As a homeschooling father, I am no stranger to explaining our family’s choice to home educate our children. Yes, they have plenty of socialization with other children. Yes, we teach all the subjects. No, you can simply buy the curriculum and it tells you what to do. By now I have the answers memorized (as do most homeschool parents). You can imagine my cringe, then, when reading Harvard Law Professor Elizabeth Bartholet’s recent article appearing in Arizona Law Review, which calls for an outright ban on homeschool and the curtailment of private schools as well!
I am just a simple homeschool dad. My day job is in finance, and though I have several peer-reviewed publications and international speaking engagements to my name, I am certainly no legal scholar. In a debate on the law, I would be trounced by Prof. Bartholet. But Bartholet does not make a legal argument against homeschool. In fact, though dressed in scholarly language, at the core of her article I found the same basic questions about homeschooling that I have fielded from friends and family for years now, with one addition: how do we know you are a good parent? So I shall explain, yet again, our decision to homeschool our children, this time to Prof. Bartholet. I shall further show that homeschool parents are, on the whole, good people.
Ostensibly, Bartholet’s central rationale for a ban on home education is that, in her words, “there is no other way to ensure children receive an education or protection against maltreatment at all comparable to that provided to public school children.” Because teachers are required to report suspicions of abuse, abusive parents can, under current homeschool law, decrease their chances of detection by simply removing their children from school. Inclusive with this argument is the legal requirement that children receive a primary and secondary education. Under the current homeschool paradigm, argues Bartholet, the state has no assurance that this legal requirement is met by homeschooling parents. Therefore, “when weighed in balance,” Bartholet concludes that the only way forward is to ban home education.
While I may not be an expert on the law, logic is part of our children’s homeschool curriculum, and Bartholet makes an error here that I taught my son to spot when he was seven. Bartholet’s conclusion rests on a false dichotomy. Is it really true that “there is no other way” to ensure children are not mistreated and receive an education? Bartholet presents readers with a false choice: either the current regime is maintained and children are abused or homeschool is banned and children are protected. As we all well know, the real world is more nuanced than that, and there are millions of points between the current regime and an outright ban.
Bartholet herself points out that it is already a constitutional requirement that children receive an education. Under current law, anyone who suspects the abuse or neglect of a child can (and should!) report those suspicions to authorities. When those suspicions include the denial of a legally-required education, current law allows authorities to hold parents to account. Is it really true, then, that new laws are required to protect children from abuse and ensure they receive an education? To a layman like myself, it seems that efforts to enforce existing law would provide faster and more effective help to victims of abuse than efforts to pass and enforce new law. Not to mention, it is an obvious alternative to the false dichotomy.
Even so, Bartholet’s “no oversight” characterization of homeschool is false. Only nine states have no oversight of homeschooling parents. Most states do regulate homeschool, and some regulate it quite heavily. South Carolina’s rules are among the most common, requiring parents to obtain approval from their local school district, teach required subjects for a minimum amount of time per day (and a required number of days per year), maintain written records of that instruction, submit semiannual progress reports, and test children annually. California additionally requires the parent to be a credentialed teacher. Even homeschooling rules in Kansas, a relatively lenient state, requires registration, a minimum amount of instruction, and ongoing testing. For most of the US population, then, Bartholet’s argument does not even apply.
But let’s address the spirit of Bartholet’s argument head on: is homeschool a haven for child abuse and neglect? Do homeschooled children receive an inferior education? It is on this point that Bartholet makes another logical error. Rather than present definitive and large-scale studies to back up her claims that this is so, Bartholet references anecdotes and small case studies, using this to generalize to the entire homeschool population. By her own admission, “there is no way now to determine the exact scope of the child maltreatment problem in homeschooling because, given the absence of regulation, we simply don’t know who is in this population.” If we do not know the scope of the problem—or even if a problem exists—how can we possibly settle on a solution? Especially a solution as drastic as an outright ban.
What data we do have contradicts Bartholet’s claims, showing that homeschoolers are quite well prepared for college and beyond. One study of over 16,000 college freshman, found that homeschooled children had higher standardized test scores, higher college GPAs, and higher college graduation rates than their peers (a similar study found that same). Other authors concluded that homeschooled children were “well equipped to succeed academically and socially.” Bartholet dismisses this data as selection bias, but offers no counter-data.
With respect to the abuse of children by parents purporting to homeschool, the subject is, as Bartholet points out, not widely analyzed. One of the most widely cited studies (and a centerpiece in Bartholet’s paper) was compiled by the state of Connecticut after the tragic 2017 death of Matthew Tirado at the hands of his parents. In this study, the Connecticut Child Advocacy Office analyzed data from six districts from 2013 to 2016 and found that 380 students were withdrawn to be homeschooled and, of those, 138 had been the subject of at least one child abuse complaint. To put these figures in context, this makes the potential rate of abuse-by-homeschool around 0.025% per year—about 3.7 times less than the broader child-abuse rate of 0.92% per year. Hardly justification for the extreme measures advocated by Bartholet, though she advances it as such.
