Every year, I tell my students that one of Shakespeare’s triumphs was imbuing his plays with moral complexity—ethically ambiguous protagonists stumbling through an equally ambiguous world. In a recent campaign, Harvard has returned to myths good versus evil. A recent onslaught of advocacy masquerading as academic work has pitted the supposed crusaders of public schools against devilish parents. The crime of these demonic parents? Homeschooling.
More specifically, Harvard Magazine published an article lambasting homeschools and the university scheduled a summit against the practice. Undergirding this sudden burst of advocacy is an article published in the Arizona Law Review by Elizabeth Bartholet. The paper casts public schooling as an Eden-like creation, bequeathing knowledge and safety upon its students, while homeschools as dens of abuse and anti-intellectualism.
A public school teacher myself, I know that this narrative is a myth. Since the Common School Movement of Horace Mann, public education has done much for the expansion of universal literacy and numeracy, but that doesn’t justify its casting as an inerrant hero. A more accurate narrative would mirror not Dante or Beowulf but Camus or Dostoyevsky where neither public nor homeschools are heroes as both struggle to instruct students, with much success and failure.
Bartholet focuses her critique to two realms: learning and abuse. Regarding learning, she writes that “appropriate education helps give children the academic skills needed to participate productively in society as adults through employment.” Ignoring the hotly contested theory of education that undergirds that statement—that schooling exists solely to promote ambiguously defined ‘job skills’—analysis shows a pretty even field in the achievement of that standard.
On average, homeschooled students perform better on standardized tests. Bartholet admits this reality but casts it off as irrelevant. She complains that conservative groups like The Heritage Institution fund such research and rely upon bad data. However, even a professor writing for the Brookings Institute, a definitively non-partisan institution, admits that it’s “unwarranted to argue that homeschoolers are doing badly. The available evidence certainly seems to indicate otherwise.”
In reality, both realms of education achieve mixed results. In public schools, I watch teachers meticulously plan their lesson, and labor over feedback. I also watched a teacher vindictively celebrate a student’s pregnancy only to then hand his class a convoluted set of essay directions, sit behind his computer on youtube, and tell the class that he’d provide no further assistance.
Bartholet doesn’t stress the data so much as worry that homeschooled children could be miseducated into racist, anti-scientific, or, as she most commonly points out, dogmatically-held Christian beliefs. She laments “that parents who are committed to beliefs and values counter to those of the larger society are entitled to bring their children up in isolation, so as to help ensure that they replicate their parents’ views and lifestyle choices.”
That is her true contention against academics in homeschools. She’s worried not that students will lack academic skills but that they’ll think wrong. She rather praises public schooling because it “makes children aware of important cultural values.”
To begin, her accusation that homeschooling remains a final bastion of racism and sexism is based solely on anecdotal evidence and she provides no hard data to suggest its reach beyond specific cases.
What’s more abhorrent is the insinuation that parents should not educate their children into their own worldview. Public schools like to praise themselves as ideals of apolitical instruction but, in reality, any system advances a worldview. A student brought through a curriculum of the classics versus a student fed a self-selected list of contemporary novels will develop fundamentally different beliefs even given identical instructional practice.
In reality, public schools are often openly partisan. I watched a classroom of students and their teacher turn upon one kid for the entirety of a period because he had the audacity to express some support of Donald Trump. I substituted for a class that was busy watching a documentary in praise of Cuba’s dictatorship. Teachers wear clothing in support of socialism and “The Notorious R.B.G.”
I bring these examples up merely to demonstrate that public schools do in fact advance a discernible worldview—in some ways, a laudable one—but Bartholet’s own commitment to intellectual pluralism can’t defend a school’s secularism over a Christian home. Parents absolutely are entitled to raise their children with the beliefs they themselves hold and a state that would dictate otherwise is far closer to a fictionalized antagonist than Bartholet’s homeschooling.
The more powerful argument against homeschooling comes by way of mandatory reporting laws. As a teacher, I have to report to CPS any signs I see of child abuse like bruises or drastic behavioral changes. Discussing the absence of mandatory reporting in homeschools, Bartholet casts an unseemly picture through anecdotes—children chained to beds, beaten, neglected, and raped. By her telling, every home is a dystopian landscape and public schools an eden of safety.
In response to her anecdotes, I have my own: one student confessing his desire to commit suicide because of school bullies, another hacking from a likely bruised trachea after an uninstigated brawl, bathroom drugs, and vapes in classes. I could go on with more stories of a scatological-bent but I’ll spare you the details.
Anecdotes rivaling anecdotes provide no conclusive evidence for or against either system. Any advocate can cherry-pick stories to villainize their enemy. Instead, consider a study from the U.S. Department of Education that found 10% of public school students suffered sexual abuse at the hands of educators compared to 700,000 children abused at home. Crunch the numbers and homes seem safer.
Bartholet admits the variety of justifiable reasons a parent may homeschool:
Some parents choose homeschooling because they feel that their children will be discriminated against in the public schools, denied disability accommodations, or bullied.38 Some choose homeschooling because they want their children to have the flexibility to pursue demanding commitments in dance, sports, or theater, or because they live in remote areas with no nearby schools, falling into a category characterized as “practical” or “convenience” homeschooling. Some choose homeschooling, as did the original progressive wing, because of the flaws they see in traditional education, such as an overemphasis on rote learning and testing. Some believe that they can provide their children a superior education because of the limitations of their local schools or because of the parents’ advanced qualifications, ability to engage superior tutors, or access to online learning opportunities.
Parents pull their kids because of bullying, academics, personal interests, and safety. Any system cannot possibly cover all externalities and even now students in neglectful or abusive homes go unrecognized despite attending public schools. Homeschooling poses a risk but public schools are not necessarily the best protection.
At her most indulgent, Bartholet writes "formal law, of course, does not affirmatively grant parents the right to deny education or to commit child maltreatment but effectively it does just this by allowing homeschooling." In response, one could easily flip that statement: formal law, of course, does not grant public schools the right to miseducate children of color or abuse individual students but effectively does just this by mandating attendance.
At the root of her argument, Bartholet compares the ideal of public schools to the reality of homeschools, allowing her to cast one as champion and the other villain. Instead, the intellectually honest approach is to compare reality with reality. In both cases, imperfections riddle each system.
Normally, an administrator visits my classroom twice a year and parents shuffle through during conferences. Other than that, my classroom is my domain. With COVID, my students are suddenly working at home under the watchful eye of parents. Perhaps some will see my cobbled-together online unit and decide their child would be better off at home. Harvard has seen this potential, thrown an advocacy fit, and suggested we ban homeschooling. I see, realize that in some stories I’m the villain, and wish my kids better luck elsewhere.