This post reviews Tal Levy, “Homeschooling and Racism” in Journal of Black Studies (November 2007): 1-19. (Available fulltext here).
Levy, a political science professor at Marygrove College in Detroit, here offers 13 hypothetical reasons why various states passed homeschool legislation and puts each hypothesis to the test to see if it really explains the expansion of homeschooling.
Levy calls his approach “Diffusion Research,” a methodology that looks at how a reform spreads and tries to ascertain why certain locations adopt the reform early and others late. Here are Levy’s 13 hypothetical reasons why states might have passed homeschool-enabling legislation:
1. The richer the state, the more likely it will pass a homeschool law
2. The less urbanized a state, the more likely to pass a law
3. The less populous a state, the more likely to pass a law
4. More Christian fundamentalists, more likely to pass a law
5. More African Americans, more likely to pass a law
6. More racial integration in schools, more likely to pass a law
7. More Republican the state government, more likely to pass a law
8. Less powerful the National Education Association in a state, more likely to pass a law
9. Less a state spends on public schools, more likely to pass a law
10. Fewer available public school teachers, more likely to pass a law
11. Lower high school graduation rate, more likely to pass a law
12. If a state is located next to a state that has recently passed a homeschool law, it will be more likely to do so.
13. The more states in a region that have a law, the more likely a state is to pass one.
After laying out these hypotheses and explaining why he thought they might explain a state’s adoption of homeschool law, Levy put each to the test using a sophisticated regression analysis. In an appendix he explains where and how he acquired data for each variable. The results of his analysis are pretty interesting. Only 8 of his 13 hypothetical variables were statistically significant, and some of his hypotheses actually got things backwards:
Regarding demographic variables, his hypothesis was correct that less populous states were more likely to pass a law, and he was right as well about areas with more conservative Christians and more racial integration. But the number of blacks and the level of urbanization were not significant factors, nor was per capita income. The take-home message here is that homeschooling laws were more likely to be passed in states with a lot of small town and rural citizens whose schools were experiencing high levels of racial integration. I’ll return to this in a moment.
Levy’s political hypothesis was completely wrong. In fact it was Democrat-controlled state governments that were more likely to pass homeschooling laws. Reading his discussion of this point makes it clear that Levy was surprised by this finding and doesn’t know quite what to make of it. He speculates that maybe southern Democrats were more likely to be pro-religious right homeschooling, or perhaps the Democrats were just being realistic, recognizing that homeschooling wasn’t going away.
Levy’s education quality hypothesis was also wrong. It turns out that the states that spent the most on public schools were actually MORE likely to pass homeschooling laws. NEA membership levels and high school graduation rates were insignificant.
Finally, Levy’s geographic hypothesis was wrong as well. He found that states whose neighbors had recently enacted homeschool laws were actually a bit less likely to pass legislation than states without neighbors who had done so.
What are we to make of all of this? I have a couple of comments. First, while this is a very interesting study, it suffers from some serious design flaws. It is a mistake to assume that a state’s passage of a new homeschool law means that that state has more homeschoolers or is somehow more interested in homeschooling than neighboring states that have not enacted new laws. Each state’s story is unique and is the result of a complex interplay of factors: the language of the original compulsory education statute in that state, state court precedents interpreting that language, individual personalities who emerged as leaders of the homeschooling movement in the state, and much else. To give just one example, California did not pass a new homeschool law in the 1980s or 1990s. Thus it is off of Levy’s radar screen. But anyone who’s been around the homeschooling world for long knows that California has more homeschoolers than any other state and is often at the very forefront of national homeschooling trends and political action. The basic problem here is that despite Levy’s 13 hypotheses, he has not accounted for the most important variable of all–the internal history of particular states. Similarly, it simply will not do to lump all states who drafted new laws together. These laws, as homeschoolers in the various states will testify, vary widely in terms of their regulatory requirements. Furthermore, many of these laws have been revisited and revised over the years.
Secondly, one of the first things students in social science courses learn is that correlation does not equal causality. Throughout this article Levy has a tendency to leap the chasm. His data shows a correlation and he then speculates (sometimes wildly) about why or how this is the case. For example, when he finds, contrary to his original hypothesis, that states neighboring other states that pass laws are themselves a bit less likely to do so, he speculates that this might be due to an “immunization effect” whereby states learn from their neighbors’ mistake and try to avoid repeating it. He offers no evidence that there has ever been this sort of immunization effect–no quotations from state legislators warning their peers to avoid following the example of their neighbor, no newspaper articles dreading the contagion of homeschooling from neighboring states, no claims by advocates of one state to take their campaign to neighbors. As one who has studied the politics of the movement in detail I am highly doubtful that there has ever been an immunization effect.
Having said all of this, the article’s actual findings (if not Levy’s explanations of them) are intriguing, especially the one he foregrounds the most. Levy offers solid evidence that does show a clear correlation between the passage of new homeschool laws and the rate of racial integration in public schools. He notes correctly that racial integration in public schools across the country peaked in the 1980s, ”the same decade that 29 of the 38 homeschooling laws were passed.” Correlation, as I just said, does not equal causality, but Levy speculates, “it is possible that as the level of school integration increased, more White parents decided to educate their children at home.”
It is certainly possible, but is it true? Again, Levy’s methodology gives us no evidence one way or the other. In my book on the history of homeschoolingI tell the story of the passage of Georgia’s homeschool law in some detail. In that state there was at first opposition to the proposed homeschooling bill by Georgia’s four black Senators (led by Julian Bond) because they thought homeschooling was yet another effort by whites to avoid desegregation. But as they listened to debate about the bill and to Georgia homeschoolers, all four Senators became convinced that religious and academic motives, not racial ones, were behind the movement and ended up voting for the bill. There probably have been some homeschooling families who have chosen this option to avoid contact with ethnic minorities, and there is a fairly robust community of Aryan Nations homeschoolers who communicate on the internet, but I have never come across any evidence, anecdotal or otherwise, that would suggest that this was a driving motive for the passage of statewide legislation.
Nevertheless, Levy’s data is noteworthy. To really test it we need extended, in-depth accounts of the passage of state homeschool laws for every state. I was able to tell Georgia’s story in detail thanks to an excellent 1995 dissertation by Casey Patrick Cochran that interviewed dozens of the important players and addressed the racial quesion head on. Would similar in-depth accounts find that racial motives were present in, say, Mississippi or Louisiana, which passed laws in 1982 and 1983 respectively? I don’t know. Given what Cochran found in Georgia, I’m inclined to doubt that the desegregation of public schools played a very significant role in the passage of new homeschool laws. But Levy’s intriguing finding here makes me wish for 49 more state studies of the same caliber as Cochran’s.