One of the unexpected outcomes of the Covid-19 shutdown/quarantine has been the widespread turn to homeschooling. Parents are being asked en masse to become intimately involved (again) with the education their children. For some parents, it means making sure that their children have access to an online platform. For many parents, however, the quarantine has thrown them into homeschooling. Thousands of American households are suddenly little schools, laboratories, and gymnasiums (or gymnasia). For thousands of other families, however, the shift to homeschool happened intentionally. Ours was one of those families. We did not set out to become homeschoolers. Our eldest began her education in a church-related school while we were in the UK. When we returned to the USA, we found that she had begun in what was, more or less, first grade and the local school wanted her to go start over in kindergarten. We tried that but it was clearly not working so we tried homeschooling and it worked well enough that we never stopped. Both children did well, arguably better than they would have done in a traditional school. Both scored well on standardized tests and found themselves taking courses at the local community college and one of the local state universities before they earned scholarships and went for their undergraduate eduction, where they did well. Both are pursuing professional careers. They have different personalities, interests, and gifts but are widely traveled and at speak least three languages beside English. Both learned Latin. One taught Latin briefly. Both are musicians and one of them is a professional musician. They took riding lessons, played basketball, studied martial arts and dance. Their education was superior to anything offered by the local public school and they got their education without fear of violence from within or without the school. They had many opportunities for socialization and wanted for nothing academically.
This is not to say that this is the way it is for all homeschoolers but as the product of the American public schools of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s (if we include state universities) I am mystified at the portrait of homeschool being peddled to American elites. Consider the recent article in Harvard Magazine in which Erin O’Donnell warns of “The Risks of Homeschooling.” Typically, magazines and conferences require planning such that it seems unlikely that both the article and the upcoming Harvard Law conference on homeschool were designed to respond to the surge in homeschooling due to Covid-19. Nevertheless, the coincidence of the conference and the article with the quarantine are remarkable.
O’Donnell reports that about the same percentage of children are now homeschooled as are enrolled in charter schools (about 3-4%). According to one report, as of 2015, about 10% of American elementary and secondary school children were educated in private schools. Some homeschool students may be included in that 10% figure but how the two relate is not clear. Nevertheless, close to 90% of all primary and secondary school children are educated in publicly-funded schools controlled by school boards. Still, this hegemony is not enough for O’Donnell nor for her primary source for the article, Elizabeth Bartholet, J.D., who holds an endowed chair in Harvard Law. She complains that homeschooling is unregulated, that students are isolated, potential victims of abuse, potential future survivalists, Christians removed from mainstream culture, and protected by the Homeschool Legal Defense Association. O’Donnell (who has really just strung together quotations from Bartholet, writes,
Bartholet maintains that parents should have “very significant rights to raise their children with the beliefs and religious convictions that the parents hold.” But requiring children to attend schools outside the home for six or seven hours a day, she argues, does not unduly limit parents’ influence on a child’s views and ideas. “The issue is, do we think that parents should have 24/7, essentially authoritarian control over their children from ages zero to 18? I think that’s dangerous,” Bartholet says. “I think it’s always dangerous to put powerful people in charge of the powerless, and to give the powerful ones total authority.”
Bartholet concedes “No doubt there are some parents who are motivated and capable of giving an education that’s of a higher quality and as broad in scope as what’s happening in the public school” but she doubts that many are.
As the product of the Omaha Public Schools and the Lincoln Public Schools (and the University of Nebraska) I guess that I have as much experience with public school as Bartholet. Breadth was not a feature of my public school education. I did learn how to fight, however. I did not begin to learn how to learn until my third year in university when my introductory Logic professor taught us how to memorize, something I should have learned in primary school. The radical changes, the turn from the objective to the subjective, from the effective to the affective, ushered into public schools in the 50s and 60s had begun to take hold by the time I arrived in school. I am fortunate that I learned phonics and once I could read, I could teach myself. Beyond that, my education was pedestrian. The Deweyite revolution effectively destroyed education by the 1970s and it has only become worse since then.
Bartholet’s concerns are not justified in O’Donnell’s article they are merely asserted. To respond to them briefly:
- The reason the HSLDA is well funded and effective is because they win in court not because they are, as the article implies, bullies. Thousands of American families rely on them for legal protection precisely because of the sort ill-informed speculations in articles such as these.
