Homeschooling in the Crosshairs—Harvard Magazine Says Homeschooling Families Are a Threat to Democracy

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.
April 20, 2020

In a matter of just days, millions of American parents recently discovered that they are what they never planned to be—homeschoolers.

It is ironic, therefore, that Harvard Magazine decided to run an article in its May/June issue entitled, “The Risks of Homeschooling.” The author of the article is Erin O’Donnell, but the main figure behind the ideological thrust of the story is Elizabeth Bartholet, the Morris Wasserstein Public Interest Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and Faculty Director of Harvard Law School’s Child Advocacy Program.

At first glance, the article would be expected to address “risks” involved in homeschooling. As it turns out, that is not really the aim of the story at all—instead, it launches a full broad side against homeschooling, basically calling for its abolition. It recommends a complete transformation of American law and morality, and the effective nullification of parental authority in the name of “children’s rights.” This chilling argument deserves our attention.

O’Donnell begins the article, “A rapidly increasing number of American families are opting out of sending their children to school, choosing instead to educate them at home.” To be clear, the generating force behind this increase is not the COVID-19 crisis. Instead, O’Donnell argues that, all things normal, there has been an increase in the number of children being homeschooled—an increase she views as a threat. She writes, “Homeschooled kids now account for roughly 3 to 4% of school aged children in the United States.” That number is equivalent, she tells us, to the number of children attending charter schools and larger than the number of children enrolled in parochial schools.

Then she introduces Professor Bartholet, who, “sees risks for children—and society—in homeschooling and recommends a presumptive ban on the practice.” O’Donnell, in summarizing Bartholet’s argument, stated: “Homeschooling not only violates children’s rights to a ‘meaningful education’ and the right to be protected from potential child abuse, but may keep them from contributing positively to a democratic society. We have an essentially unregulated regime in the area of homeschooling.” O’Donnell also commented, “All 50 states have laws that make education compulsory and state constitutions ensure a right to education”—but, according to Bartholet, “If you look at the legal regime governing homeschooling, there are very few requirements that parents do anything.”

Professor Bartholet argues for the importance of children to go to school so that, “mandated reporters, teachers in particular,” can observe their development. She states, “Teachers and other school personnel constitute the largest percentage of people who report to Child Protective Services.” The most important issue she cites, however, is ideological. As O’Donnell tells us, in a recent paper published in the Arizona Law Review, Professor Bartholet “notes that parents choose homeschooling for an array of reasons. Some find schools lacking or want to protect their child from bullying. Others do it to give their children the flexibility to pursue sports or other activities at a high level. But, surveys of homeschoolers show that a majority of such families (by some estimates up to 90%) are driven by conservative Christian beliefs and seek to remove their children from mainstream culture.” The next statement by the professor is key, as she argues that many homeschooling parents are, “extreme religious ideologues,” who apparently question science, promote female subservience, and also white supremacy.

O’Donnell summarizes, “She views the absence of regulations ensuring that homeschooled children receive a meaningful education equivalent to that required in public schools as a threat to U.S. democracy.” Professor Bartholet indicts homeschooling as a sector of American culture threatening the American experiment in democracy.

Indeed, Bartholet says that homeschoolers have become an incredibly powerful political force. That is undoubtedly true. Bartholet states that parents do have, “very significant rights to raise their children with the beliefs and religious convictions that parents hold.” But, she also argues that “requiring children to attend schools outside the home for six or seven hours a day does not unduly limit parents’ influence on a child’s views and issues.” Professor Bartholet argues, “The issue is, do we think that parents should have 24/7 essentially authoritarian control over their children from ages zero to 18? I think that’s dangerous.” The professor went on to say, “I think it’s always dangerous to put powerful people in charge of the powerless and to give the powerful ones total authority.” Don’t miss what the professor is arguing. She’s stating that our democratic values are endangered by a nation that respects parental authority, where parents actually exercise authority in the lives of their children.

These arguments are not new. The Common School Movement, which surged under the influence of John Dewey in the early 20th century, came as part of an attempt to remove children from the religious and sectarian prejudices of their parents by putting them in a common school that could develop a common culture. Schools functioned under this movement as a socializing agent. Dewey also founded the American Humanist Association and one of the ideological impulses that guided Dewey’s Common School Movement was the replacement of Christian theism.

Indeed, the forces behind a revolution of Western societies know that the natural family stands as its greatest obstacle. Any attempt to reshape society must capture the hearts and minds of children and subvert the role of parents within its society.

Yet, even within public schools the forces of secularization meet at least three major barriers that thwart their agenda. The first is local control over schools, which means that individual communities have had a lot of say in the curriculum of schools and hiring policy. The second major obstacle to the progressivist agenda in public schools comes from the teachers and administrators, who are drawn from the local community. That means that a school in Alabama will have teachers who reflect Alabama. The same goes for teachers in Manhattan and anywhere across the country.

The largest obstacle for progressivists in the public schools comes from the significant parental rights exercised in the local school system and in deciding where their children will go for their education.

