This post reviews Perry L. Glanzer, “Rethinking the Boundaries and Burdens of Parental Authority over Education: A Response to Rob Reich’s Case Study of Homeschooling” in Educational Theory 58, no. 1 (2008): 1-16
Glanzer, an education professor at Baylor University best known for his work on moral education in U.S. colleges and in Russia, here offers a rebuttal to Rob Reich’s argument for increased government regulation of homeschooling, which I discussed in a previous post, and offers his own proposal for ideal government policy.
Glanzer begins by summarizing Reich’s argument. Reich notes the growth of homeschooling and asks if it poses any problems to a liberal democratic society like our own. He answers this question not by looking “to the U.S. Constitution and its case law” but by crafting a theoretical argument about the appropriate relationship betwen the interests of parents, children, and the state. Parents tend to think that they’re best positioned to provide their children’s needs, but when it comes to education, Reich argues, the state and the child have some say too. The state wants to ensure that all kids get a basic civic education and are prepared to function as independent adults in society, meaning that they need “baseline competencies” like reading and math skills as well as “minimalist autonomy,” or the ability to choose for themselves the sort of life they want to live. The child, for his or her part, has the same interests as the state: she needs to be able to develop baseline competencies and to acquire the autonomy necessary to live an independent life.
If any of these three interests dominated, we’d have “parental despotism, state authoritarianism, or child despotism.” What Reich thinks we need is a system of checks and balances. But since his topic is homeschooing, it’s parental despotism that he sees as the most dangerous, and so he aims to tame it with government regulation. If parents fail to foster autonomy in their children, “the state must step in…”
How? Four ways. First, the state should require homeschoolers to register. Second, the homeschool must meet “determined educational standards.” Third, homeschooled children must be exposed to and engage with “values and beliefs other than” those of the parents. Finally, some standardized test should be required to ensure competence.
Glanzer has two basic criticisms of Reich’s argument. First, he rejects Reich’s “burden of proof” argument that holds homeschooling parents guilty until proven innocent. The state has an interest in making sure that parents feed and clothe their children, retorts Glanzer, but parents do not have to submit annual reports demonstrating that they are meeting these demands. Parents are assumed to be doing a good job unless problems emerge, and then the burden of proof is on the state to prove that parents are failing. Glanzer then reverses the burden of proof and claims that to bring a charge against a homeschooling family the state would need to provide 1. a clear standard of educational competence, 2. evidence that state curricula best meet this standard, and 3. evidence that public schools best deliver this competence. He is highly doubtful that 2 and 3 will ever be forthcoming.
Secondly, Glanzer takes on Reich’s definition of “minimalist autonomy.” The problem is that it lacks specificity. How would the state be able to know if a child’s autonomy is being threatened? “Could we devise an Iowa Basic Skills Test of Minimalist Autonomy for each grade level?” Reich himself admits that such an effort would be quixotic, but he still wants to hold parents accountable for it. Glanzer wonders if Reich’s appeal to “the ability to reflect independently and critically” and so forth sounds more like what is usually expected of college students, not seven year olds. He goes on at some length reducing Reich’s argument for autonomy to absurdity in several paragraphs of spirited prose, concluding that even if minimalist autonomy did make sense (which it doesn’t) and could be assessed (which it can’t), is there any reason to think that public schools foster it any better than homeschooling?
I found Glanzer’s second argument both bracing to read and convincing. Reich’s notion of autonomy is too fuzzy and is no doubt developmentally inappropriate. Even if one could define it better and make it age appropriate, could it be taught and assessed? It seems unlikely.
Glanzer’s burden of proof argument is a bit less satisfying to me, however. I was with him for the first part of it as he tried to make homeschooling analogous to other things provided by parents such as food, shelter, love, and so on. As he says, we don’t make parents prove their love. But neglect and abuse are real, and when they are suspected, government does have a right to investigate. The burden of proof is high, to be sure, but repeated visits to the ER, testimony of friends, neighbors, and family members and so on can and do lead to government intervention. Glanzer is correct that most homeschoolers do a good job, but what of those few who do not? That’s a question he doesn’t address, and his proposal, which amounts to leaving parents alone completely, lets such children fall through the cracks. We are left then with uncertainty as to how to provide the maximum amount of freedom for parents while at the same time protecting the right of children to receive basic education. Reich, as Glanzer arues quite effectively, overplays the government’s hand. Glanzer acknowledges the state’s need for citizens with baseline educational competency but is unwilling to allow the government to assess homeschoolers to ensure they are providing it. To me this doesn’t quite add up.