Harvard law professor wants to ban homeschooling, calls it ‘dangerous’

A recent article on homeschooling in the Harvard Magazine’s May-June 2020 issue has me shook.

Aside from the unsettling cover image that shows a sad homeschooled girl trapped inside a house with prison bars over the window while other kids play outside, the article “The Risks of Homeschooling” by Erin O’Donnell is filled with assumptions and mischaracterizations of parents who teach their children at home. It is based off an interview with Elizabeth Bartholet, a law professor at Harvard Law School and faculty director of Harvard Law School’s Child Advocacy Program, who is calling for a ban on homeschooling.

Bartholet argues that families who homeschool violate children’s right to a “meaningful education” and their right “to be protected from potential child abuse,” and may even keep children “from contributing positively to a democratic society.”

”[I]t’s also important that children grow up exposed to community values, social values, democratic values, ideas about nondiscrimination and tolerance of other people’s viewpoints.”

But embracing civic values very much happens in homeschooling, challenges Kerry McDonald with the Foundation for Economic Education.

Indeed, research on homeschoolers finds that they are tightly connected with their larger community and may have more community involvement and participation in extracurricular and volunteer activities than schooled children due to their more flexible schedules and interaction with a wide assortment of community members. This reinforces similar research on private education more broadly, suggesting positive civic engagement and outcomes.

And, McDonald continues, “worrying about homeschoolers’ civic education when public schools are seemingly floundering in this regard is misguided.”

Moreover, public schools are struggling to inculcate a strong understanding of democratic values and civic knowledge. According to a 2017 survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, 37 percent of Americans could not identify one right protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution, and more than half of them erroneously believe that undocumented immigrants have no constitutional rights.

This is the original cover image for the Harvard Magazine article. Note that “arithmetic” is spelled incorrectly, as first captured by Corey DeAngelis. The magazine has since fixed the spelling.

I was homeschooled a couple of years during my own K-12 education journey (6th grade and 8th grade). I was part of a homeschool co-op and volunteered at my local library. I played violin with the Minnesota Youth Symphonies and was an outside hitter on a volleyball team. I attended the neighborhood public high school for math, as the district allowed homeschoolers to take a couple of courses. I was an 8th grader taking an accelerated 9th grade math class, and I was top of the class.

I remember sitting in the school office every morning to wait for the bell to ring, and the principal would always greet me and jokingly ask when I was going to enroll in the high school full time. I couldn’t help but think to myself what it would be like, and how my learning and experiences would differ from what I was studying and doing at home with my mom. Would I be able to learn Latin like I currently was? Would I read Homer’s “The Iliad” or Don Quixote? Would I diagram sentences? Would I test the validity of syllogisms and learn deductive reasoning skills? Would I learn how to sew a button on a shirt?

Bartholet accuses parents like my mom of violating my right to a “meaningful education” when she homeschooled me, yet the things I learned during those years held more meaning and set me up to be a more productive participant in society than much of my learning did from other education settings. For example, because of my Latin background, I was able to teach Latin to sixth graders in Arizona. Even my sewing skills came in handy, as I helped sew a button back on a shirt for a staffer in Washington, D.C. who was late for an important meeting on Capitol Hill.

And I know my experience is not an outlier. The majority of peer-reviewed studies on academic achievement reveal “a positive effect for the homeschooled students compared to institutional schooled students.” Even Bartholet’s employer has been involved in actively recruiting homeschoolers, as the high achievement level of homeschoolers catches the eyes of college admissions advisors and recruiters, states Dr. Susan Berry, a researcher and writer on educational topics.

Bartholet also argues that parents should have to “prove their case” if they want permission to “opt out of schools,” suggesting that children belong to the government. Further, she claims homeschooling gives parents “authoritarian control” over their kids and that “it’s always dangerous to put powerful people in charge of the powerless, and to give the powerful ones total authority.”

Bartholet’s comments to Harvard Magazine are based off a paper she wrote in June 2019 that further details out the “threat” homeschooling poses to children and society. Below is an excerpt from the abstract.

Many homeschool precisely because they want to isolate their children from ideas and values central to our democracy. Many promote racial segregation and female subservience. Many question science. Many are determined to keep their children from exposure to views that might enable autonomous choice about their future lives. Abusive parents can keep their children at home free from the risk that teachers will report them to child protection services.

To support her presumption that homeschool parents are abusive, Bartholet points to a memoir by Tara Westover and also cites a law review article that is based on anecdotal evidence. We can all agree that child abuse is atrocious and that children should be protected from it. However, the premise that “keeping a child out of traditional school is tantamount to abuse conflat[es] thousands of innocuous homeschooling families with the few outliers such as those described in Tara Westover’s bestselling memoir” and presupposes the existence of a grievous problem, according to Alexandra DeSanctis in the National Review.

What about safety issues in public schools?

Before the coronavirus pandemic shuttered schools, student violence in classrooms was reportedly on the rise. Teachers described more aggressive behavior from students, not only aimed at other students but at teachers themselves. Widespread bullying is unfortunately also a common occurrence in schools.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, nine out of 10 homeschooled students’ parents reported that concern about schools’ environments, which included factors such as “safety, drugs, or negative peer pressure” was an important reason for their decision to homeschool.

There are about 2.5 million homeschool students in grades K-12 in the United States whose families choose to homeschool them for a variety of reasons, according to the National Home Education Research Institute, and these families make up a demographically wide variety of people—”these are atheists, Christians, and Mormons; conservatives, libertarians, and liberals; low-, middle-, and high-income families; black, Hispanic, and white; parents with Ph.D.s, GEDs, and no high-school diplomas.”

Homeschooling is not perfect. But these imperfections are not unique to this type of learning environment. Professor Bartholet’s views on homeschooling include clear biases and stereotypes that don’t reflect the tolerance and respect for other viewpoints she demands from everyone else.