This argument describes the threat homeschooling poses to children and society.
It lays out some reasons Homeschooling is attractive.
Parents can now keep their children at home in the name of homeschooling free from any real scrutiny as to whether or how they are educating their children.
Parents want to isolate their children from ideas and values they don’t like. (Science and Moral and Ethics)
Parents want to promote racial segregation and female subservience.
Abusive parents can keep their children at home free from the risk that teachers will report them to child protection services.
This Argument calls for a presumptive ban on homeschooling, with the burden on parents to demonstrate justification for permission to homeschool.
I don’t agree with a presumptive ban. However, we need to solve for abusive parents.
[pdf-embedder url=”https://dadad.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/HOMESCHOOLING-PARENT-RIGHTS-ABSOLUTISM-VS.-CHILD-RIGHTS-TO-EDUCATION-PROTECTION.pdf” title=”HOMESCHOOLING- PARENT RIGHTS ABSOLUTISM VS. CHILD RIGHTS TO EDUCATION & PROTECTION”]
In a recent University of Arizona Law Review article, Elizabeth Bartholet, a Harvard law professor, claims that the “homeschooling regime poses real dangers to children and to society.” Bartholet’s legal argument is that homeschooling is an infringement on child rights, placing children in inferior, socially isolating, and dangerous educational environments. This threatens democracy, she says, since homeschooling is not likely to provide the kind of civic education available in public schools, especially regarding democratic values. Besides the risk of child abuse and indoctrination, the strength of far right-wing religious conservatives in the homeschooling movement ensures that children will be forced into submitting to patriarchy, leading, Bartholet fears, to “female subservience.” If that wasn’t enough, she goes on to charge the homeschooling movement with links to white supremacy and racial segregation. According to Bartholet, the future of our democracy depends on “freeing” these children from unhappiness and ignorance.
Beyond the antecdotal “evidence” Bartholet provides, is there social scientific evidence that demands the “death penalty” for homeschooling? After considering the impact of the homeschooling movement on community involvement, diversity, and the dignity of the child, it is clear that Bartholet’s prosecution fails to overcome reasonable doubt.
For this analysis, I analyzed data from the 2016 National Household Education Survey (NHES), which included a random sample of 552 homeschoolers in America. I also drew on the Cardus Education Study (CES) findings, which surveyed large random samples of private schoolers, including homeshoolers, in the United States, who had graduated from high school and were between 24 and 39 years old in 2018.
Bartholet claims that homeschooling “…parents…are ideologically committed to raising children in isolation from the larger society….” This analysis finds, however, that homeschooling children are part of families strongly linked to civic institutions and events. The NHES study included a battery of questions about community activities done by someone in the family in the last month, including attending a sporting event, attending a concert, going to the zoo or aquarium, going to a museum, going to a library, visiting a bookstore, or attending an event sponsored by a community, religious, or ethnic group. Added together, we find that homeschooling families have the highest level of community involvement of all school sectors.
This civic involvement not only strengthens social capital and trust within communities, but also provides a “hidden” or implicit curriculum important for civic socialization, which may carry into young adulthood. In the 2018 CES, about 22% of homeschooled young adults said they know a leader in their community, which compares favorably to the public school average (19). The total number of volunteer and community service hours for homeschooling graduates is very similar to or slightly higher than public school graduates.
As an embattled political minority, we would not expect to find high levels of political participation among homeschoolers, except, perhaps, lobbying to defend homeschooling. Yet, according to the CES review of U.S. data, young adult graduates of homeschooling are nearly identical to public schoolers in their likelihood of voting in the 2016 presidential election.
Homeschooling graduates likelihood of voting in local elections is also identical to public schoolers. They are slightly less likely to be registered to vote, but the two sectors have very similar levels of interest in politics.
Bartholet seems to take the “home” in homeschooling too seriously, as if their windows have prison bars. In actual practice, homeschoolers are organized in complex networks with educational organizations, civic, religious, and cultural organizations, informal personal and virtual support groups, friendship circles, extended family, and so on.
A second major problem is that Bartholet overlooks the striking diversity within homeschooling, focusing instead on incendiary anecdotes. “Some [homeschoolers],” according to Bartholet, “engage in homeschooling to promote racist ideologies and avoid racial intermingling.”
