Coronavirus home schooling highlights the religious right's education system influence

Parents have rights, but I believe children have rights, too — to an environment free from exploitation and to a meaningful education.
Image: Teaching aids and exercise books for homeschooling
Teaching aids and exercise books for home schooling.Karin Zeitvogel / AFP via Getty Images file
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By Katherine Stewart, author of "The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism"

This past year, millions of families (mine among them) experienced remote learning and entertained the idea of home schooling for the first time. Some of these families are eager to send their kids back to school. Others will make do with remote learning this school year, and still others are certain to take up more seriously the idea of home schooling. When they do, they will discover two things. First, home schooling is already an attractive option for many American families, and it is the reality for an estimated 1.7 million children. Second, home schooling in America generally has become dangerously politicized and unregulated.

If home education is to be the healthy and necessary force that it can, we need to improve the home-schooling system now.

In many states, there are few meaningful guidelines for the families that need them, and it remains this way because home-schooling advocacy is heavily influenced by groups that can turn to extreme methods to pursue extreme agendas. If home education is to be the healthy and necessary force that it can be as we negotiate how to educate our children through the pandemic and beyond, we need to improve the home-schooling system now.

To be clear, home schooling can be an excellent option for many families, and it will undoubtedly be an even more appealing option for many more in the near future. "Like it or not, we are suddenly a nation of homeschoolers," as the Hechinger Report notes. According to a survey by RealClear Opinion Research, 40 percent of parents are more likely to consider alternative education, including home schooling, after the lockdowns end.

This is a moment for creativity and innovation in home schooling — but also for guidelines and regulation when necessary. The pandemic is opening up many options and ideas for virtual education and hybrid education, for cooperative arrangements and possibly for state assistance and partnership with home education.

As I write this, I know that I am setting myself up to get abusive letters and messages from people who will not have read past the headline. I will be accused of anti-faith bigotry and communism. And I know this because it is what happens to everyone who writes critically about the lack of regulation in home schooling.

For example, Elizabeth Bartholet, faculty director of the Child Advocacy Program at Harvard Law School, published an 80-page paper in the Arizona Law Review this year titled "Homeschooling: Parent Rights Absolutism vs. Child Rights to Education & Protection," summarizing years of research and wide survey evidence in the field. Bartholet also planned to participate in an academic conference on the subject (later postponed because of COVID-19).

Bartholet told me she was immediately inundated with many hundreds of angry and threatening messages and was the subject of a series of negative articles posted on the website of the Home School Legal Defense Association, or HSLDA, a home-schooling advocacy group with hyperconservative leanings founded in 1983, whose founder, Michael Farris, is closely allied with other religious right leaders.

Much of home-schooling advocacy right now is in the hands of a small but belligerent minority who believe that parents have absolute rights over their children.

In a way, the abuse proved one of Bartholet's central theses: that much of home-schooling advocacy right now is in the hands of a small but belligerent minority who believe that parents have absolute rights over their children and that any form of regulation amounts, in the words of some home-schooling families, to "tyranny."

Lawmakers have run into similar resistance. Consider the case of New Jersey Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg. In 2004 — following the horrific discovery of children who were kept out of school and were alleged to have been subjected to severe forms of physical and psychological abuse — Weinberg, then in the state Assembly, introduced legislation that would have required parents, for the first time, to notify the state that their children were being home-schooled. The bill also asked that parents submit proof of their children's annual medical exams and provide assessments in core academic topics like reading and math.

Opponents besieged Weinberg's office with angry phone calls and falsely claimed that the legislation would "devastate homeschooling in New Jersey." Some activists followed her around the State House, and Weinberg began to fear for her safety. In 2011, after the death of another home-schooled child, Weinberg introduced a bill to require that home-schooled students register with their school districts, undergo yearly medical exams and submit portfolios of schoolwork. The HSLDA opposed that bill, too, and Weinberg was unable to get it passed.

A significant share of the activism can be traced to the HSLDA. "Somebody who wants to file a bill, they should expect to hear from every home schooler in their state," Farris said in ProPublica. Farris is also president of the powerful anti-LGBTQ Christian legal advocacy group Alliance Defending Freedom.

Lawmakers in New Hampshire, Arkansas, Hawaii, California and elsewhere have similarly abandoned their efforts to introduce meaningful reforms after also having been targeted with intimidation tactics.

Lawmakers in New Hampshire, Arkansas, Hawaii, California and elsewhere have similarly abandoned their efforts to introduce meaningful reforms.

"We have seen a similar pattern play out repeatedly in state after state: A child dies or is severely harmed after their abusive parents use home schooling to isolate them, local state lawmakers introduce legislation intended to protect children in similar situations, and home-schooling parents turn out en masse to oppose the legislation," said Rachel Coleman, co-founder and executive director of the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, which advocates for the rights of home-schooled children and offers support and programming for home-schooling families.

It is thus not surprising that every state has its own rules. In Massachusetts, one of only five states considered to have high regulation by the HSLDA, parents who wish to home-school need the approval of a local school committee or superintendent and must work with a local district to find out what is required. Some districts may require a certain number of hours of instruction and information about the people who will be providing instruction, or they may recommend specific subjects and require that students be taught in accordance with state curriculum frameworks.

But in Oklahoma, as with a dozen other states, there is almost no regulation whatsoever; while the State Education Department offers a list of "suggestions," Oklahoma law does not require parents to seek approval or register their kids. There are no reporting requirements, no education level requirements for the parents, no state-mandated subjects, no bookkeeping or assessment requirements.

Families decide to home-school for a wide range of reasons. For some, there is not enough religion in public schools; for others, there is too much. Some families home-school because their children have specific unmet needs or special abilities, because they live long distances from any schools, because a parent's employment requires frequent travel or simply because they enjoy it. No single generalization will be accurate.

However, the data show that a very large number of home-schoolers are motivated by a desire to provide their children with religious and moral instruction and by concerns about the "environment" of public schools. The HSLDA promotes materials espousing a "biblical worldview." In its written communications, the HSLDA frequently derides public schools as "government schools," a label that reflects the religious right's longstanding hostility to public education. As a consequence, in spite of the diversity of the home-schooling sector, the regulations disproportionately appear to reflect the interests of one group.

Although its self-described membership of 80,000 families represents just a small percentage of the nation's home-schooled children, the HSLDA's take-no-prisoners tactics give it outsize influence.

"The moment you bring up any type of sensible regulation, they pile on you. The few legislators who attempt to do so give up," says Coleman of the Coalition for Responsible Home Education. "You only have to touch the third rail once to realize it's electrified."

Those who believe home education can benefit many families in the future — as I do — should welcome meaningful policies that best serve our children and the nation. A sensibly regulated market is not the opposite of freedom; it is the foundation of freedom and success. As home schooling goes from an estimated 1.7 million children — already a substantial number — to a much larger group, we cannot abandon them.

Organizations including Coleman's are actively working on solutions. "In recent years, we have heard from a growing number of home-schooling parents who are in favor of oversight for home schooling," says Coleman. "They want the basic guidance and assurance that they are on the right path. We are hopeful that the climate will change, leading to fewer angry attacks, less misinformation and a more concerted, prolonged effort to protect home-schooled children and support home-schooling parents."

I appreciate that little of this will bring along the parents' rights absolutists. But that's OK. Parents have rights, but I believe children have rights, too — to an environment free from exploitation and neglect, to a meaningful education and to a chance to make a positive contribution to the world. Those of us who share these convictions should consider how to make home schooling work for the many it can help without risking harm to the defenseless. And we must not allow the far-right faux-outrage machine to derail the conversation.