- Homeschooling is hardly unregulated. It is true that in a federal republic, the states and local school districts do approach homeschooling differently but “unregulated” is hyperbole. In many places homeschoolers have to jump through a considerable number of hoops.
- One wonders if she was worried about the hippies removing their children from bourgeois conformist, middle-class culture in the 1960s and 70s? I guess not. Conservative Christians and other types of homeschoolers, after all, learned about this approach to education from the hippies. One gets the sense that were we to change the term “Christian” to another sub-group, the steam would evaporate from this article.
- Survivalists? Has Bartholet ever met a homeschooling group? If reading Tolkein and Harry Potter is an indicator of future terrorists, I suppose but I doubt the correlation.
- Abuse victims? In 2017 the AP reported that there were 17,000 sexual assaults upon students by other students. The sexual assault by public teachers and staff of students has become such an issue that, in February of this year, the Department of Education announced an initiative to address it. The Secretary of Education said, “We hear all too often about innocent children being sexually assaulted by an adult at school. That should never happen. No parent should have to think twice about their child’s safety while on school grounds,” said Secretary DeVos. “That’s why I’ve directed our OCR team to tackle the tragic rise of sexual misconduct complaints in our nation’s K-12 campuses head on. Through compliance reviews and raising public awareness about what’s actually happening in too many of our nation’s schools, we can build on the good work we’re already doing to enforce Title IX and protect students. We cannot rest until every student can learn in a safe, nurturing environment where their civil rights are protected.” One organization which is actively calling for more oversight of homeschooled children, in the interests of protecting them from abuse, admits: “This finding does not yet reach the threshold for statistical significance, so at this point we cannot say conclusively that homeschooled students die from child abuse and neglect at a higher rate as other students.”
- Isolated? This is the old socialization canard. I have been teaching homeschool graduates since 1995. I can usually tell when a student is homeschooled because he is better spoken, more polite, and a better student than the students who are educated in what I call the factory system—have you ever noticed the similarities between factories and schools? What I have seen in home school students is that they are able to talk to adults. Homeschoolers regularly form cooperatives so the children can socialize with other children. A good bit of research (introduced here) has debunked the myth of the unsocialized homeschooler
Remarkably, neither O’Donnell nor Bartholet raise the question of educational outcomes. Since schools are in the business of educating young people, one might have thought that educational outcomes matter in the discussion. One 2017 survey of the available peer-reviewed research suggests that homeschooled students do just as well academically as conventionally educated children. As of 2017 there were about 2.7 million children being homeschooled and many of the studies were dated.
Bartholet has published a lengthy essay in the Arizona Law Review (62.1), which is about as poorly argued as the précis published in Harvard Magazine.1 The same unsubstantiated concerns and allegations appear. The argument relies to a surprising degree on anecdotal evidence and emotive language. Not surprisingly, the majority of the argument concerns regulation. This is the heart of the argument. Bartholet fears homeschooling and intends to frighten law makers into regulating it.
What does she want? “We need a change in the culture surrounding child rights generally and their rights to education and protection in particular. We need a new understanding of children’s constitutional and human rights, and related political and litigation campaigns.” “Current thinking about homeschooling issues,” she writes, “is generally skewed by assumptions that parents have powerfully protected rights under the federal Constitution in the education and protection arenas, while children do not” (emphasis original; p. 58).
Yes, this is as radical as it sounds. She appeals to international law (pp. 59–65), including Germany’s draconian restrictions against homeschooling, as a model for American law. She argues that the U.S. Constitution provides a basis for her argument that children have “positive rights to education and protection” (p. 66) that can be used to marginalize homeschooling and to burden those who seek to homeschool. State constitutions, she notes, provide even greater authority for states to regulate homeschooling (pp. 69–72).
What more does she want?
States should impose significant restrictions on homeschooling. Legislatures should do this on their own initiative. But courts must make clear that the current regime violates children’s constitutional rights and that restrictions along the lines described below are required (emphasis original; p. 72).
What are those restrictions to be required (emphasis original)?
