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March-April 2010 Selected Content

Undoing The Harms of Homeschooling
From Reaction to Prevention
- Kate Brunner

Surveying homeschooling families at our co-op this week, I had the thought that a detailed census of our membership could sound like the beginning of a convoluted arithmetic problem or the lead-in to a very poor joke: a Republican atheist, a libertarian-leaning Pagan and an eco-conscious conservative Christian meet at a park. . . .

As the popularity of home education continues to rise dramatically, so too does the diversification of the homeschooling community. Families are turning to home education for reasons that are as diverse as their religious, political, ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds in ever increasing numbers. The public image of homeschoolers in America at large, however, continues to stagnate, mired in ugly, one dimensional stereotypes often unfortunately perpetuated by alarmist claims from university scholars.

An article provocatively entitled, "The Harms of Homeschooling," by Georgetown Law Center professor, Robin L. West, was published in the Summer/Fall 2009 issue of University of Maryland's Philosophy & Public Policy Quarterly. The piece recently caught the attention of the American homeschooling community with the author's harsh policy recommendations. Her suggested regulation seems to be rooted in a myopic stereotypical image of today's home educating family and a revisionist legal history of modern home education. Professor West is hardly the first academic critic of homeschooling, but her poorly supported recommendations draw from and consolidate aspects of the viewpoints of other academic anti-homeschooling critics like Robert Reich and Kimberly Yuracko. She crafts these opinions into yet another focused attack on the regulatory freedom of home educating families. The absurdity of most of West's suggested harms caught my attention when I came across the article. It perplexed me as to how she felt she could make many of the claims she did. So I began to analyze the piece, doing a bit of research on my own. I was also moved to contact Dr. West. Through the course of our correspondence and my research, I came to better understand the root of academic objections to unregulated home education and to consider what today's homeschooling families might be able to do about it.

West begins her article by describing the "majority of homeschoolers today" as "devout, fundamentalist Protestants" who chose to home educate their children for strictly religious reasons and "teach them from nothing but the Bible" (7). She tells her readers that "until three quarters of the way through the 20th [century], it was a crime to keep one's children home from school.... Parents who did so were criminals, and their kids were truants." (8). Without offering references to support either of these claims, she uses the premise that almost all homeschoolers are solely religiously motivated and would not have been able to do what they are doing as little as thirty years ago to frame her proposed harms of home education. West alleges that children who are home educated are at higher risk for child abuse, pose a public health risk since they are not routinely vaccinated, have no "safe haven" (9) from the intensity of parental love, present a threat to liberal democracy, are likely to fail to mature ethically, may not receive a minimally sufficient education, and contribute to weakening local economies. Although she provides no documentation to support her claims, she concludes that these harms to the individual child and the state are enough to justify recommending all states enact strict homeschooling regulation. Adequate regulation, in West's opinion, should include home visits to home educating families, state supervised curricular reviews and mandatory standardized testing. The most remarkable feature of this article is not the accusations or even the regulatory recommendations, but the complete lack of evidence to support any major part of the article from start to finish.

Individual rebuttals of the harms West presents in her article turn up a respectable body of evidence to refute each claim. For example, even though West quotes the trial judge for the recent In re Rachel case to support the proposal that almost all reports of suspected child abuse come from classroom teachers (9), a quick glance at the US Department of Health and Human Service's report, Child Maltreatment 2007, confirm that only 17% of suspected abuse reports come from education personnel (ACF 6) and that the highest rates of child victimization are found in children younger than school age (ACF 25). Other equally credible sources exist for answering West's other arguments against unregulated homeschoolers. In addition, an examination of the history of home education within several individual states easily illustrates the weaknesses of West's historical claim that "over the course of the last thirty years, 'homeschooling' has gone from illegal--meaning criminal--in all fifty states, to fully legal" (9). Oklahoma wrote provisions for unregulated home education into its state constitution and Texas provided for unregulated homeschooling in its very first compulsory education laws in the early twentieth century. Indiana and Illinois courts affirmed the legality of home education in their states thirty to eighty year before West alleges homeschooling was legal in any state (see State v. Peterman, 1904 and People v. Levisen, 1950).

With the diverse evidence that her claims of harm generated by home education's history and actions are unfounded, I was left wondering; what is really at the root of these academic objections to unregulated homeschooling? It is not difficult to detect a strong bias against home educating conservative Christians in most of the academic rhetoric opposing unregulated homeschooling. However, an absent piece of the puzzle, until now, has been an examination of any social research addressing whether or not children of conservative Christian homeschooling families turn out any more passionate and committed to their faith than conservative Christian public school students.

