Seeking Common Ground And Why Assertions about “Most Homeschoolers” Distract from Reasonable Oversight

Robert Kunzman

Photo by Vika_Glitter on Pixabay

This article is part of our “Children and Education Rights” series.
If you’d like to check out other articles in this series, click here.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic forced remote instruction, homeschooling was the fastest-growing educational choice in the United States over the past two decades. While many parents have kept their children enrolled in schools for online instruction, it appears that thousands of other families have chosen independent homeschooling this fall instead. These numbers will almost certainly decrease when schools reopen their doors, but more than two million children will continue to be educated outside of those buildings moving forward. As with most facets of education in the United States, regulation of homeschooling is left to the states; the result is a vast spectrum of governmental oversight, ranging from essentially nonexistent to a haphazard mix of curriculum approval, periodic testing, or portfolio review. We need a better approach to homeschooling regulation — especially as it relates to the topic of child abuse.

Earlier this year, Harvard School of Law professor Elizabeth Bartholet published an article in the Arizona Law Review advocating for a “presumptive ban” on homeschooling that would require parents to seek permission from the state in order to homeschool their children. As Bartholet acknowledges, this ban would dramatically change the current approach to state oversight, which allows parents to homeschool with minimal or no prerequisites. This increased oversight seeks to provide additional protections for children from the threat of child abuse.

Bartholet’s article drew widespread attention from homeschooling advocates and conservative commentators — most of whom levied vociferous criticism. The Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), the largest and most influential homeschool advocacy organization in the world, published a series of seventeen articles criticizing Bartholet’s arguments, analyses, and recommendations.

I welcome a rigorous conversation about how to effectively and fairly regulate homeschooling in the United States, but I believe Bartholet’s rhetorical approach and recommended policies will not ultimately serve her foundational goal of improving protections for children. In her desire to present a comprehensive array of concerns, she inadvertently draws attention away from the most crucial needs for state oversight and leaves herself open to criticism from homeschool advocates — some of it justified, but all of it distracting.

Distracted by Averages

While Bartholet does attend to the research literature on homeschooling outcomes, she more often lapses into generalizations that lack clear empirical support. She acknowledges the varied nature of the homeschool population and observes that incomplete datasets limit our capacity to generalize about the typical homeschooler, yet asserts that “homeschoolers tend to live in isolation” and that “many homeschooling parents are simply not capable of educating their children,” concluding that “many of the children involved will not be prepared for participation in employment and other productive activities in the mainstream world” (pp. 13-15). While obviously much hangs on what is meant by “many,” these vague assertions position Bartholet as prizing advocacy over accuracy, striving for rhetorical effect over measured analysis.

Generalizations about homeschoolers face a host of methodological problems. One dynamic often overlooked in the research on homeschooler outcomes is the likelihood that a majority of “homeschoolers” have also spent time in conventional schools, and oftentimes mix homeschooling with involvement in public school classes and/or extracurriculars contemporaneously. Most empirical research on homeschooling doesn’t account for this dynamic when categorizing participants as homeschoolers and comparing them with conventionally schooled students.

Bartholet also focuses her attention on more normative facets of homeschooling scholarship, such as socialization and civic preparation. When Bartholet asserts that “a very large proportion of homeschooling parents are ideologically committed to isolating their children from the majority culture and indoctrinating them in views and values that are in serious conflict with that culture,” we are left with much to unpack and define. The empirical data do not support quite so categorical an assertion, and reasonable disagreement certainly exists about what kind of “majority culture” should be cultivated among all citizens and how the state can best encourage that process. Bartholet expresses concern about “parents who are committed to raising their children so that they will stay within their parents’ culture and community,” but surely a broad spectrum exists here—most parents rightly seek to instill certain (cultural and ethical) values and commitments in their children, and the proper role of the state in exposing children to other possibilities is a complex matter indeed. Requiring homeschoolers to participate in public school civic education, arts and physical education, and extracurriculars (as Bartholet advocates) presumes more about the content and efficacy of those experiences than perhaps is justified.

Subsets Matter

Bartholet’s repeated references throughout her text to the shortcomings of “many” homeschooling parents creates a regrettable dynamic whereby “most” homeschoolers will likely not recognize themselves in her descriptions and criticisms. While this does not necessarily invalidate her concerns, it does make it easier for homeschoolers to conclude that Bartholet simply doesn’t understand their world, and thus doesn’t deserve a full hearing.

