In a recent article in Harvard Magazine, Elizabeth Bartholet, a law school professor at Harvard, attacks homeschooling and its advocates for everything from their religious views to their alleged extreme political power.
And she suggests that they are child abusers.
Many articles have disputed Bartholet’s claims about homeschoolers’ demographics. They give evidence that parents can, in fact, give a “meaningful education” to their children. They counter Bartholet when she suggests that the government can educate children better than parents. They reject regulations that would infringe on their right to homeschool their children.
What form would the regulations take? Bartholet proposes a complete ban on homeschooling in the United States. She also cites France, which requires a home visit and annual tests.
An invitation-only Homeschool Summit was to take place at Harvard Law School later this spring, (but has since been cancelled). The focus? “Problems of educational deprivation and child maltreatment that too often occur under the guise of homeschooling, in a legal environment of minimal or no oversight.” Co-organized by Bartholet and William & Mary law professor James Dwyer (another anti-homeschool crusader), the summit was going to discuss “proposals for legal reform” of current homeschool law.
Bartholet and others who planned to speak at the summit claim that homeschooling can be used as a cover for parents to mistreat their children, hidden from the gaze of mandatory abuse reporters such as public school teachers. A ban on homeschooling or strict regulation on homeschooling families, they say, would prevent child abuse by getting children away from their abusive parents, or at least putting them in contact with authorities who could look out for them.
Those who want to regulate or ban homeschooling as a way to prevent child abuse are only looking at the possible positive outcomes. But they are disregarding, either willfully or out of ignorance, all the negative outcomes of homeschool regulation or an outright ban.
The problems can be cast as either “practical” or “ideological” considerations.
1. Disagreement about what constitutes abuse.
Most reasonable people could come up with a list of certain actions that are always abusive. But outside this core list, there is a big gray area based on personal beliefs, differing cultures, and different priorities. One person’s parenting is another person’s abuse.
Strict religious instruction is considered abusive by Bartholet. And not following a strict curriculum could get parents accused of educational neglect. A broad definition of abuse could restrict parents in how they homeschool their kids.
2. Risks of abuse reporters using their power to condemn innocent parents.
Unfortunately, the mechanism that can save children from actual abuse can also be used to ruin a family.
What does a person do if he or she suspects a child is being abused? Call the police, who will open an investigation of the family with Child Protective Services. But any anonymous person with a grudge can do the same.
Either way, the investigation can be intrusive and traumatic. CPS can ask for a home inspection, a medical exam, a drug test, and more, and parents can look bad if they refuse. Children can be questioned without their parents present and sometimes removed from the home.
If home inspections become mandatory, then the inspector has a lot of power over the family to deem them worthy of continuing to homeschool or not. Inspectors who dislike a certain family or style of homeschooling could find “evidence” of abuse or neglect. This could bar them from homeschooling, or cause them a lot of hassle to prove their worthiness.
3. It will cost money, leading to diversion of resources from the investigation of legitimate abuse complaints.
There is not limitless money to investigate abuse complaints, nor an abundance of social workers. Any resources dedicated to child protection should go toward following up on allegations of abuse and protecting those children already identified as being at risk of abuse.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, approximately 3.5 million children were the subject of a CPS investigation or “alternative response” in fiscal year 2017. If we are to consider all the country’s 2 million-plus homeschooled children as “at risk,” the number of investigations increases 57 percent.
Even an in-person portfolio review represents a significant cost to either the local school district or the state. Or homeschoolers themselves might be forced to pay for the costs of the regulation. Such a “homeschool fee” or license could make homeschooling prohibitively expensive for some.
If the public picks up the tab, they might decide homeschooling is not worth the cost. Thus, an expensive review system now could lead to a ban down the road.
4. Abusers will fly under the radar while law-abiding homeschoolers bear the brunt of the regulations.
As with all regulations, it is easiest to get law-abiding people to comply. Those who want to break the law — in this case, abuse their children — will find a way. While good people dutifully get permission from the state to educate their own children, abusers will not. The more onerous the regulation, the more abusers will go underground.
Abusive parents will stop complying with any oversight that could lead to their getting caught. We can liken it to the war on drugs, which has been unsuccessful in stopping the use and trade of drugs. It has made drug dealers more secretive and drug users less likely to seek help for fear of legal prosecution.
1. Child-centric actually means government-centric.
At the heart of the issue is a dispute over whether the law of the land should be parent-centric or child-centric. The Bartholet and Dwyer crowd claims to be pro-child in their approach. They are trying to tip the scales away from parental absolutism.
They can’t seem to fathom that many children might actually prefer homeschooling. But as parents’ rights deteriorate, children still don’t get autonomy. Instead, the state gets the power. The educational choice will remain out of the child’s hands. It will shift from their parents to the government.
But Bartholet, Dwyer and co. also don’t seem to give much thought to the imperfections of the government. It has many different players who are humans, just like homeschooling parents. They have their own biases, their own self-interest. Their motives are not always pure.
Bartholet decries the danger of putting “powerful people in charge of the powerless, and to give the powerful ones total authority.” But she unironically means parents’ authority over children, not the government’s collective power over all children.
Bad actions of individual parents can tragically harm individual children. But failures or corruption on the part of the state can harm an entire society of children.
2. Violation of the Constitution.
Not everyone likes parental rights, but they are protected in that pesky document known as the Constitution. They are also upheld by numerous court decisions.
The Fourth Amendment protects people from unreasonable searches and seizures, such as home inspections to prove they are fit to educate their kids at home. Wanting to homeschool is not “probable cause” to search a home.
And the Tenth Amendment leaves the power to regulate education to the states or the people. This means that Barholet’s ban on homeschooling would have to happen state by state rather than through federal mandate.
4. Casting homeschooling as evil.
Regulations that seek to enter a family’s home or screen children annually would make homeschooling a pre-crime. That is, an action in which no one has actually been harmed, but still legally justifies intervention because it could lead to a crime.
It could also negatively influence the public’s perception of homeschooling. More people will believe that parents who choose to homeschool are all secretly abusing their children. It will make the already difficult job of homeschooling even more challenging.
While the abuse of even one child is tragic, actions that try to legislate away evil end up causing more harm than they solve. They shift the blame from the individual who did the wrong thing to the individuals who want to continue to do their own thing unharassed.
I go into some of these logical fallacies in this article on why home school regulation won’t stop child abuse.
The Harvard summit elites want to stop child abuse, but more important to them is the eradication of homeschooling.
Onerous regulations will discourage homeschooling among many families who could benefit from it.
An outright ban would give all but the wealthy no choice but to send their children to public schools.
But that’s their true end goal, isn’t it? To rid the country of free-thinking homeschoolers and get all children into a system that they control.