Black Children’s Best Interests, Freedom from Religion, and Anti-Racism
Cheryl Fields-Smith and Andrea L. Dennis
“I’m just not going to do that. I’m one of these secular homeschoolers. I am not going to join a church to homeschool. I don’t feel comfortable going in that space, which is usually predominantly White, to have my son homeschooled because I am not convinced that the experience will be any different from what we would have in a traditional government school. It would just have a veneer of religious toleration.”
– Anneliese, Black home educator
The coronavirus pandemic has increased interest in homeschooling, igniting discussion and debate surrounding the intersections of family and children’s rights, religious freedom, and education law. This essay raises awareness regarding the changing faces of homeschool families which challenge notions of equity and familial rights related to education and religion. We draw on the above representative quote from Anneliese to provide understanding of the benefits and meaning of homeschooling from an African American perspective.
Traditional homeschooling – in which parents assume full responsibility for their children’s education outside of public or private school settings – long has been viewed as a primarily White, middle class, Christian fundamentalist phenomena. However, the homeschool community is more diverse than generally recognized. In 2016, approximately 136,000 Black children were identified as homeschoolers, a small percentage of the nearly 1.7 million children homeschooled in that year, but one of the fastest-growing segments among homeschool families. By 2018, the number of Black homeschooled children had multiplied to an estimated 220,000. The upward trend towards diversification is predicted to continue, and the coronavirus pandemic likely will accelerate that trend.
Forced virtual schooling by public and private schools nationwide during the pandemic has introduced many Black parents to the educational philosophy of homeschooling. Post-pandemic, it’s possible that some of these parents will choose to homeschool rather than send their children back to reopened government or private schools. Heightened interest in traditional homeschooling stems in part from parents wanting to protect their children from the virus. Another significant factor in the increased interest is that forced virtual schooling at the start of the pandemic shutdowns in March of this year exposed parents to hastily pieced-together, non-rigorous, virtual instruction. Upon observation and reflection, many parents have realized that they have the ability and resources to homeschool. More importantly, they saw the positive effects on their children from being primarily taught by their parents. This has been especially the case for Black families. Amidst reports of increased interest in traditional homeschooling, polls indicate greater interest among Black families (50% compared to 36% for White families and 38% among Latino families).
Despite the upward trend in homeschooling among Black families, the Black perspective on homeschooling has been relatively absent from discussions among outspoken homeschooling critics such as Harvard Law Professor Elizabeth Bartholet and the more recent dialogue spawned by the coronavirus pandemic. This absence has led to ill-informed conversations concerning homeschooling and proposals for its regulation.
The addition of Black voices and lived experiences reframes the existing discourses surrounding homeschooling. As Anneliese revealed in her comments, homeschooling advances the best interests of Black children, but Black parents face challenges in implementing their goals due to the predominance of White Christian homeschoolers in the movement. Future debate on the merits of homeschooling must grapple with the particular advantages homeschool pedagogy provides for Black children and the need to extract religion from the homeschooling narrative.
Homeschooling Serves the Best Interests of Black Children
Black parents’ decisions to homeschool are driven by their desire to support, protect, and promote their children’s interests, and their reasoning finds support in United States Supreme Court decisions. In cases concerning families and children, the Court’s rulings repeatedly note that parents are obligated to act in the best interests of their children and that fit parents are presumed to act in the best interests of their children. Nonetheless, many critics of homeschooling, though centering children’s rights in their critiques, fail to sufficiently acknowledge the benefits that home-educated Black children receive and the failure of today’s school systems to educate Black children.
For many Black families, the move to traditional homeschooling is based solely or primarily on secular concerns surrounding what is in the best interests of their children and the unfulfilled hope of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation mandate. Black home educators’ lived experiences in traditional schools, public or private, provide a humanized view of the statistics and outcomes for Black education which indicate discipline disproportionality, limited access to gifted education, overrepresentation in special education, reports of discrimination, prejudice, and racism in schools, marginalization of Black parents, and the use of culturally insensitive curricula. Black children’s experiences in today’s schools affirm Dr. Horace Tate’s prophetic warning against the plan for integration. Dr. Tate was a Black educator, activist, academic, and politician from Georgia. He called the desegregation plan “second-class integration” because he foresaw the destruction of everything that African Americans had worked toward and achieved within segregated schools.
