As Americans get a mandatory crash course in teaching their children at home, one Harvard Law professor is running the other way, arguing homeschooling should be banned. Elizabeth Bartholet, the faculty director of Harvard Law School’s Child Advocacy Program, was recently interviewed for an incendiary Harvard Magazine article titled “The Risks of Homeschooling,” but she fleshes out her case in the Arizona Law Review.
In an 80-page screed against conservative Christian homeschoolers, Bartholet proposes a “presumptive ban” on homeschooling, alleging that some parents choose homeschooling to (1) abuse their children, and (2) provide religious instruction. The article also appears to conflate religious instruction with child abuse: Bartholet maintains that the fact that conservative Christians were among the first to embrace homeschooling is itself reason enough to discredit this educational model. She has planned a Harvard Law symposium this summer, solely for homeschooling opponents to support her misguided proposal.
Yet the law provides that it is parents who have not only the responsibility to care for and protect their children, but the right to guide and educate them. Parental rights are not “absolute,” but contingent on being capable and safe.
We know this well because over the past decade we have served as attorneys of record in more than 1,000 child abuse cases. At times, we have represented the government in abuse charges against parents. At other times, we have defended parents accused of abuse. Sometimes our law firm is appointed to relay what is in the “best interests of the child” as a guardian ad litem for children.
One of us has fostered children, and both of us have enrolled our children in homeschool, public, and private schools at various times. Regardless of the roles we have played over the years, we can tell you without a doubt that the government does not raise children well.
Is Harvard Worried About Abuse … or Religion?
Bartholet’s article highlights anecdotes of isolated and sensationalized abuse cases as justification for banning homeschooling, yet does not take into account research demonstrating links between pediatric suicide and the school calendar. The article also presupposes that teachers are the best resource for abuse reports. The author completely ignores the fact that reporters come in all shapes and sizes, such as police officers, health care workers, neighbors, and other community providers.
Ironically, Bartholet is known for her arguments that intercountry adoption should not be banned by countries without evidence of extensive abuse, and that, in any event, instances of abuse are inevitable in any human endeavor and should not be used to justify blanket bans.
Unable to find evidence that homeschoolers are anything but well-educated, well-rounded, and happy from a body of 35 years of research in peer-reviewed journals, the professor cites a dated study with a pool of 90 adult Canadians and tries to extrapolate some of those limited findings to the lives of 2.5 million American children.
Toward the end of the article, Bartholet admits she considers homeschoolers’ academic excellence irrelevant. She simply wants a homeschool ban to indoctrinate all children into what she calls the “majority culture.” The professor unfairly, inaccurately, and irrelevantly attacks faith-based homeschoolers when she presumes that religious parents will not sufficiently expose their children to a “range of viewpoints and values.” Of course, she does not propose that children in public schools diversify their viewpoints and values by learning about religion or minority cultures.
How does such intolerance pass for legitimate academic study? As one outraged homeschool and Harvard graduate has asked, even if most homeschoolers were conservative Christians, “Why does that matter?” It is not the role of government to override the family cultures and traditions of competent and safe parents and force “majority culture” on religious people. Indeed, the Constitution protects against such abuses.
Children’s and Parents’ Rights are Interrelated
The article attempts to pit the rights of parents against those of their children. But the rights of members in safe families are interrelated. The child’s well-being vests in his or her loving parent, and vice versa. Even if a child’s rights existed in a vacuum, completely independent of any parental rights, wouldn’t it make the most sense for a child to have a right to an education, not just a public school education?
A child-centered approach requires an independent analysis of each child’s needs. Only a safe parent or other legal guardian is capable of adequately evaluating the needs of the child in his or her care. The government can’t decide on a case-by-case basis which school is best for each child. The government does not have the resources to adequately care even for vulnerable children in foster care. Instead, it outsources this role in child welfare cases and asks education surrogates to stand in the shoes of the parents with educational decisions for the children.
Because the government is ill-equipped to make educational decisions on an individual basis for each child across the country, Bartholet decides a child’s individual needs must succumb to the greater good of cultural and educational uniformity. Her philosophy comes full circle, and as it does, reveals it is not about the best interests of children at all.
Oftentimes what one believes is in the “best interests of a child” is actually not in that child’s best interest. The “best interests of the child” is subjective and intertwined with a safe parent’s fundamental right to parent their children. We’ve experienced many a judge’s frustration following the removal of a child from her parents’ home as the judge seeks to determine what is in a child’s best interest. It’s often a mess, but it’s necessary when a parent is shown to be unfit.
We understand, like all child welfare professionals, the importance of government intervention when a child is in danger. The professor proposes, however, that the government should take away all parents’ rights to guide their children by presuming unfitness across the board. Under the professor’s restrictive regime, parents could hypothetically qualify their child for homeschool only as an “elite” athlete or artist, or if a school administrator admits that a parent’s proposed education plan is superior to that of the school district.
Dated Stereotypes vs. Modern Reality
Homeschooling today is a far cry from the draconian world Bartholet describes. The article is based on the homeschooling community of some 30-40 years ago — and even then, it’s a caricature.
Bartholet alleges that children who are homeschooled suffer social isolation, but our experience has been that homeschoolers are at least as active in extracurricular activities as their school peers. The article doesn’t recognize how widespread homeschooling co-ops, homeschooler field trips, and community classes are, nor does it take into account the wonders of modern technology.
Homeschoolers are privy to many life skills at an early age in comparison to their mainstream schooled peers. Unencumbered by the traditional school schedule, many teenage homeschoolers balance college courses, extracurricular activities, and jobs with more maturity and grace than many adults.
Homeschoolers, savvy to online education, have transitioned to quarantine with a wide support network already in place and with the discipline and creativity necessary for independent learning. Indeed, it is by and large modern homeschool families who have created the fantastic and diverse online resources that all children are now benefiting from during this national quarantine.
Homeschool has become popular for many reasons, and the demographics of homeschoolers have shifted rapidly. American families are gravitating to homeschool because of public schools’ ineffective and inefficient curriculum and educational methods, stressful testing with questionable metrics, lack of creative and independent learning, understaffing, mistreatment of special needs children, exposure to drugs and crime, inequality, bullying, and lack of physical activity and playtime.
Homeschooling frees families to make lifestyle and economic choices that are better for them. Many families have discovered that instead of working long hours at an office to pay for housing in a good school district, homeschooling enables parents to choose more affordable housing, where they can work fewer hours or work from home and spend more time with their children.
Homeschooling has been successful because parents believe their children have a right to education and protection. Bartholet professes a belief in these same values. If that is the case, the authors invite her to research and learn from modern homeschooling families, who provide these things to their children at the highest level.
Harvard’s Kennedy School has just announced it will hold a public Zoom meeting on May 1, titled “The Disinformation Campaign Against Homeschooling.”