Critics of Homeschooling Curtail the Open Discussion They Claim to Want

In April, Harvard Magazine interviewed Professor Elizabeth Bartholet about a law-review article in which she calls for a “presumptive ban” of homeschooling. The interview “prompted a tsunami of critical responses” by scholars, Harvard alumni, think tanks, homeschooled kids and grads, and homeschooling parents.

Many urged the professor to open up her Harvard Homeschooling Summit to include proponents of homeschooling, instead of limiting it to a small group of critics. Other professionals have expressed surprise and disappointment that the law review article, “suffers from contradictions, factual errors, statements of stereotyping, and a failure seriously to consider that the alternative to homeschooling — public schooling — shares the problems that she attributes to home education.”

Rather than pausing to consider the obvious — that overwhelming and ideologically diverse opposition to her article shows just how ill-advised her proposed homeschool ban is — the professor doubles down and takes to the pages of this news websiteThe Imprint, to label all who disagree with her a “reactionary subset of the homeschooling movement” who have “mobilized aggressively to suppress public discussion.”

Home School Legal Defense Association features prominently in both the Harvard Magazine interview and law review article. We are responding by featuring articles on our Facebook page, conducting Facebook live interviews with ideologically diverse supporters of homeschooling, and publishing a series of responses on our website.

In the introduction to our series, we said that “we believe that fighting bad ideas is best done by presenting good ideas. That is why we are gearing up to advocate for homeschool freedom in the court of public opinion just as vigorously as we have in the courts and in the legislatures.”

Professor Bartholet and her co-authors call for “civil” discussion. Isn’t that just what we and other advocates for educational freedom are giving them?

They ignore all of that, focusing instead on a couple of critical tweets by politicians.

In an apparent attempt to back-peddle without admitting error, the authors claim that “none of us advocate an absolute ban of homeschooling.” But here is what Professor Bartholet said in her law-review article: “The new legal regime should impose a presumptive ban on homeschooling, allowing an exception for parents who can satisfy a burden of justification. And it should impose significant restrictions on any homeschooling allowed under this exception.”

What does a “presumptive ban” mean? It means that homeschooling as we know it today would be outlawed. Who would qualify for an exception? “Gifted artists and athletes” and kids who live where “the local schools are seriously inadequate.”

While technically not an absolute ban, it would reduce the number of kids being homeschooled from 3 million today to a half dozen elite figure skaters, seven or eight child actors, and those lucky few who persuade their school superintendent that her own schools are “seriously inadequate.” My family would not have qualified for any of the exceptions. Neither would anybody in my large circle of homeschooling friends and acquaintances.

As family law experts Katie Jay and Sarah Campbell point out, Professor Bartholet’s law review article “appears to conflate religious instruction with child abuse” and describes a “draconian world” that is nothing more than a “caricature.” Sadly, homeschoolers were historically stigmatized and stereotyped in language like that used by Professor Bartholet. Is it ever OK to stereotype minorities?

We too are horrified by child abuse and believe it should be punished. But Professor Bartholet’s claim that homeschooled children are more likely to be abused than other children is not supported by the evidence. Her “claims that homeschooling contributes significantly to the scourge of child abuse fail to survive scrutiny,” according to a recent article by three education policy experts.

And her presumptive ban flies in the face of the traditional understanding of the relationship between the state and families. As the Supreme Court said in 1979:

That some parents ‘may at times be acting against the interests of their children’ … creates a basis for caution, but it is hardly a reason to discard wholesale those pages of human experience that teach that parents generally do act in the child’s best interest. … The statist notion that governmental power should supersede parental authority in all cases because some parents abuse and neglect children is repugnant to American tradition.

But homeschooling today is a vibrant, successful educational option for millions of children from increasingly diverse backgrounds. Why would anyone want to suppress their experience and deny their opportunity to thrive?

Professor Bartholet and her co-authors have called for “reasoned public discourse” and “a civil, data-driven discussion about the advantages and pitfalls of homeschooling.” Perhaps they will change the format for their postponed, invitation-only Harvard summit. Will they invite those with differing viewpoints to participate?

Maybe Home School Legal Defense Association could co-chair the meeting.

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homeschool James Mason is the vice president for litigation at the Home School Legal Defense Association.

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