The reality is that about 41% of homeschooled children are racial and ethnic minorities. When asked about four closest friends, about 37% of young adult homeschoolers in the CES mention someone of a different race or ethnicity—exactly the same as public schoolers (see last figure near the end of this brief). The increasing segregation in public schools has perhaps removed any advantage for cross-race friendship ties in that sector.
Data increasingly show that homeschooling is not a monolith, including considerable religious diversity. In the NHES, only about 16% say they are homeschooling primarily for religious reasons, and 5% for reasons of moral instruction. In the NHES national sample asking about reasons for homeschooling, only 51% cite religion at all, while 80% mention the school environment in other schools and 61% are dissatisfied with the academic instruction at traditional schools. Perhaps surprising to Harvard Law, but not to religion and education researchers, parents mentioning religion as a reason to homeschool are more educated than those who do not.
Homeschool graduates are not uniformly opposed to diversity in the public square, either. Bartholet claims that “a large percentage of homeschooling parents are committed to teaching their children that…democratic views and values are wrong.” The evidence is mixed at best. Homeschool graduates in the CES have higher levels of support for free speech norms than do graduates of public schools. Religious homeschool graduates are more likely than public school graduates to agree that a person should be free to express anti-religious ideas in the public square. Perhaps the experience of being an educational minority generates empathy for those who challenge convention, increasing support for key democratic values.
This diversity extends to schooling practices. Increasingly, homeschooling adopts surprising new forms, including “hybrids” that combine the benefits of home and institutional schooling. In fact, an estimated 57% of homeschoolers do not receive all of their education exclusively at home. Many of these are part-time public schoolers. In NHES, 32% of homeschoolers are receiving instruction at a public or private school or university. About 25% of homeschoolers receive instruction in public schools.
Homeschooling materials are not entirely from the dark ages either. About 32% obtain their homeschool curriculum or books from the public school or school district. Altogether, 46% of homeschoolers have some pedagogical relationship with public schools. If we include siblings who attend a public or private school, 58% of homeschooling families have a tie to public educational systems. These hybrid schooling experiences are likely to expand in a COVID-19 world. For this reason, Bartholet’s argument seems better suited for the late 20th Century, when homeschool-public school cooperation was in its infancy.
Lastly, what about Bartholet’s view of homeschooling and child dignity? The homeschooled child is not locked up in a nuclear family prison, where girls are forced into “female subservience.” Their dignity is certainly not threatened by power dynamics more imposing than they would face in the social life and organization of public schools.
The homeschooling movement emphasizes the fit between schooling and the unique needs of a child at a particular stage of emotional and intellectual development, who may not thrive in a single environment for their entire schooling career. Consistent with this view, homeschooling is not the school of choice for the child’s entire elementary and secondary education. The NHES data reveal that only about 6 to 8% of homeschooled children spend all their school years at home. About 50% of homeschoolers spend less than half of their elementary and secondary school years in homeschooling. While Bartholet presents an image of authoritarian parents insisting on homeschool despite their child’s needs or wants, the reality is that most homeschooling families use various schooling options for each child.
Moreover, findings from the 2018 CES do not find homeschoolers bitter and lost. After family background and demographic controls are accounted for, about 64% of homeschoolers completely agree that they have so much in life to be thankful for (compared to 53% of public schoolers). Nor do we find that homeschoolers are different from public schools on feelings of helplessness, or lack or goals or direction in life.
Regarding dignity for girls, Bartholet claims that,
Some homeschooling parents are extreme religious ideologues who live in near-total isolation…some believe that women should be totally subservient to men and educated in ways that promote such subservience.
However, there is not support for the claim that religiously-conservative homeschoolers are patriarchal in their views of education. Using the NHES, I predicted the level of education homeschooling parents expected their child to achieve. The analysis tested whether, after demographic and family background controls, religious parents who homeschool favor the education of their boys over their girls. When using the civic/religious attendance as the measure of a religious home, the gender difference was small, favoring boys, but was not statistically significant. When using religious curriculum as a measure of religious homeschooling, the estimate of a gender difference in educational expectations disappeared. I do not find evidence that religiously conservative homeschoolers are opposed to higher education for their girls. Again, this is not surprising news, since sociology of religion scholars have long known that religious conservatives—along with everyone else—ignore their own scripts. Like evangelical Protestant home schoolers, religiously conservative homeschoolers are not walled off from dominant cultural trends.