In 2008, Jeremy E. Uecker, a doctoral candidate at University of Texas, Austin, published "Alternative Schooling Strategies and the Religious Lives of American Adolescents" in the Journal for Scientific Study of Religion. Using data gathered in a nationwide phone survey, he attempted to address the effect methods of education might have on religious behavior. Uecker took a look at public school students, private Protestant and private Catholic school students, and homeschoolers. Fascinatingly enough, Uecker found "very little effect of homeschooling on any aspect of adolescents' religious lives" and concluded that "there appears to be scant religious benefits to this schooling strategy." (581). If home education is not the critical ingredient that allows conservative Christian families to successfully pass on their core values to their children, it would follow that implementing strict regulation of the entire home educating population would not be effective in reducing the social and political influence of conservative Christians on society at large. Even if this were not the case, the irony of discriminating against homeschoolers with a particular faith tradition based on objections to their social, religious and political beliefs as a means of protecting our free democratic society seems to be a fantastically overlooked piece of the thought processes of academics like West.

So why do West and other anti-homeschooling academics they think they can continue to get away with these types of inaccurate and stereotypical arguments? Reading West's piece sent me into full research mode; an exercise in unschooling myself on the true heritage of today's home educator. As I began to dig, I discovered exactly how little I knew about the historical background and the social research conducted on our family's chosen educational path. The rapid growth home education is experiencing is not limited to conservative Christian populations. New homeschoolers represent every imaginable demographic across the nation. Like the generation of homeschoolers before us, we choose home education for reasons that are just as unique as we are. Some of us experience a year or two of public education with our children before making the leap to homeschooling. Others decide to skip kindergarten registration and just try homeschooling for a year. We get frustrated with public education even though our kids are now teenagers and choose to try something new. No matter how we get started, when we stop to look back, most of us have really only been doing this for the last ten to twenty years at the most.

West was right about one thing. Homeschooling advocacy reached a fevered pitch about thirty years ago as homeschoolers organized themselves into extremely influential lobbies capable of affecting great change in state, local and even federal arenas. Since that time, there's been less of a cause to rally around, and the bulk of today's homeschoolers are not the eloquently informed advocates the last generation had to be. But perhaps we should be. The cause has shifted, evolved into something different. But we still need to be advocates in our community, our state and our nation. We need to be educated about our history and capable of logically refuting objections to our educational choices, as well as calls for limiting our freedoms. Twenty-first century home educators need to study up.

We also need to rethink our strategy. If attacks against homeschoolers and calls for increased regulation are rooted in anti-conservative Christian biases, then we need to take two crucial steps to prevent them. First, we must strive to raise a more accurate profile of the diversity of home educators. We need to make our critics highly aware of the fact that the American homeschooling population continues to be full of conservatives, liberals and politically indefinables, school-at-homers and whole life unschoolers, Christians, Pagans, and atheists, upper income families travelling the world in style and lower income families creatively squeaking by every month, Ph.D. holders and GED holders and any and every other demographic an academic might attempt to sort us by. What links us all is our love for our children and our desire to see their unique educational needs met through a dynamic customized education.

Second, we need to actively come to the aid of homeschoolers who do not fit the same demographic profile our family does. We must loudly point out that if the government restricts one of us with increased regulation, the government restricts all of us. Different homeschooling families may disagree completely about the components of a quality education for their children, but we must agree to defend each others' freedom to provide the education we each see fit in our own homes.

"The Harms of Homeschooling" will not be Robin West's last publication utilizing stereotypical imagery and revisionist history to bolster a call for increased regulation of homeschoolers. She is currently working on a larger project that will supposedly expand on this latest article. Examining this article has jump-started my own education about home education itself--our history and our potential future. I will continue to learn and grow in hopes of broadening the public picture of home education with my efforts. I will continue to encourage homeschooling as a fantastic option for all families--a rewarding path that should be enthusiastically protected by the entire community of home educators.

© 2010, Kate Brunner

Works Cited Constitution of the State of Oklahoma, Article 13, Section 4

People v. Levisen, 404 Ill. 574, 90 N.E. 2d 213 (1950)

State v. Peterman, 32 Ind. App. 665, 70 NE 550 (1904)

Texas Education Agency v. Leeper, 893 S.W. 2d 432 (Tex. 1994)

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration on Children, Youth and Families. Child Maltreatment 2007 Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, (2009)

Uecker, Jeremy E. "Alternative Schooling Strategies and the Religious Lives of American Adolescents." Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion Vol. 47 No. 4 (2008) 563-584.

West, Robin L. "The Harms of Homeschooling." Philosophy and Public Policy Quarterly Vol. 29 No. 3/4 (2009) 7-12.

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