No Need for Bullying in The Debate on Homeschooling

As COVID-19 continues to destroy lives and the economy, forcing millions of American parents to begin teaching their children at home, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) took to Twitter to call for shutting down discussion about research on the safety and quality of homeschooling, as well as proposed regulation of that practice.

In a series of tweets, both recently took time off from leading the nation’s response to the global pandemic to denounce “barbaric” and “unconstitutional” proposals to safeguard children from abuse and ensure they are educated, calling advocates of such common-sense regulation “radical leftist scholars.”

In recent years, we and many others focused on the welfare of children have raised an alarm about the absence of meaningful oversight of homeschooling and the risk this presents for up to 3 million youth across America. In response, a reactionary subset of the homeschooling movement – now including the nation’s top diplomat and the Texas senator and former presidential candidate – has mobilized aggressively to suppress public discussion and prevent any safeguards designed to protect children against maltreatment and ensure they receive a minimum level of education.

The recent attacks on academic critique and suggested regulatory reform underscore the need for a civil, data-driven discussion about the advantages and pitfalls of homeschooling and how best to ensure the safe education of all children. While we have varying perspectives on homeschooling, we all recognize that there is enormous variety in the homeschooling population and that many homeschooling parents provide their children with an education far superior to that delivered in their local public schools. And though we disagree on exactly what kind of regulation and oversight would be appropriate, none of us advocate an absolute ban on homeschooling. We wish to preserve the good in homeschooling while enacting safeguards against potential dangers.

We share several concerns about the current unregulated state of homeschooling. For example, there are no effective safeguards to ensure that homeschooled children receive a minimally-adequate education designed to prepare them for future employment and citizenship.

There is no effective oversight to ensure homeschooled children learn basic science, mathematics or social studies, and it is highly unlikely that every parent is capable of adequately teaching a child. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 15 percent of homeschooling parents are school dropouts, and another 16 percent only have a high-school diploma or GED. The percentage of these parents who are able to provide their children even a basic education is unknown. There are no meaningful requirements that homeschooled children be tested regularly to assess their learning.

This flies in the face of the child’s right to education, guaranteed by all 50 state constitutions. The claim some homeschooling parents make to have an absolute right as parents to raise their children, however they wish, is incompatible with the idea that children have rights of their own.

There is also currently no mechanism designed to provide homeschooled children with anything like the protection against a harmful home environment that they are afforded in schools, with staff legally required to report signs of suspected maltreatment. This failure has contributed to several recent, high-profile cases of egregious child abuse.

A study in Connecticut published in 2018 found that among children removed from the public schools ostensibly to be homeschooled, 36 percent were in families that had previously had valid reports of child maltreatment, and most of those were in families with multiple prior reports for abuse or neglect. A 2014 study by child abuse pediatricians of 28 child torture cases found that of the 17 school-age children, 13 were either homeschooled or simply not allowed to attend school.

This absence of meaningful regulation is due to the aggressive bullying tactics some in the homeschooling movement have used to intimidate legislators. These tactics have succeeded in removing from the books any meaningful protections for homeschooled children and in preventing passage of reform legislation introduced in response to homeschooling scandals.

We are experiencing this bullying in real time. Sen. Cruz and Secretary of State Pompeo’s tweets are emblematic of the hundreds of hostile, vitriolic messages we receive on social media and in email, abuse unleashed against us and the homeschooling summit we are currently planning.

We call for reasoned public discourse on the policy issues raised by the absence of meaningful regulation of homeschooling. We call on legislators and other public leaders to rise to the challenge of looking carefully at these issues, regardless of intimidation they may face, and taking action to protect the interests of all children and to try to ensure all are safe and receive an adequate education.

Elizabeth Bartholet is a law professor at Harvard University, Dr. Rachel Coleman is the executive director of the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, James Dwyer is a law professor at the William & Mary School of Law, Milton Gaither is a professor of education at Messiah College, and Frank E. Vandervort is a law professor at the University of Michigan and past president of the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children.

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