Though most Americans have been taught that segregated Black schools were inferior, scholars such as Dr. Vanessa Siddle Walker, Dr. James Anderson, and Dr. Heather Williams have documented the self-determination and self-agency that built segregated schools of excellence for Black children and cultivated many – if not most – of the eloquent, intellectual leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. The perpetual myth of Black segregated school inferiority mirrors the flaw Dr. Tate saw in the integration plan which did not value any aspects of Black education at the time and instead privileged White ways of schooling. Ultimately, the promise of Brown and the hopeful expectations it created have not been realized. Black children in mainstream school settings generally are not faring well.
In contrast, today’s Black homeschoolers are thriving, revealing that learning, schooling, and education should and can be therapeutic and restorative, not merely a means for economic advancement or the transmission of knowledge and beliefs. The factors that lead Black parents to choose homeschooling are typically the same as those that negatively affect Black children in mainstream school setting: poor school environments, discipline disproportionality, widespread referrals to special education, limited access to gifted education, culturally insensitive curricula, and marginalization of Black parents. Homeschooling presents a powerful remedy to these ills.
Research shows that homeschooling has significantly reduced, and in some cases eliminated, the lingering Black-White achievement gap. Homeschooled children of color, including Black children, typically achieve as well as, or even better than, their White public-school counterparts. Similar to many online schools and some progressive brick-and-mortar schools, Black home educators often facilitate their children’s success by allowing them to pursue subjects based on their own interests and abilities. Moreover, Black parents empower their children to succeed by cultivating positive cultural self-identity. Rather than relying on a monocultural lens, Black home educators can seek multicultural perspectives, thus fostering empathy and understanding of others.
Additional research finds that the Black homeschool experience also typically expands well beyond the home, integrating meaningful connections to their communities through civic engagement and experiential learning. Black homeschoolers complete projects to address issues of personal interest that they discover through study or through their lived experiences. Further, Black home educators integrate entrepreneurship into their teaching practice. Black children and youth develop business plans and put them into action. Black children express themselves creatively by making art, designing and building a product, or developing a service. They write marketing plans, maintain inventory, do the accounting, and perform all other necessary tasks to create and run their own businesses that require multiple strengths. Through this type of practical endeavor, Black children develop, apply, and advance their academic knowledge and skills in meaningful ways, and potentially transform their futures. Unfortunately, in many traditional schools, Black children rarely have access to these types of intellectual pursuits.
Despite the evidence favoring Black homeschooling, prominent critics such as Harvard Law Professor Elizabeth Bartholet propose a presumptive ban on homeschooling. Focusing on Christian, conservative (and impliedly White) homeschool families, Bartholet argues that homeschooling is a cover for parental abuse and neglect and facilitates the transmission of anti-liberal, anti-democratic values (such as racism, sexism, and xenophobia). She claims that homeschooled children will be unproductive and alienated members of global society with limited futures. Finally, she prioritizes children’s rights over parental rights and argues that children’s rights are undermined by homeschooling.
Professor Bartholet’s campaign for a presumptive ban on homeschooling finds both validation and opposition in a group founded by homeschool graduates, The Coalition for Responsible Home Education (CRHE). The organization’s website documents both successful and shocking homeschooling experiences. While the organization expressly advocates for increased regulation of homeschooling, this proposed regulation focuses on children’s rights to safe-and-sound learning environments, rather than the imposition of testing requirements or the mandated use of a particular curriculum. CRHE’s statement of purpose cautions against the assumption of good intentions among all homeschool parents:
“Children deserve a robust educational experience, one that supports their natural development and instills in them a lifelong love for learning. Homeschooling can accomplish these goals; however, homeschooling in itself does not guarantee it.”
Thus, unlike Bartholet, the homeschoolers who formed CRHE do not assume a religious basis for homeschooling, and they do not seek to condemn homeschooling overall. Instead, the group calls for better protection of children by strengthening homeschooling policies nationwide to uniformly prioritize children’s interests and welfare.
While Bartholet and other critics attempt to justify a presumptive ban on homeschooling by citing the inadequacies of parents and the potential harms to children, they fail to recognize the significant benefits that some children may gain as a result of homeschooling, especially Black children. Armed with this knowledge, governments should not severely curtail traditional homeschooling, particularly for the many Black children who thrive in homeschool settings and would be harmed by mainstream school settings. Moreover, discussions of homeschooling, whether couched in terms of children’s rights or parental rights, should be liberated from their common association with religious rights and beliefs.
Homeschooling and Religion Should be Decoupled to Welcome Secular Families
The rise in diverse, non-religious homeschool families and groups has led to the formation of websites and organizations secular in focus. These small steps toward separation of church and homeschooling, however, have not been widely realized and do not resolve the particular concerns of Black homeschoolers trying to join in predominantly White Christian homeschool spaces.