This is unfortunate, because the heart of Bartholet’s case — as well as the moral center of arguments for more effective oversight of homeschooling in the United States — can be captured by the shortest sentence in her law review article: “Subsets matter.” Bartholet is correct in concluding that empirical research on homeschooler outcomes (academic, social, and more) cannot provide reliable insight into the “average homeschooler,” because those studies are based on small-scale and/or convenience samples. Yet her critics are also correct in their assertions that many homeschoolers become highly successful, well-adjusted adults.

Arguments focused on the “typical homeschooler” and on studies that demonstrate positive outcomes for homeschoolers certainly deserve scholarly analysis, but they are simply not relevant to the question of how to protect children whose parents use homeschooling as a cover for severe educational neglect or physical abuse. Bartholet herself acknowledges that such arguments are “beside the point,” but her determination to paint homeschooling with broad brushstrokes has allowed her critics to sidestep this most important of questions: whether or not the state can play a more effective role in child protection.

Arguments focused on the “typical homeschooler” and on studies that demonstrate positive outcomes for homeschoolers certainly deserve scholarly analysis, but they are simply not relevant to the question of how to protect children whose parents use homeschooling as a cover for severe educational neglect or physical abuse.

Minimal peer-reviewed empirical research has been published that explores a possible relationship between homeschooling and child abuse, in part because comprehensive data are not available. Few would deny that it is easier for parents to hide child abuse if their children do not interact with other adults. It is obviously too quick a leap, however, to then conclude that homeschoolers are more likely to abuse their children. Contrary to Bartholet’s assertion that “homeschoolers tend to live in isolation,” it appears that most homeschoolers are socially engaged outside of their home context.

But here is where subsets most truly matter: the only children who can completely avoid interaction with other adults are those who are homeschooled. Some homeschool advocates claim that additional homeschooling regulations are not needed, but rather more effective implementation of current child welfare laws; after all, when abuse happens at home, the state is empowered to investigate. But obviously these investigations can’t happen without anybody to observe the child and report concerns.

Again: this doesn’t mean homeschoolers are more likely to be abused by their parents, but it almost by definition increases the likelihood that such abuse, when it occurs, could go undetected by other adults, and thus miss the need for further inquiry.

Modest Middle Ground

There are many areas of reasonable disagreement about what constitutes a good (or good enough) education — the rich variety of good schools worldwide, both public and private, make that evident. In this sense, homeschooling does not need to mimic any particular version of schooling to be valid; insisting, for example, that homeschoolers confirm their curricula to match the voluminous array of state K-12 standards (often different from the state next door) demonstrates an unhelpfully narrow appreciation for the many shapes that good education can take. Homeschool advocates are justified in their resistance to such standardization.

But surely there are two areas where a critical mass of parents from a broad range of philosophical orientations can find common ground: first, all children deserve protection from abuse and neglect; and second, all children have a fundamental interest in developing the skills of basic literacy and numeracy, as without such skills, it is exceedingly difficult to become a self-sufficient adult in contemporary society.

We can develop fair regulations aimed at protecting children in these two areas, and we can do so in ways that result in less state intrusion than currently exists in some places. I advocate three straightforward requirements:

  1. Parents must notify the state each year that they are homeschooling their child(ren).
  2. Adults convicted of child abuse or related crimes cannot be involved with homeschooling.
  3. Children must take annual basic skills tests administered by the state.

Annual notification: States need to know which children are being homeschooled, or they would have no way to monitor compliance with the other two requirements.

Child abuse disqualification: As the Coalition for Responsible Home Education suggests, this could perhaps be framed as barring homeschooling by anyone whose legal offenses would prevent them from being employed as a public school teacher.