- General presumption against Homeschooling with Burden on Parents to Justify Exemptions
- To the degree that parents are granted exceptions to the general presumption against homeschooling, the following rules should apply
What she is proposing is something like what gun control advocates have achieved in blue states (e.g., NY, CN, NJ, CA) where the presumption is against the ownership of firearms and certainly against the carrying of them. She wants homeschoolers to have to justify (to whom she does not say) why homeschooling is necessary, why one’s child is different. The assumption is that the child is the creature of the state and not of the family. She writes, “[e]xceptions might include situations in which gifted artists or athletes want to pursue careers that demand flexibility inconsistent with normal schooling” (p.73). Standardized testing (i.e., academic performance) is not sufficient ground to be removed from her new regime.
Her “guiding principles” are that regulation “should be designed to guarantee that all homeschoolers receive “an adequate education,” i.e., “one roughly equivalent to public school education in terms of knowledge and skills taught.” Arguably, Bartholet is demanding state-enforced mediocrity.
Regulation, she writes, “should be designed with view to effective enforcement.” Systems must be “easy to implement” with “limited room for resistance” (p. 75). Yes, she wrote that clause. She wants tax dollars to fight the HSLDA. She wants homeschooling parents to submit “intended curriculum and education plan” for approval, annual submission by parents of their education credentials for review, and annual testing of homeschoolers. Low scores would trigger a requirement to enroll in school (pp. 75–76). “Inadequate compliance” would result in an order to transfer children to public school.
She also demands:
- Mandatory home visits by school officials
- Notification by CPS of parents who have been reported for suspected abuse
- Background checks of homeschool parents and others involved in homeschooling
- Presumptive rejection of application for permission to homeschool by anyone with a “problematic CPS or criminal history”
- Mandatory vaccination and health-related requirements (p. 77)
In case you thought that you might evade her new regime by enrolling in a private school, she has plans for you too (p. 78). Private schools too often operate too far outside “the mainstream” and do not, in her view, educate children adequately. She wants greater restriction on private schools too.
It would be a mistake to think that Bartholet is a cranky Harvard academic, writing in a journal that few will read. This is a major essay by a professor in one of the top law schools in the USA. This essay will reinforce and validate the fears of policy makers and law makers. It will surely be featured at the upcoming conference at Harvard Law. These are culture-making and culture-shaping institutions. Today’s Harvard Law students are tomorrow’s congressional representatives, U.S. Senators, and governors. They are achievers. They have a plan for your life. Freedom and parental control of children is not on Bartholet’s agenda and it will not likely be on theirs.
What she does not tell you is that what is really at stake here (the Marxists have a point) is money. Every school-aged child in the USA represents a certain number of dollars to each school district. Enrolled students mean more dollars for the district. This equation gives them a powerful incentive to oppose homeschooling in favor of mandatory public schooling or at least rules that burden prospective homeschoolers enough to discourage them. These are tested, effective tactics.
What can you do?
- Be aware. These sorts of challenges are coming.
- Join HSLDA. Donate to HSLDA. There is a reason Bartholet fears HSLDA. They are effective. These battles will be fought in legislatures and court rooms.
- Prepare. The is a matter of civil liberties. Bartholet et al. do not like you and they do not trust you. They think that you are illiterate and dangerous. They do not believe in what used to be called American values, e.g., your rights end where my nose begins. They are (self) righteous. They are crusaders. They are relentless. They have an (eschatological) vision for the future, where the brightest and the best are in charge of your daily life. The American ideal of freedom as the relative absence of state control is alien to their way of thinking.
- Communicate. Homeschooling is not the marginal movement that it once was. It is much nearer the mainstream than it once was. This is due in part to the fact that what people have experienced for themselves contradicts the picture that Bartholet et al. seek to paint. Homeschoolers vote. Talk to your neighbors. Talk to candidates and legislators. Pay attention to your local school board. Ultimately, Bartholet and her ilk will only be able to accomplish what voters let them accomplish.
- Pray. Bartholet’s hostility to anything like historic Christianity is fairly patent. She has an alternative view of the world and its significance. That is a spiritual struggle that flesh and blood cannot affect. Only God the Spirit can change hearts and minds at the level at which they need to be changed.
Bartholet, Elizabeth, Homeschooling: Parent Rights Absolutism vs. Child Rights to Education & Protection (June 17, 2019). 62 Ariz. L. Rev. 1 (2020); Harvard Public Law Working Paper No. 19-23. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3391331 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3391331