The bias against Christianity and Christian parents is reflected in this article not only in the text and timing, but also in the art that accompanies the article, illustrated by Robert Neubecker. It shows children outside of home shaped like books for the wall and an opened book on top as the roof. The spines of the book that make up the exterior wall of the home say, “reading,” “writing,” “arithmetic,” and “Bible.” Outside of the book-shaped-home are children playing joyfully and having what appears to be a good time. Pictured inside the house, however, is another child who, with a solemn face, looks outside from behind a window with prison bars. A picture really is worth a thousand words. (The misspelling in the illustration was corrected after the controversy.)

In her article recently published in the Arizona Law Review, Professor Bartholet writes, “Homeschooling presents both academic concerns and democratic concerns. Appropriate education helps give children the academic skills needed to participate productively in society as adults through employment. It also makes children aware of important cultural values and provide skills enabling children to participate productively in their communities and the large society through various forms of civic engagement. Even homeschooling parents capable of satisfying the academic function of education are not likely to be capable of satisfying the democratic function.”

On the one hand, her article could merely reflect academic prose that reflects condescension towards homeschooling parents. It is more likely, however, a backhanded and direct rejection of the worldview of Christian parents. In the early pages of this lengthy law review article, Professor Bartholet argues that there is a very important ideological background to the reluctance of many Christian parents to enroll their children in the public schools. These parents, according to an authority she cites, want to protect their children from secularism, atheism, feminism, and value relativism, which they see as “inconsistent with the values they espouse and undermines their ability to inculcate in their children their beliefs in the sacred, absolute truth of the Bible.”

The book cited in the article is Flunking Democracy by Michael Rebell—and he attempts to depict anyone who would believe in the “sacred, absolute truth of the Bible” as ridiculous and anti-democratic.

The article then turns to the legal basis for homeschooling. Professor Bartholet doesn’t believe that an appropriate legal basis exists for homeschooling. This contradicts the 1972 Supreme Court decision, Wisconsin vs. Yoder, which recognized that parents have the authority to make decisions regarding their child’s education. By the time Bartholet concludes her article, she argues that the court should clarify, redefine, or reverse the Yoder decision and alter jurisprudence towards the rights of children.

Yet this idea of a children’s rights has enormous problems. Children can’t make those decisions for themselves. That means that someone else must make that decision on their behalf, and that is exactly where the progressivists want to be—they want to be the ones who advocate for the “rights of children” by deciding the type of education and moral instruction they will receive.

Near the end of the article, Professor Bartholet writes, “Constitutional doctrine should recognize that children have enforceable rights to an appropriate education and to protection against maltreatment. This would mean that legislators can be required to enact legislation protecting those rights and it would mean that if legislatures impose significant restrictions on homeschooling, courts would uphold those restrictions.”

Interestingly, she roots her argument not only in the United States Constitution—she goes to international law and precedents from Europe.

She argues that not abolishing homeschools would be, “inconsistent with international law, with the way other countries think, the way they structure constitutional rights and duties regarding education and child protection, and the way they regulate homeschooling.” This is an argument that dives into a major legal question and ideological divide among legal scholars, namely, to what extent should the United States Constitution be interpreted or modified by other constitutions in other nations?

By page fifty-nine of her article, she states that international law provides the model for the United States. She cites precedents in the Netherlands, Germany, and Sweden. I have taken up notorious cases in Germany where Christian parents actually had their children removed from the home simply because these parents insisted on homeschooling their children. The German constitution and German courts recognize no parental authority for the way their children are educated.

Bartholet concludes her article, arguing for a general presumption against homeschooling with the burden on the parents to justify exceptions. She writes, “When exceptions are granted, children should still be required to attend some courses and other programs at school, including, for example, civic education, arts and physical education, and extra-curricular activities. This is important to ensure exposure to alternative views and values, a broad range of activities, socialization, and contact with mandated reporters.”

Does her animus towards homeschooling extend to religious liberty? In her article, she argues, “Monopoly control by parents or by religious groups is very different from freedom to resist monopoly controlled by the state. Religious and cultural groups that deserve to survive even if their children are exposed to the larger society’s views and values.”

“Deserve to survive”? On what basis does she claim to have this kind of authority, namely, the authority to determine those religious groups worthy enough to exist in American culture? My guess is that the only religious groups that merit survival status are those religious groups that will capitulate to the progressivist agenda.

Assaults on parental rights over the education of their children is merely an extension of an assault on the entire institution of the family. Moreover, these arguments levied against homeschooling will spread, as progressivists seek to undermine any institution that provides education based on the “sacred, absolute truth of the Bible.” The call for abolishing homeschooling will accompany a call to abolish Christian schools – or at least to render them ineffective.

But, as Professor Bartholet reminds us, we should have no fear. If your religious convictions deserve to survive, then you will be fine with this radically secular and progressive agenda that fundamentally undermines the institution of the family.

If you were looking for evidence of a plot to subvert parental authority and enforce a worldview on all children of the United States through the public school system by mandatory attendance of those schools, then look no further than this article in the Arizona Law Review or the 2020 May/June edition of Harvard Magazine. At least we know where we stand.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

I am always glad to hear from readers. Write me using the contact form. Follow regular updates on Twitter at @albertmohler.

Subscribe via email for daily Briefings and more (unsubscribe at any time).