Yet there is a deeper, unnamed assumption made by Bartholet. She assumes that children are receiving their constitutionally promised education and physical protection in public schools. As it turns out, that may not be a valid assumption. Over 7% of 8th to 11th grade children reported being sexually abused by a teacher or coach, and there is some evidence that teachers are reluctant to report suspected abuse by another teacher for “fear of ruining their life.” If we were to reason from anecdotes, as Professor Bartholet does, I would also note that a teacher-coach from my own school was convicted of sexually abusing a middle school girl (and there were rumors surrounding other teachers who mysteriously resigned). As if that were not enough, almost half of all students report being bullied at least once in the past month. Public schools, at least by my standards, have not protected the physical well-being of their students nearly well enough. Bartholet is silent on this point.
Harvard University itself is a testament that institutionalization is no insurance against abuse. In 2019, at least two sexual abuse and harassment cases were outed at the institution. In the first, a professor of economics was placed on leave for “unwelcome conduct,” and creating an hostile work environment. In the second, a government professor was stripped of titles and barred from campus after a Title IX investigation revealed sexual assaults stretching back forty years! In this particular case, the professor had already been disciplined in 1983 over allegations of sexual harassment, but was allowed to continue teaching. Harvard also recently released its 2019 AAU Survey on Sexual Assault and Misconduct. Shockingly, 20% of Harvard’s own undergraduate women reported “sexual touching by force or inability to consent.” I am absolutely horrified by that statistic—1 in 5 undergraduate women are sexually assaulted on Harvard’s campus!? Perhaps Professor Bartholet wishes to ban Harvard?
The stats on educational attainment are not much better. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, a mere 37% of high school seniors are considered to have achieved a proficient or advanced reading level (defined as “solid academic performance and competency over challenging subject matter”). Mathematics is worse, with only 25% of seniors considered proficient or advanced. Put another way, in public schools, only around 1 in 3 children attain proficiency in reading by their graduation, and a paltry 1 in 4 attain proficiency in mathematics. I can wholeheartedly agree with Professor Bartholet that children deserve a strong education, but the data disagrees with her that such an education is currently guaranteed in public schools.
A scholar like Bartholet knows the data, which do not support her premises. Because she is a teacher of the law I have little doubt that she understands the logic, which fails to support her conclusion. So what is really going on here? Despite her stated rationale, her real motivation appears to lurk a bit deeper: “A very large proportion of homeschooling parents are ideologically committed to isolating their children from the majority culture and indoctrinating them in views and values that are in serious conflict with that culture” (By the way, I noticed no citation for that claim, Professor).
And so, there it is. I suspect Bartholet’s proposed ban has little (if nothing) to do with the protection and education of children and more to do with a war for their minds. Bartholet, despite the rhetoric, is actually worried that she cannot control what values parents teach their children. It is here that Bartholet attempts to paint homeschooling parents as generally religious, misogynist, racist, and/or anti-science. But, yet again, the data does not support this. Most parents cite safety, bullying, or peer pressure as their primary reason for choosing home education. Around 1 in 5 parents list academic rigor as their primary reason. A mere 17% of parents listed a desire for religious instruction as the primary reason for choosing to educate their children at home. In almost every way, despite Bartholet’s characterization, the homeschooling population is representative of society—we are average everyday folks.
This war for the minds of our children is not without significant consequences. As citizens we should stand for intellectual freedom, for intellectual diversity. I reject, unequivocally, the notion that we need one unifying vision, one unifying value, or one unifying experience. It is even embedded in the very motto of America: “out of many, one.” Nobel-laureate F.A. Hayek explains why this diversity is so important:
“This interaction of individuals, possessing different knowledge and different views, is what constitutes the life of thought. The growth of reason is a social process based on the existence of such differences. …By attempting to control it, we are merely setting bounds to its development and must sooner or later produce a stagnation of thought and a decline of reason.”
Intellectual diversity is the cornerstone of reason, of progress itself. Without it we stall and fester. Diverse values, ideas, and experiences are not a conflict with culture—they are its bedrock!
So, yes, Prof. Bartholet, our children get lots of socialization. Yes, we do real schoolwork with real curriculum (you would probably approve!). Yes, we protect our children from abuse, neglect, and bullying. But you never asked the only important question, Professor: why do we homeschool? Everyone is different, of course, so I can only answer for myself. And though no homeschool parent owes anyone an explanation or defense, I will share why our family has chosen this path. We live, today, in an age of absurdity. Though words are in ample supply, truth and understanding are nigh extinct. Literacy, once a great gift, has ensured an incessant supply of beguiling wordsmiths pulling our hearts to enslave our minds. Surely we have learned that literacy is not enough! If it is to be of any value, education must serve to emancipate the mind. We homeschool so our children’s minds are not slaves to clever wordsmiths. We homeschool to arm our children with the tools to master words rather than serve them. We homeschool to build a world of reason, thoughtfulness, and decency. And none of that to say you cannot achieve the same in public school. But a ban on homeschool (and private school) means that education becomes an enforced monopoly, and enforced monopolies, as I’m sure you’d agree, are not particularly effective at cultivating diversity.
But I am just a homeschool dad, not a legal scholar.
Assuming the districts in the study were representative of the boarder 170 districts in Connecticut. There were around 550,000 students per year enrolled in all of CT across 2013-2016. A representative six districts represents 91,667 students per year. The study found 138 students across three years were subject to potential abuse-by-homeschool. Therefore, 46 children out of 91,667 (0.025%) were potentially subject to abuse-by-homeschool per year.
Written by: Franklin J. Parker, with contributions from John Logan