In addition to the challenges faced by all parents transitioning to homeschooling, especially secular parents, Black homeschool families face the added issue of racism as they attempt to interact with Christian home education organizations and families. Reports have indicated that White Christians are less likely to exhibit racial tolerance in response to statements acknowledging systemic racism. Unfortunately, this can include White Christians within the homeschool community as well.
In an ongoing study focused on homeschooling as a pathway toward healing among Black families, homeschool mothers, including Anneliese, participated in one of three Sister Circles. Sister Circles are a culturally responsive approach to conducting focus groups. The three Sister Circles represented a total of twelve Black homeschool mothers (four mothers participated in each Sister Circle) representing communities in Colorado, Georgia, Maryland, New York, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania.
In her Sister Circle, Anneliese poignantly expressed the need to heal from negative interactions with members of White Christian homeschool programs, based on her lived experiences. Within each Sister Circle, two or more mothers shared similar lived experiences reflecting that either they or their children experienced racism while attempting to interact with a local White Christian homeschool group within their communities. For example, Christian homeschooling programs (in-person and virtual) frequently require homeschool families to sign statements of faith in order to participate. Secular homeschool parents residing in less metropolitan, more rural communities appear to experience this in particular. However, some may not want to join a church because they already have a home church or do not want to join a faith community at all. Black home educators also shared that their children experienced prejudice while attempting to participate in predominantly White Christian-based homeschool programs. Those experiences took the emotionally harmful form of being excluded from parties and other social events held by White families and not being allowed to socialize with White children outside of the homeschool program. Given the rising diversity in home education within the United States, it is time to fully acknowledge that homeschooling is no longer a religious-only phenomenon. The call for greater inclusionary practice and policies is long overdue.
As the demographics of homeschool families become more diverse, the call for the creation of new homeschooling locations, curricula, and approaches will be resounding to accommodate diversity within the community and to address rising tensions. For example, traditional home educators have felt the need to delineate between pre-coronavirus homeschool families and those homeschooling because of the pandemic. As one Black secular homeschool group announced on their Facebook page,
Effective immediately: This group is currently closed to new members who aren’t officially homeschooling outside of the COVID-19 pandemic. Unless we know that potential members have actually been homeschooling before COVID-19 or are going to homeschool AFTER schools re-open, they will not be admitted into the group. When brick & mortar schools resume, Admins won’t be able to remove “temporary” homeschooling parents. “School at home” versus long-term homeschooling, are not culturally compatible when certain topics arise. We want to avoid any possible discordance that could occur in the future, due to such differences in educating our children (long-term homeschooling versus TEMPORARILY homeschool).
Tensions can lead to lines drawn in the sand, and religion and racial or cultural differences appear to be the most divisive within the homeschool community. In order to advance unity among homeschooling communities and strengthen the educational approach for children, critics and proponents alike should refrain from positions that center whiteness, ignore or exclude diverse perspectives in homeschooling, and privilege religion. Further, critiques of homeschooling must avoid presumptions that traditional schools are best for everyone and anyone.
Many Black parents struggle with the social dilemma of having to choose between pulling their children out of a school that does not serve their children or remaining to continue to fight for excellence in their children’s traditional school. Leaving our children in traditional schools requires idealizing the notion that those schools are going to get better in the near future, or that keeping White parents and children in those schools will lead to better schools. Black parents should do what they need for their children as well – even if that means opting out of traditional schools in order to homeschool.
Homeschool leaders, advocates, and educators must recognize the ever-changing faces, beliefs, and motivations of home educators across the nation and work to confront the need for laws, policies, and practices that promote inclusion. ♦
Cheryl Fields-Smith is an Associate Professor of Elementary Education at the University of Georgia Mary Frances Early College of Education where she focuses her work on homeschooling among Black families and family-school-community partnerships. She is co-founder of Black Family Home Educators and Scholars (BFHES) and she is the author of Exploring Single Black Mothers’ Resistance Through Homeschooling (Palgrave MacMillan, 2020).
Andrea L. Dennis is Associate Dean for Faculty Development and John Byrd Martin Chair of Law at the University of Georgia School of Law where she focuses her research on criminal and juvenile defense lawyering; the intersection of criminal, juvenile, and family law; and the school- to-prison pipeline. She is coauthor (with Erik Nielson) of Rap on Trial: Race, Lyrics, and Guilt in America (The New Press 2019).