Bartholet seems to take the “home” in homeschooling too seriously, as if their windows have prison bars. In actual practice, homeschoolers are “organized for instruction” in complex networks with educational organizations, civic, religious, and cultural organizations, informal personal and virtual support groups, friendship circles, extended family, and so on. The weight of bonding and bridging social capital matters for children, and the actual practice of homeschooling has many strengths on this score.
Traditional public schools continue to face imposing obstacles to achieving public purposes, especially as conceived by Bartholet. The question of schooling oversight remains, of course, but it would be short-sighted not to keep homeschooling and other creative schooling options in the mix, including the hybrid models that cross sector boundaries. In a COVID world, homeschooling may have something to teach us.
David Sikkink, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Notre Dame, has studied school sector effects on civic, political, and educational outcomes of teens and young adults, especially through design and analysis of the Cardus Education Survey.
Berner, Ashley Rogers. 2017. Pluralism and American Public Education : No One Way to School. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
Beyerlein, Kraig. 2004. “Specifying the Impact of Conservative Protestantism on Educational Attainment.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 43(4):505-18.
Gallagher, Sally K. and Christian Smith. 1999. “Symbolic Traditionalism and Pragmatic Egalitarianism: Contemporary Evangelicals, Families, and Gender.” Gender & Society 13(2):211-33.
Horwitz, Ilana M., Benjamin W. Domingue and Kathleen Mullan Harris. 2020. “Not a Family Matter: The Effects of Religiosity on Academic Outcomes Based on Evidence from Siblings.” Social Science Research:102426.
Kunzman, Robert. 2009. Write These Laws on Your Children : Inside the World of Conservative Christian Homeschooling. Boston, Mass.: Beacon Press.
MacMullen, Ian. 2018. “Religious Schools, Civic Education, and Public Policy: A Framework for Evaluation and Decision.” Theory and Research in Education 16(2):141-61.
NCES. 2019. “Homeschooling in the United States: Results from the 2012 and 2016 Parent and Family Involvement Survey.” Vol. Washington D.C.: National Center for Education Statistics.
Sikkink, David and Jonathan Hill. 2016. “Religion and Education.” in Handbook on Religion and Social Institutions, edited by D. Yamane. New York City: Springer.
Smith, Christian. 2000. Christian America? What Evangelicals Really Want. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Wagner, Melinda Bollar. 1990. God’s Schools : Choice and Compromise in American Society. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
Wilcox, William Bradford. 2004. Soft Patriarchs, New Men: How Christianity Shapes Fathers and Husbands. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
When I told my 13-year-old homeschooled daughter that I would be participating in an upcoming debate with the Harvard professor who recommends a “presumptive ban” on homeschooling, she asked incredulously, “Why would anyone want to prevent people from homeschooling?”
I told her that some people worry that children could be abused or neglected by parents who choose to homeschool, which is why in a recent Arizona Law Review article, Harvard Law School professor Elizabeth Bartholet called for a “presumptive ban” on the practice, allowing the state to grant permission to homeschool only after parents first prove that they are worthy of the task and after they also agree to other state interventions, such as regular home visits by government “mandated reporters” of child abuse and ensuring that their children still take at least some classes at their local government school.
My daughter was baffled. I asked her what she thinks my response to the professor should be in the upcoming discussion hosted by the Cato Institute on Monday, June 15th, that will be livestreamed to the public. She said that many of the young people who attend the self-directed learning center for homeschoolers where my daughter and her siblings take classes chose homeschooling to escape abuse in their previous school. Many of them were bullied by peers or otherwise unhappy there, and homeschooling has been a positive game-changer for them. “Maybe the professor doesn’t really know homeschoolers,” my daughter said. “You should explain to her what it’s really like.”
