This June, pandemic conditions permitting, Harvard University will host a conference—not open to the public—to discuss the purported dangers of homeschooling and strategies for legal reform. The co-organizer, Harvard law professor Elizabeth Bartholet, believes that homeschooling should be banned, as it is “a realm of near-absolute parental power. . . . inconsistent with a proper understanding of the human rights of children.” The conference has caused a stir on social media, owing to a profile of Bartholet in Harvard magazine, accompanied by a cartoon of a forlorn-looking girl behind the barred windows of a house made out of books titled, “Reading, Writing, Arithmetic, Bible.”
Harvard claims, based on a Bartholet law review article, that as many as 90 percent of homeschoolers are “driven by conservative Christian beliefs, and seek to remove their children from mainstream culture.” But Bartholet’s research falls short of supporting this observation. In fact, we know strikingly little about homeschooling families. A 2013 review of the academic literature noted that, while academics assume that conservative Christians make up the largest subset of homeschoolers, “whether this percentage is two-thirds, one-half, or less is a matter of speculation.”
To support her claim that as many as 90 percent of homeschoolers are motivated by conservative Christian beliefs, Bartholet cites two primary sources. One is a survey by Cardus Education Group, which, she notes, “reveals 70 percent [of homeschoolers] in the religious category vs. the nonreligious category.” But that survey categorizes students as “religious homeschoolers” if their mother attends church once a month. Bartholet’s other source is a survey by the Department of Education, which asked parents about their motivation for homeschooling. Only 16 percent said religious considerations were of primary importance (compared with 34 percent who cited safety and 35 percent who listed academic or special-needs considerations). Fifty-one percent said that religion was important, while 80 percent said that safety was important. It’s reasonable to conclude from these data that most homeschool parents are religious—but empirically false to claim that as many as 90 percent are conservative Christians who wish to shield their children from mass culture.
Some, to be sure, fit this description. But before making judgments about them, academics might first try to understand them. Stanford University professor Mitchell Stevens, for example, published an inquiry into the culture of homeschooling that the New York Review of Books commended for taking readers beyond media-driven stereotypes. Bartholet does not cite Mitchell’s book. She does, however, manage to fit into a single footnote references to Gawker, Bitch Media, and an anonymous blog with a defunct URL. Her law review article contains several anecdotes about homeschooling families who teach female subservience or white supremacy, but she makes no effort to quantify this phenomenon, or to demonstrate her contention that “homeschooling to promote racist ideologies and avoid racial intermingling” is a common motivation, beyond the case of a Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, who homeschooled his son for that reason.
It would be useful to know how homeschooled students perform academically compared with their public school counterparts. A 2017 literature review, focusing only on peer-reviewed articles, found that the majority of studies showed positive academic, social and emotional, and long-term life outcomes. Bartholet dismisses much of this literature, noting that it tends to focus on a not necessarily representative sample of homeschoolers who “emerge from isolation to do things like take standardized tests.”