RAPIDLY INCREASING number of American families are opting out of sending their children to school, choosing instead to educate them at home. Homeschooled kids now account for roughly 3 percent to 4 percent of school-age children in the United States, a number equivalent to those attending charter schools, and larger than the number currently in parochial schools.
Yet Elizabeth Bartholet, Wasserstein public interest professor of law and faculty director of the Law School’s Child Advocacy Program, sees risks for children—and society—in homeschooling, and recommends a presumptive ban on the practice. Homeschooling, she says, not only violates children’s right to a “meaningful education” and their right to be protected from potential child abuse, but may keep them from contributing positively to a democratic society.
“We have an essentially unregulated regime in the area of homeschooling,” Bartholet asserts. All 50 states have laws that make education compulsory, and state constitutions ensure a right to education, “but if you look at the legal regime governing homeschooling, there are very few requirements that parents do anything.” Even apparent requirements such as submitting curricula, or providing evidence that teaching and learning are taking place, she says, aren’t necessarily enforced. Only about a dozen states have rules about the level of education needed by parents who homeschool, she adds. “That means, effectively, that people can homeschool who’ve never gone to school themselves, who don’t read or write themselves.” In another handful of states, parents are not required to register their children as homeschooled; they can simply keep their kids at home.
This practice, Bartholet says, can isolate children. She argues that one benefit of sending children to school at age four or five is that teachers are “mandated reporters,” required to alert authorities to evidence of child abuse or neglect. “Teachers and other school personnel constitute the largest percentage of people who report to Child Protective Services,” she explains, whereas not one of the 50 states requires that homeschooling parents be checked for prior reports of child abuse. Even those convicted of child abuse, she adds, could “still just decide, ‘I’m going to take my kids out of school and keep them at home.’”
As an example, she points to the memoir Educated, by Tara Westover, the daughter of Idaho survivalists who never sent their children to school. Although Westover learned to read, she writes that she received no other formal education at home, but instead spent her teenage years working in her father’s scrap business, where severe injuries were common, and endured abuse by an older brother. Bartholet doesn’t see the book as an isolated case of a family that slipped through the cracks: “That’s what can happen under the system in effect in most of the nation.”
In a paper published recently in the Arizona Law Review, she notes that parents choose homeschooling for an array of reasons. Some find local schools lacking or want to protect their child from bullying. Others do it to give their children the flexibility to pursue sports or other activities at a high level. But surveys of homeschoolers show that a majority of such families (by some estimates, up to 90 percent) are driven by conservative Christian beliefs, and seek to remove their children from mainstream culture. Bartholet notes that some of these parents are “extreme religious ideologues” who question science and promote female subservience and white supremacy.
She views the absence of regulations ensuring that homeschooled children receive a meaningful education equivalent to that required in public schools as a threat to U.S. democracy. “From the beginning of compulsory education in this country, we have thought of the government as having some right to educate children so that they become active, productive participants in the larger society,” she says. This involves in part giving children the knowledge to eventually get jobs and support themselves. “But it’s also important that children grow up exposed to community values, social values, democratic values, ideas about nondiscrimination and tolerance of other people’s viewpoints,” she says, noting that European countries such as Germany ban homeschooling entirely and that countries such as France require home visits and annual tests.
Harvard’s Homeschooling Summit: Problems, Politics, and Prospects for Reform – June 18-19, 2020.
Related: 1. Ivy League payments and entitlements cost taxpayers $41.59 billion over a six-year period (FY2010-FY2015). This is equivalent to $120,000 in government monies, subsidies, & special tax treatment per undergraduate student, or $6.93 billion per year.
And yet these imperfections and heartbreaking realities are not unique to homeschooling. Should there be oversight? Yes. Can we have productive conversations about how best to realize the power and flexibility of homeschooling for certain students while guarding against abuse for others? Absolutely. But there are risks to sending your child to public school, private school, or parochial school. As a parent, the fact that children are vulnerable to abuse by any authority figure in their life is a danger I am ever mindful of. (I’m not aware of any research suggesting that abuse by homeschool parents is more prevalent than abuse by other parents, relatives, teachers, or coaches.)
So why single out homeschooling? For Professor Bartholet the critical fact seems to be that “a majority of such families … are driven by conservative Christian beliefs” and that some are “extreme religious ideologues” who are
“ideologically committed to isolating their children from the majority culture” and who “don’t believe in the scientific method, looking to the Bible instead.” She highlights the story of Tara Westover and her incredible memoir Educated, suggesting that Tara’s remarkable experience—as the daughter of a mentally unstable, off-the-grid survivalist in rural Idaho—demonstrates why a permissive homeschool regime is untenable. Unstated but implied is that any child in a family with “conservative Christian beliefs” is just a few short steps from Tara’s nightmare. Unexplained is how any law would have made a difference in a case like Tara’s.
Ironically, like so many missives from the ivory tower,
Professor Bartholet’s argument and unacknowledged biases may accomplish the exact opposite of what she intends: highlighting the virtues of alternative education options in a world full of “experts” ready to teach our children what is good and true and beautiful.
As for this homeschool graduate, I can only express my gratitude that the educational choices that were made for me were made by the two people in this world who knew me best, who loved me most, and who sincerely wished the very best for me and my siblings.
Thanks for the sacrifices, Mom & Dad. They were worth it.