That is what I intend to do. My argument in favor of homeschooling and against “presumptive bans” and regulation hinges on three primary principles:
Principle 1: Today’s Homeschoolers Are Diverse, Engaged, and Competent
As my daughter suggested, opponents of homeschooling or those who believe in greater state authority over the practice may not really know a lot about today’s homeschoolers. Stereotypes of homeschoolers as isolated radicals were rarely true even a generation ago when homeschooling became legally recognized in all US states by the mid-1990s, and they are even less true now.
Twenty-first-century homeschoolers are increasingly reflective of the overall US population, demographically, geographically, ideologically, and socioeconomically. They choose homeschooling for a wide variety of reasons, but a top motivator cited by homeschooling parents in the most recent US Department of Education data on the topic is “concern about the environment of other schools, including safety, drugs, and negative peer pressure.” Only 16 percent of homeschooling parents in this nationally representative sample chose a “desire to provide religious instruction” as their top motivator. Much of the growth in homeschooling over the past decade has come from urban, secular families seeking a different, more custom-fit educational environment for their kids.
Homeschoolers are diverse in many ways, from their reasons for homeschooling, to the educational philosophies they embrace, to the curriculum they use (or don’t use). Homeschooling is also becoming much more racially and ethnically diverse, with federal data showing that one-quarter of the nearly two million US homeschoolers are Hispanic, which mirrors the population of Hispanic children in the overall US K-12 school-age population. Black homeschooling is also growing, with many African American parents choosing this education option for their children to “protect them from institutional racism and stereotyping.”
Additionally, recent research by Daniel Hamlin at the University of Oklahoma finds that homeschoolers are highly engaged in their communities with frequent opportunities to build “cultural capital” through regular visits to libraries, museums, and participation in cultural events. Hamlin states: “Relative to public school students, homeschooled students are between two and three times more likely to visit an art gallery, museum, or historical site; visit a library; or attend an event sponsored by a community, religious, or ethnic group. Homeschooled students are also approximately 1.5 times more likely to visit a zoo, aquarium, or bookstore during the course of a month.”
As the COVID-19 pandemic led to massive school shutdowns this spring, over 50 million US schoolchildren found themselves learning at home. Whether because of ongoing virus fears and concerns about school reopenings with strict social distancing requirements, or because they found learning at home more rewarding than they expected, many parents are seriously considering opting out of conventional schooling—at least in the short-term. A new poll by USA Today/Ipsos found that 60 percent of parents say they will likely choose at-home learning rather than sending their children to school in the fall even if they reopen.
Some of these parents may be glad to know that a recent literature reviewon homeschooling conducted by Lindsey Burke of the Heritage Foundation finds excellent academic outcomes for homeschooled students. She concludes that “the outcomes of those who homeschool, whether the result of homeschooling itself or other unobservable characteristics of families who homeschool such as greater parental involvement, shows positive academic outcomes for participants.”
The wide variety of reasons for and approaches to homeschooling means that subjecting homeschooling families to the education and oversight requirements of government schools, or requiring homeschoolers to take regular classes at these schools, imposes conformity on a population of families that is deeply heterogeneous. It may seem neat and easy to mandate government schooling regulations and expectations on families who opt out of this method, but it limits individuality, experimentation, and divergence. We may not like how different families choose to live and learn, but that is no excuse to intolerantly impose our own preferences on them through government force.
Principle 2: Parents Know Better Than the State
My husband and I chose homeschooling right from the beginning of our childrearing days, recognizing that it would provide a more expansive, interest-driven, academically challenging educational environment for our four children than would be possible in a conventional school. Instead of going to the same building every day, with the same static handful of teachers and the same age-segregated group of peers doing the same curriculum, our children are immersed in the people, places, and things of our city and, with the exception of this pandemic, spend much of their time outside of our home interacting with friends and mentors in our community. We rejected schooling from the start, but as my daughter suggests, many families use homeschooling as an exit ramp from an unsatisfactory or abusive schooling experience.
