and more. And as soon as I had a full-time employee, another pile of regulations kicks in.
5. I could probably get five or ten outstanding students during the pandemic. Once the schools re-open, though, demand for my unconventional product could easily dry up. Since almost every start-up has high fixed start-up costs, this is a big risk.
6. What about liability? Part of what I would be offering is a risk-tolerant environment; I believe in erring on the side of normalcy – not the side of caution. The state of Virginia, however, is bad on waivers. If my students get sick, I don’t want to lose my house. Yes, I could get insurance, but that too would probably be a tangled mess.
All things considered, then, I’m in a holding pattern. What would tip the scales? Most directly: If GMU cancelled in-person classes again, my motivation to create a space where I could work with real students would be high. More generally: The longer the gross social overreaction to the pandemic continues, the more eager I will be to build my own sphere of normalcy.
One other factor that would make a big difference: If I had a queue of eager would-be customers. If you’re a parent of a highly-motivated, mature kid grades 7-12 and you’re interested, please email me!