Annual basic skills testing (outside the home, not administered by parents): Critics of standardized testing requirements for homeschoolers often complain that such assessments will unnecessarily restrict curricular choices. If the required tests were based on state content standards, this would be a valid complaint. But parents can employ a vast range of curricular content and pedagogy to develop their children’s basic literacy and numeracy skills. And if a child is not successful on a particular test, this shouldn’t (contrary to Bartholet’s plan) trigger an automatic order to enroll in conventional schooling — there are many reasons besides educational neglect that a child may be struggling. Instead, a poor test result would simply prompt a more focused look at that homeschool context and consideration of what additional resources or approaches (perhaps at home, perhaps at school) might improve the learning process. Obviously this followup process would be more resource-intensive for the state, but it would only be necessary for the (likely small percentage of) homeschoolers who struggle with basic skills. In addition, this process could expose situations where parents were using homeschooling as a cover for severe neglect or abuse.

Two other requirements sometimes used by states — curricula approval and portfolio review — are flawed options. Curricula submitted for approval may not accurately reflect the learning experiences of students, and tell us nothing about their learning outcomes. Portfolio review does focus more on learning outcomes, but assessment of portfolio work for all homeschoolers is resource-intensive and does not produce reliably consistent evaluations. And in neither case do these options require active, in-person involvement of the child with an adult outside the home.

Focusing regulatory attention in these limited ways strives to find a middle ground where the most problematic homeschool contexts are identified while still preserving wide latitude for the vast majority of conscientious homeschoolers to be able to continue their efforts with minimal intrusion.

Focusing regulatory attention in these limited ways strives to find a middle ground where the most problematic homeschool contexts are identified while still preserving wide latitude for the vast majority of conscientious homeschoolers to be able to continue their efforts with minimal intrusion. Curricular and pedagogical flexibility is central to much of homeschooling, and the state can protect these while still protecting children’s basic educational interests and well-being.

Accommodation as a Virtue

Will these regulations guarantee that homeschooled children will never suffer maltreatment, and always gain basic academic skills? Of course not, but we have no such guarantees for conventionally schooled children, either. The idea here is to find a middle ground where homeschool families would be willing partners, rather than determined resisters; for some homeschooling critics, this would mean providing regulatory room for educational approaches they view as inferior. When acknowledging the possibility that her proposed regulations will unfairly prevent some families from homeschooling, Professor Bartholet reasons that “most children will do all right in public schools, even if some of them might do better if homeschooled.” But we might ask if the opposite could also be true. I believe it would be far better for the welfare of the most vulnerable children if both advocates and critics settle for a bit less than their ideals otherwise demand.

As Professor Bartholet points out in the conclusion to her legal article, proponents for heightened homeschool regulation have been almost entirely unsuccessful in their efforts. She also concedes that such reform lacks the necessary support in state legislatures. What is needed, Bartholet contends, is a judicial recognition of children’s educational rights to an appropriate education, which would then require legislation protecting those rights. However, Bartholet observes that the Supreme Court is unlikely to recognize children’s positive constitutional rights in the near future. Instead, she suggests that state courts, with their near-universal inclusion of the state’s obligation to provide an adequate education, hold far more potential.

I will leave it to others more qualified in legal analysis to evaluate Bartholet’s strategy aimed at state courts. Perhaps her highly adversarial strategy will prove more effective in sparking earnest conversations about genuine reform of homeschooling oversight, even if those reforms fall short of what she advocates. But such an approach, with its deeply suspicious stance toward homeschooling parents in general, will almost certainly disable any potential for homeschool parents to view state officials as partners; instead, state officials will be seen as bureaucrats who must be endured and sidestepped whenever possible. This antagonistic dynamic will also likely corrode any engagement by homeschoolers with public school resources — extracurriculars, resource centers, and part-time enrollment in selected classes. A reduction in these opportunities moves us further away from the robust and diverse set of experiences we hope for all students.

The past twenty years have seen not only rapid growth of homeschooling, but increased scholarly attention to research about its philosophies, practices, and outcomes. Such analysis is certainly worthwhile, but we should not let it remain a distraction from establishing modest yet effective homeschooling regulations that better protect our most vulnerable children. ♦

Robert Kunzman is Professor of Curriculum Studies and Philosophy of Education at Indiana University, and the Managing Director of the International Center for Home Education Research (ICHER). He is the author of Write These Laws on Your Children: Inside the World of Conservative Christian Homeschooling (Beacon, 2009).

Recommended Citation

Kunzman, Robert. “Seeking Common Ground And Why Assertions about ‘Most Homeschoolers’ Distract from Reasonable Oversight.” Canopy Forum, December 15, 2020.