Opinion | Opposition to home-school reflects political bias in academia

By Michael Clifford, Staff Columnist

More and more parents have elected to home-school their children over the last several decades — as courts have upheld the right of parents to refuse to send their children to public schools — but that hasn’t stopped a certain contingent of voices who hope to strictly regulate or end the practice.

A Harvard Law School summit, which was originally scheduled for June but is now postponed, features some of these voices. More concerningly, though, it does not feature any proponents of home-schooling, which reflects a major problem in academia — tunnel vision. Experts also have political views and biases, and it is important that those biases be checked by the presence of alternative views.

The event is organized by Professor Elizabeth Bartholet, whose 2019 article in the Arizona Law Review — in which she called for a “presumptive ban” on home-schooling — was featured in a controversial piece by Erin O’Donnell in the May/June issue of Harvard Magazine. That article attracted ire from proponents of home-schooling, who saw Bartholet’s argument as both hyperbolic and an affront to parental rights and political pluralism. They are correct.

At a time when schools around the nation remain shuttered due to lockdowns related to the coronavirus, attacks on home-schooling are especially unwelcome. Since nationwide school closures began, about 40% of Americans indicated in a recent poll that they would be more likely to enroll their children in school online or at home. Policymakers have a duty to make that job easier, not harder.

But while concerns over home-schooling usually focus on socialization or academic outcomes, research has demonstrated that these concerns are largely unsupported. Many of the arguments offered by Bartholet are far different.

First is the argument that public schooling protects children from abusive parents at home. While nobody would not dispute the importance of preventing child abuse in the home, it is wrong to argue that home is definitely more dangerous than school for most kids, and the article largely ignores concerns over bullying or verbal, physical and sexual abuse from teachers that takes place at public schools.

It is troubling and unfair to single out home-schooling parents as potential abusers when it is not proven which option is safer as a whole. Nevertheless, the true motives of the anti-home-schooling tirade begin to come to light later on, when it is argued that many parents are driven by “conservative Christian beliefs” and home-school to “remove their children from mainstream culture.” Here, home-schooling parents are singled out as possibly bigoted individuals who promote racist and sexist beliefs in their children.

Religious beliefs are common in the home-schooling population as a whole, with 51% of parents citing religion as an “important” reason for home-schooling, according to a 2016 survey by the U.S. Department of Education. This does not go “up to 90%” as claimed in the article, nor is it exclusive to Christians.

In reality, the most significant motivator for home-schooling is “concern about the environment of other schools,” such as “safety, drugs or negative peer pressure.” Of parents home-schooling their children, 34% said in the survey that this is their “most important” motivation, while only 16% said their most important motivation was “a desire to provide religious instruction.” Many recent home-schooling families are highly educated urbanites who are dissatisfied with how the public schooling system has performed in cities.

Such data points do not come anywhere close to confirming Bartholet’s belief that isolated incidents of racism and white supremacy in home-schooling environments require heavy-handed regulation against families to fix. In fact, home-schooling families were disproportionately Hispanic in 2015-16, accounting for 26% of home-schoolers, but only 18% of the population. And while 59% of home-schooling families were white, that is roughly in proportion to their share in the population as a whole. There is substantial racial and religious diversity within the home-school demographic.

Another argument offered by Bartholet against home-schooling is about ensuring the government “having some right to educate children so that they become active, productive participants in the larger society.” This is more ideological than instructive, however, as it simply states that Bartholet has a problem with a practice that may instill in children values that are contrary to hers — that is, the belief that the government has rights or duties over children that parents do not.
The U.S. Supreme Court does not agree with this interpretation of government powers, and unanimously ruled in 1925 in “Pierce v. Society of Sisters” that Oregon did not have the right to make public school attendance mandatory. Justice James Clark McReynolds said in the ruling that the child “is not the mere creature of the state; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations.”

Home-schooling parents seem to do a fine job preparing their children for those obligations, in comparison to public school students. While Bartholet believes that home-schooling hurts a child’s right to a “meaningful education,” partly based on the lack of what she believes are sufficient regulations overseeing home-schooling standards, most empirical studies on the issue show that academic performance is either unchanged or improved in most cases.

Moreover, the fact that some parents who home-school their children have conservative political views or Christian religious beliefs says nothing about the desirability of home-schooling as a practice. Parents should have every right to instill their own personal values in their children through the provision of a “meaningful education” without being treated as potential child abusers or racists, even if some academics aren’t comfortable with that.

Michael writes primarily about politics and economic policy. Write to Michael at [email protected].