Is Homeschooling ‘Dangerous’? Catholics Respond to Harvard Professor

While coronavirus is forcing most families to make school at home work whether they want to or not, Elizabeth Bartholet, Wasserstein public interest professor of law at Harvard University and faculty director of the law school’s Child Advocacy Program, has argued that homeschooling is “dangerous.”

Mother teaching her young daughter how to write.
Mother teaching her young daughter how to write. (photo: Shutterstock)

DENVER, Colo. — Mary Ellen Barrett, a mom living on Long Island, has been homeschooling her children since before coronavirus made it cool (read:necessary) to go to school at home.

She started 18 years ago, when she decided that her oldest son Wyatt, who had autism, was not being served well in his public school. At the time, she had Wyatt, a first grader, a toddler, and another child on the way. She decided to try homeschooling.

“So we just did it and we loved it, and Wyatt caught up to grade level in many of his subjects and we kept going,” she said.

Six years later, Wyatt died of a grand mal seizure.

“I'm very grateful that I had that time with him,” Barrett said. “But he also had friends. He had kids who just didn't think he was weird, he wasn't picked on at all, which would happen (in public school). It just worked for our family.”

Barrett has thus far graduated two of her children from high school via homeschool, and is now teaching five more at home. One of her children has special education needs, and homeschooling has allowed her to tweak the curriculum for him. Barrett also works with Seton Home Study School, the Catholic homeschooling program she uses, as a consultant helping other parents using the program.

While coronavirus is forcing most families to make school at home work whether they want to or not, Elizabeth Bartholet, Wasserstein public interest professor of law at Harvard University and faculty director of the law school’s Child Advocacy Program, has argued that homeschooling is “dangerous.” Her views were featured in the May-June issue of Harvard Magazine.

Among other things, Bartholet argues that homeschooling puts children at risk of abuse by their parents, while if children were in public schools, they would be among teachers who are mandatory reporters of any suspected abuse that may be taking place.

Barrett said she read the article and wondered if Bartholet had “ever met somebody who actually homeschooled.”

“(The article) seems to be based on the premise of...if you keep your child home, you could abuse them,” Barrett said.

To support her claims about abuse, Bartholet pointed to the story of an abusive family in Idaho portrayed in “Educated,” a memoir by Tara Westover. The children in the family of the memoir were given no formal education and were subjected to dangerous work conditions - something Bartholet said could happen any place where homeschooling is allowed.

For her part, Barrett said Bartholet seems to gloss over the abuse children could face in a more traditional school setting.

“I live in New York - barely a day goes by that there's not some story of some public school child being abused either in school or at home,” she said. On the other hand, Barrett said she knows of many homeschooling families on Long Island, both religious and secular, who are committed and loving parents who simply want what is best for their children’s education.

Statistics on rates of abuse among homeschooled children versus public and private school children are difficult to come by.

A 2004 study by the U.S. Department of Education estimated that roughly 10% of students will experience sexual misconduct by a school employee by the time they graduate. A 2017 study published by Homeschooling Backgrounder found that when adjusted to account for legally homeschooled students, rather than truant families not complying with regulations, legally homeschooled students were 40% less likely to die of child abuse or neglect than the national average student. The CDC notes multiple risk factors for child abuse, including non-biological caregivers or a history of subtance abuse, but education method is not listed either as a protective factor or risk factor when it comes to child abuse.

Barrett said the most concerning thing about Bartholet’s stance is the professor’s characterization of “power” in the context of a family.

“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,” Bartholet told Harvard Magazine. “I think it’s always dangerous to put powerful people in charge of the powerless, and to give the powerful ones total authority.”

Barrett said that Bartholet seems to be arguing against the very thing for which she is advocating. “(She) wants to have the government in charge of how families decide what's best for their children. I mean, what’s a more powerful entity than the United States government? Talk about power over the powerless. That is a frightening thought.”

Melissa Moschella is an assistant professor of philosophy at Catholic University of America, and a visiting scholar at The Heritage Foundation's Feulner Institute. She is also the author of the book “To Whom Do Children Belong?”, which she described as a “philosophical defense of the rights of parents as primary educators.”

In her book, Moschella said she makes “a natural law case for why the special nature of the parent-child relationship implies the special obligation on the part of parents to provide for the wellbeing of their children, which of course, includes and requires making decisions on behalf of their children because children are too young to be able to make those decisions themselves.”

Similarly, the Catechism of the Catholic Church holds that parents are the primary educators of their children, and that “‘The role of parents in education is of such importance that it is almost impossible to provide an adequate substitute.’ The right and the duty of parents to educate their children are primordial and inalienable.”

Moschella said that the arguments presented by Bartholet - that homeschooling is dangerous, isolating, and a threat to democracy - are “really nothing new.”

“These are all things that I've argued against in my book on this topic and in various other articles.” Moschella said.

“I think the perspective (of the article) is typical of a lot of these kinds of perspectives on this issue, which is that the author forgets that somebody has to be in charge of children and that there are always going to be many controversial decisions that need to be made about what is in a child's best interest. There's not one right answer to that question. There's no obvious answer to that question,” Moschella said, because children come from varying backgrounds and have a wide variety of needs.

Moschella said Bartholet’s concerns about children’s rights to an education and to a safe environment are good, and that she supports a certain amount of regulation of homeschooled children, to ensure that real learning takes place and to ensure that children - especially those in households with a history of abuse - are not being subjected to further abuse.

“I think the worst of those risks can be mitigated in terms of homeschooling by having very reasonable regulations in place,” she said. “But to take that right away from everybody because a few bad parents are abusing that right - that doesn't make any sense.”

Homeschooling regulations vary widely by state.