Peer abuse in the form of physical and emotional bullying is rampant in schools, and is one reason why some parents choose to withdraw their children from school for homeschooling. Data suggest that nearly half of children in grades four to 12 experience bullying at least once a month, and peer sexual assaults at school are alarmingly common. Depression and anxiety are rising among children and teens, and the youth suicide rateclimbed 56 percent between 2007 and 2017. Researchers at Vanderbilt University found a strong seasonal relationship between youth suicide and school attendance, with suicidal acts and tendencies declining during the summer months and soaring at back-to-school time. This is an opposite pattern to adult suicide rates and tendencies, which peak in July and August.
Opponents of homeschooling point to rare examples of abuse or neglect by parents who identify (or who the state identifies) as homeschoolers to argue for heightened homeschool regulation. Yet, government schools are heavily regulated and surveilled, and abuse still regularly occurs there, and not only in the form of bullying.
Headlines abound of educators abusing children on school premises, and a 2004 US Department of Education study found that one in 10 children who attend a government school will be sexually abused by a government school employee by the time the child graduates from high school. Child abuse tragically happens in all types of settings, but some researchsuggests that homeschooled children are less likely to be abused than their schooled peers. This shouldn’t be surprising, as homeschooling parents are often choosing homeschooling, while making significant personal sacrifices, to ensure their child’s safety and well-being.
Child abuse is horrific and anyone convicted of this crime should be severely punished, but it is absurd to suggest that homeschooling parents need to be frequently monitored and evaluated by government officials who struggle to keep children safe within their own government institutions. Clean up your own house before telling others how to clean theirs.
Parents are not perfect and they do commit crimes, sometimes against their own children, just as educators sometimes commit crimes against the children in their schools. But if we are to grant power to families or to the state to protect children, we should side with families who have shown for millennia, well before governments were instituted, that they are capable of raising and educating their own children.
Principle 3: In America, We Have a Presumption of Innocence
Perhaps the most sinister aspect of proposals to presumptively ban or heavily regulate homeschoolers is the deep suspicion it betrays toward a group that chooses to live and learn differently. The suggestion is that because some tiny fraction of homeschooling parents could commit a crime against children then all homeschooling parents should be subject to increased scrutiny and surveillance. This says that homeschoolers should be presumed to be guilty until proven innocent, with frequent monitoring to ensure no wrongdoing.
We rightfully condemn racial profiling and other attempts to single out an entire group for increased suspicion out of concerns about the actions of a few. We should criticize efforts to monitor and control the beliefs and behaviors of people who live differently, valuing the pluralism of American culture. We must recognize the cost of trading individual liberty for some alleged security. It is a dangerous exchange.
If a parent, educator, or any person is suspected of abusing a child, then that individual should be arrested, charged, and tried. But to single out an entire group for pre-crime surveillance with no evidence of lawbreaking is wrong. Critics might argue that if homeschoolers have nothing to hide, they shouldn’t mind more state intrusion if it could protect children.
By this same logic, we should allow periodic police inspections of our homes to protect our neighborhoods and make sure none of us are thieves. If we have nothing to hide, we should allow the government to routinely read our emails and listen to our phone calls. We should be okay with stop-and-frisk. In a free society, we should not be okay with these violations of privacy that expand state power and make us less free and less safe.
The central question is what kind of society do we wish to live in? Do we want entire groups subject to special scrutiny and suspicion just because they are different? Do we want to accept a legal regime of guilty until proven innocent? Do we want government to serve families, or families to serve government? At the heart of a free society is tolerating difference and accepting diversity—in lifestyles, in beliefs, in values, and in parenting and educational practices.
Government schools have a lot to focus on, including reducing abuse in schools, raising reading scores, and getting more than 15 percent of students to be proficient in US history. Child advocates, educators, and policy makers should help these schoolchildren by making government schooling safer and more effective, while leaving homeschooling families alone.
Kerry McDonald is a Senior Education Fellow at FEE and author of Unschooled: Raising Curious, Well-Educated Children Outside the Conventional Classroom (Chicago Review Press, 2019). She is also an adjunct scholar at The Cato Institute and a regular Forbes contributor. Kerry has a B.A. in economics from Bowdoin College and an M.Ed. in education policy from Harvard University. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts with her husband and four children. You can sign up for her weekly newsletter on parenting and education here.