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Homeschool Parent Responds to Harvard Mag’s “Ban on Homeschooling”

By now, many in the homeschool community have either read or seen reports of the recent Harvard Magazine piece offering the views of Elizabeth Bartholet, professor of law and faculty director of the Harvard Law School’s Child Advocacy Program.

Professor Bartholet, it seems, longs for a nation-wide presumptive ban on homeschooling. Unfortunately, her arguments are nothing new, including the falsehoods, wild overgeneralizations, and not so hidden bigotry that frame them.

While offering no underlying support for the tired myth that home education is a lesser product than its public-school counterpart, Bartholet posits that homeschooling violates a child’s right to a “meaningful education.” No need to concern herself with the fact that research suggests, on the whole, the opposite is true.

Consider the following statistics compiled by the National Home Education Research Institute:

  • The home-educated typically score 15 to 30 percentile points above public-school students on standardized academic achievement tests.
  • Homeschool students score above average on achievement tests regardless of their parents’ level of formal education or their family’s household income.
  • Whether homeschool parents were ever certified teachers is not related to their children’s academic achievement.
  • Home-educated students typically score above average on the SAT and ACT tests that colleges consider for admissions.

In addition to the research, there is, of course, no shortage of anecdotal evidence of homeschool students achieving high levels of academic success. In fact, several personal accounts of former homeschoolers being admitted to, of all places, Harvard have been highlighted in various responses to the Harvard Magazine article. For example, Mike Farris, founder of HSLDA and current president of Alliance Defending Freedom, chronicled the journey of several homeschoolers through Harvard Law School (and other top tier institutions) on their way to clerkships at the United States Supreme Court. I encourage everyone to review Mike’s article here.

Personally, my wife (a former homeschooled student and current emergency room RN on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic) and I are grateful for the added academic benefits our 12 and 13 year-old boys receive from homeschooling.

For my family, not being tied to a traditional school calendar, that means education through travel and hands-on experiences. We have visited over a dozen national parks, studying geology at the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone, glaciers in Montana and Canada, and the world’s largest and tallest trees in the Sequoias and Redwoods of California. We discussed each of those great American statesmen carved into the Black Hills at Mt. Rushmore while bending our necks as we gazed up at them. We learned about the gold rush while panning for gold in the American River yards away from the original discovery site at Sutter’s Mill, and visited countless museums, missions, and other historical and cultural venues. We are keenly aware that all but a small fraction of these experiences would have been realized but for homeschooling.

In addition, contrary to Bartholet’s offensive, and I believe feigned (more on that below), concern that homeschoolers may not be able to “contribute to a democratic society”, I have found homeschool families to be some of the most civically engaged citizens around. We have visited our state capitol many times, alone and with groups of other homeschool families. Sometimes very large groups–just ask the California State Assembly Committee on Education who listened to thousands of homeschool students and family members in 2018 when a bill was up for consideration threatening the freedom of those families. My sons have personally met with lawmakers and learned first-hand about the legislative process.

As an attorney, I have brought them with me to court hearings and introduced them to the workings of the judiciary. And while it is true that our experience is not every homeschool family’s experience, our experience is by no means unique. And frankly, Professor Bartholet knows that. That’s why she laments the influence of groups like HSLDA. It is not so much that homeschoolers aren’t being trained to contribute to society. Professor Bartholet is distressed because she and her colleagues aren’t the ones dictating the training.

You see, despite claiming to be a champion for “tolerance of other people’s viewpoints”, Professor Bartholet cries foul because a fair percentage of homeschool families are driven by–gasp–“conservative Christian beliefs”. She even outrageously links those beliefs to “white supremacy” and “female subservience.” Never mind the fact that homeschooling is increasingly diverse. According to Michigan State University Professor Kyle Greenwalt, “[I]t is not really possible to assume anything about religious beliefs, political affiliations or financial status of homeschooling families anymore.” I digress in wondering what my own mother-in-law would think, who immigrated from Mexico as a Spanish speaking youngster and later became a homeschool pioneer in the 1980s with her three daughters if someone tried to explain to her that her actions promoted white supremacy.

The unforgivable sin is that many of us are raising our children with a worldview different from that of Professor Bartholet and her colleagues. A conservative worldview, a Judeo-Christian worldview. Professor Bartholet would, no doubt, be chagrined to learn that we prayerfully consider what is best for our children and measure our choices in view of our Christian faith. Would Professor Bartholet object so loudly, or at all, if a high percentage of homeschool families promoted secular humanism? I have my doubts.

The good professor speaks of wanting to avoid “authoritarian control” and having “powerful people in charge of the powerless.” How it is possibly lost on her that she is advocating for exactly that, by replacing the parent with the state, is beyond understanding. She even uses Germany (yes, that Germany), a country that bans homeschooling completely, as a shining example. In warning of the dangers of allowing children to spend too much time with their own parents, Professor Bartholet resorts to the worst kind of fear-mongering, highlighting a singular instance of child neglect and abuse and then suggesting that her policy is necessary to stop such abuses from occurring. Of course, abuse can and does happen in all kinds of settings, including public schools, as anyone who watches the news can attest. As a result, we all have an obligation to be vigilant in spotting and calling out suspected cases. However, we, and especially institutions like Harvard, should be careful to avoid gross overgeneralizations. On this topic, some much-needed context, and data, can be found here.

Thank God, truly, that we are the United States of America and not Europe, or anywhere else. Our very foundation as a nation assumes that God grants us certain “unalienable rights”, rights that cannot be surrendered. These rights exist, by definition, even if the state does not recognize them. Even so, the United States Supreme Court long ago specifically recognized “the liberty of parents … to direct the upbringing and education of children under their control.” Pierce v. Society of the Sisters (1925) 268 US 510. In this country, we also understand that “parents have a fundamental right to decide whether [or not] to send their child to a public school.” Fields v. Palmdale School District (9th Cir. 2005) 427 F.3d 1197. Altering these fundamental rights has immense worldview implications far beyond homeschooling.

If it is dangerous to allow parents to choose their child’s curriculum in the home, is it also not dangerous for a private school, religious or otherwise, to have curriculum that diverges from the state school? What about medical care, extracurricular activities, and all types of moral training? Who should make those, and all manner of, decisions for your child, you, or a government agency? In the end, parental rights and homeschool rights are one and the same and they must be defended together.

Once upon a time, Harvard had on its seal the motto “Truth for Christ and the Church.” At some point, that expression of faith became too much for its board of overseers to bear and it was changed. Some there now wish to modify any seal of faith over our homes.

John McGowan

John McGowan is an attorney with his own litigation practice in Los Angeles and is also an allied attorney with Alliance Defending Freedom advocating for the right of people to freely live out their faith. He and his wife, Juleene, have two boys who have been schooled in the home since birth. As CHEA’s Vice President, he is passionate about protecting the God-given right of parents to direct the education and training of their children.

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