Barrett said that her home state, New York requires submitting annually an individual home instruction plan to the state, which has 10 days to give Barrett feedback and allow her to make adjustments. She said starting in third grade, her children also take standardized tests every other year, and submit other assessment material in the off years. Every quarter, she reports her children’s learning progress to the state.

“So there's quite a bit of regulation, and they can call me out at any time,” Barrett said, though they haven’t, because she said she makes careful note of the state requirements.

Moschella also questioned Bartholet’s assumption that the state will always know what is in the best interest of children.

“Any time you take authority away from parents to make those controversial decisions about the best way to educate their children, you're just giving more power to the state. And then it's highly questionable that the state knows better than those parents what's in the best interest of a particular child,” she said.

Parents know their children best, Moschella said, and because of their strong emotional bonds to their children, they often are much more motivated and invested in their child’s wellbeing “in a way that no great bureaucrat is going to be.”

Several past studies have shown that homeschool students typically outperform their public and private school counterparts on things like standardized tests and college performance. A 2016 study from the National Council on Measurement in Education showed that, when adjusted for demographic factors, homeschool students were on par academically with their demographically-similar peers.

In a recent paper published in the Arizona Law Review, Bartholet offered a more developed take on the ideas mentioned in the Harvard Magazine article. In the Arizona Law Review, Bartholet argues that while homeschool children may perform as well as their peers on standardized tests or in college, they are also often isolated from their peers and denied experiences and exposures that would make them more productive citizens.

“Also, academic success says nothing about success in terms of preparing students for civic engagement. Many homeschooled children miss out on exposure to others with different experiences and values. Most all miss out on extracurricular activities like student government. 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,” she said.

Felix Miller is a 27 year-old doctoral student in philosophy living in Washington, D.C. He was homeschooled with his family in New York from kindergarten through high school, an experience he said he “really liked.”

Miller said homeschooling gave his family the time and flexibility to engage in some travel and cultural activities that he may have missed out on were he in a public or private school.

“(M)y parents did a lot to instill a sense of wonder and willingness to try new things. We lived about an hour and a half from Montreal, so every few weeks we would go up, and we might go to the jazz festival that happens there every year, or we'd go to the opera, we'd go to the Biodome or the Museum of Fine Arts,” he said.

The family also frequently attended local Shakespeare performances and did a lot of hiking in the Adirondacks, along with formal schooling in subjects like literature and science.

“I think that being homeschooled allowed me to have a lot of opportunities .. .intellectual and cultural opportunities that many of my public and private school peers didn't have the chance for,” he said.

As for being isolated from peers, Miller said he and his siblings participated in several extracurricular activities, like a speech and debate team, Boy Scouts, and science competitions at the local high school that frequently put him in contact with students from public schools and a variety of backgrounds. Miller said in his junior year, he dated a girl from a local public school that he had met through speech and debate.

“I always had a pretty easy time meeting and making friends with both homeschoolers and public schoolers. I think (the Harvard Magazine article paints) a pretty isolationist picture of the way that most homeschooling occurs. I don't see that to be the case,” Miller said.

“While it is true that my parents have certain disagreements with the dominant view on certain cultural public schooling, especially through things like sex education...I think in general in terms of socialization, they were always perfectly happy for me to have friends regardless of background,” he said.

Laura Aumen is a 27 year-old medical radiation expert who was homeschooled in Omaha, Nebraska and now lives and works in the Dallas area in Texas.

Aumen said that most families are probably painfully experiencing isolation during this time of coronavirus, and that most homeschool families she knew growing up participated in a lot of group and extracurricular activities in order to avoid isolation.

“We were part of a very large homeschool group, there were all sorts of parent-run activities,” she said. “A lot of these parents had a lot of expertise to offer, as far as homeschool co-ops, sports programs, drama programs.”

There were “people who did these things professionally, and just wanted to teach it to their kids and their kids' friends. You have a lot of really great activities, extracurriculars, in the homeschool community, just because people don't like to feel isolated,” she added.

Bartholet also claimed in Harvard Magazine that homeschooling is a threat to democracy.

“From the beginning of compulsory education in this country, we have thought of the government as having some right to educate children so that they become active, productive participants in the larger society,” Bartholet said, which in part entails educating children so that they may support themselves in adulthood.

“But it’s also important that children grow up exposed to community values, social values, democratic values, ideas about nondiscrimination and tolerance of other people’s viewpoints,” Bartholet added.

Miller said that besides being exposed to students from a variety of backgrounds, he also “couldn't count the number of times I had to read the Declaration (of Independence), or the Constitution,” and that homeschooling families typically spend much more time learning about civics than most students do in public school.

Anecdotally, Miller said his friends who were homeschooled are more likely to vote even in non-Presidential elections or to volunteer for activities that promote the common good than their public schooled peers.

“We went to the National Archives and read primary documents. We went to Lexington and we went to Boston and we did all of those things. We didn't learn history from the history books. We learned it from Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton,” she said.

Aumen said she also didn’t think her homeschooling experience taught her to be undemocratic.

“We were raised with respect for our government leaders and love for our country. We said the Pledge of Allegiance every day,” she said. “It seems like (Bartholet) wants the government to be able to control what the citizens think from a very early age. And to me, that seems like the opposite of democracy.”

Aumen said she thought that on the whole, parents who choose to homeschool their children often discover how difficult it actually is, and the ones who stick with it are those who are highly motivated and invested in their children’s education.

“I think homeschooling parents have to be courageous, and very patient, and it takes extra patience and virtue to maintain good family relationships. And so I think that for the most part, the people who can't handle it, they self select out, or they never attempted in the first place.”

Notre Dame Cathedral before the April 15, 2019, fire

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