Harvard law professor Elizabeth Bartholet gained notoriety last April when her law-review article calling for a “presumptive ban” of homeschooling went viral. That was, of course, right around when another notorious viral event began to unfold, causing worldwide school closures.
In 2020, homeschooling became an educational safe harbor for millions of children and parents who suddenly found themselves home together. Indeed, this past pandemic year may have permanently changed the educational landscape in America, as many of those who sought the refuge of homeschooling during a distressing time discovered the joys of seeing their child’s “eureka” learning moments as they happened.
Unfortunately for Professor Bartholet, her timing was quite bad.
Well, now she’s b-a-a-a-ck — this time with a new recommendation that is as bad now as her timing was last year.
As part of a recent interview grading the first 100 days of the Biden administration vis-à-vis children and families, Harvard Law Today asked her what President Biden should do “going forward.” Staying true to pre-pandemic form, Bartholet said, “I would like to see the Biden administration’s educational agenda expand to include reform of the current homeschooling regime.”
To be clear, by “reform,” she means that the federal government should crack down on homeschooling. “There is now no meaningful regulation of homeschooling in the United States, by contrast to the rest of the world,” she said. If by “the rest of the world” she means countries such as Germany, then she’s clearly advocating the presumptive ban that she first proposed last year: Germany, like many other nations, “regulates” homeschooling by banning it.
Professor Bartholet would ban homeschooling because she does not trust parents. “They are free to subject [their children] to the most vicious forms of abuse, away from the eyes of teachers who are required to report suspected abuse to child protective services.”
As one group of scholars who study education and homeschooling wrote about her law-review article last year:
We expected it to be rigorous and fact-based but were sadly disappointed. . . . Upon reviewing Professor Bartholet’s article, we conclude that it 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.
There simply is no evidence to support Professor Bartholet’s stereotype that homeschooled children fare worse than their public-school counterparts. And as the United States Supreme Court has written, “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.”
Professor Bartholet’s cynical view of homeschoolers is only exceeded by her incorrect view of the federal government’s power to supersede the states’ role in education. Every state requires homeschooling parents to educate their children; some do so by statute, while others do so via administrative regulation. States as culturally diverse as California and Texas treat homeschools as small private schools and regulate them accordingly. Calling on the federal government to step in to change this 50-state approach to private educational policy is wrongheaded, dangerous, and unconstitutional.
President Biden and the Department of Education would do well to steer clear of Professor Bartholet’s advice. If they were to pursue it, congresspeople would doubtless hear from homeschoolers from all sides of the partisan divide, much as they did in 1994 when Congressman George Miller’s H.R. 6 attempted to require all teachers — including homeschooling parents — to be certified teachers. That bill was defeated after it had galvanized homeschoolers into a lobbying force that punched well above its weight.
Contrary to Professor Bartholet’s assertion, today’s parents generally think of homeschooling as just one more choice on the educational menu, which includes charter schools, private schools, pods, and the like. But that has not always been the case. Homeschooling as an educational option and as a cultural movement was practically unknown in the 1970s.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, it was not uncommon for homeschooling parents in many states to be prosecuted if they did not possess a state-issued teaching credential. Through litigation, legislation, and the unstoppable growth of the movement, homeschooling became legalized, state by state. And as more and more families discovered that homeschooling works, it became what it is today: a mainstream option, chosen for a variety of reasons by diverse families from all racial, religious, and political backgrounds.
Since the 1970s, the number of children being homeschooled grew from practically nonexistent to around 3 million by the start of the 2020 school year, before the pandemic-induced public-school disruptions. By January of 2021, that number had more than doubled — perhaps even tripled. As COVID-19 hit the U.S., the Census Bureau began surveying households to see what people were doing in response to widespread public-school closures. The bureau collected the data based on the number of parents who were homeschooling, rather than on how many children were being homeschooled — those data should be forthcoming as the bureau continues to refine its reports. But extrapolating from the number of parents who are homeschooling now based on this survey, as many as 10 million children may be homeschooling today. And that is just in the United States.
It took nearly 50 years for the embryonic homeschooling movement to grow to almost 3 million children. Then in a single year, that number potentially tripled. It remains to be seen how many parents will stick with private homeschooling once the pandemic is in the rearview mirror. But here is what we do know: The maturity of the homeschooling movement — its legality, vitality, and accessibility because of modern technology that was scarcely dreamed of in the 1970s — served our nation in a constructive and positive way during a black-swan event unlike anything most living adults have ever experienced.
Another academic, Boston College psychology professor Peter Gray, conducted a large-scale, demographically representative survey after schools closed last year, to see how children were faring. He recently reported some of his findings on his Psychology Today blog: “But then parents began to see their kids through new eyes, and, for the most part they liked what they saw; and children began to see that their parents really cared for them — as people, not as grades on a report card.”
Many millions of children and parents have discovered that the homeschooling alternative to the public-school norm can not only provide for a child’s education during a crisis but strengthen families, too. Perhaps it’s time for Professor Bartholet to set aside her negative stereotype of homeschoolers and embrace the diversity, complexity, and liberating qualities of the movement as it actually is today.