This post reviews Robert Kunzman, “Understanding Homeschooling: A Better Approach to Regulation” in Theory and Research in Education 7, no. 3 (November 2009): 311-330
Kunzman, well known on this blog as the author of the excellent study Write These Laws on Your Children: Inside the World of Conservative Christian Homeschooling, here engages explicitly the aspect of his work that has caused the most controversy. Kunzman’s book is an in-depth profile of several Christian homeschooling families. He only briefly mentions government regulation in it, but that small part of the book has been the near exclusive focus of homeschoolers, many of whom now see him as just another critical academic who wants to take away their freedoms. In this article Kunzman offers a more complete presentation of his position on homeschool regulation. Here’s what he says: Kunzman begins by rehearsing the usual approach to the question of regulation. Typically, philosophical arguments about how much regulation there should be describe how we must balance the interests of parents with those of the child and those of the larger society. All three domains have legitimate claims on a child’s education. Kunzman then explains how many homeschoolers, in folding a child’s education into the broader role of parenting, often don’t acknowledge any distinction between schooling and the rest of life–to many homeschoolers, homeschooling is a 24/7 job.
But this holistic equation of life with school has not generally been recognized by the nation’s courts. The Supreme Court, especially in cases typically praised by homeschoolers (Pierce v. Society of Sisters  and Wisconsin v. Yoder ) very clearly acknowledged that the state has the right and responsibility, in the words of Yoder “to impose reasonable regulations for the control and duration of basic education.”
So Kunzman holds it as foundational that the state does have “the legal right to require homeschoolers to meet certain requirements.” (p.318) The devil is in the details though. What sort of regulations would be best for safeguarding the legitimate public needs of our democratic society while not infringing on the rights of parents?
Kunzman thinks that the usual approaches advocated by those who want to increase regulation of homeschooling are misguided. The National Education Association (NEA), for example, has argued for years now that homeshool teachers need to be certified by the state. Kunzman thinks this is a silly idea, for homeschooling parents aren’t doing the job of public school teachers. He notes that State courts have consistently agreed, which is why no state requires teaching certification of homeschooling parents.
A second misguided approach tries to tell homeschoolers what material they should cover. Some states do this only very vaguely while others spell out in detail what homeschoolers must cover and require families to keep portfolios of their work, take standardized tests, and be monitored by an outside authority (Kunzman notes that 35 states mandate specific subjects, 14 require parents to keep curriculum records, and 7 require student portfolios). Kunzman thinks such regulations are unhelpful, for they cannot really ascertain what’s actually being taught day to day. He gives several examples he has observed of homeschooler subterfuge (having a classical CD playing in the background count as “fine arts,” counting an episode of Little House on the Prairie as “history,” getting a church friend who is certified to sign off as the third-party evaluator without actually looking at anything, etc.). All these regulations do is create a bunch of useless paperwork.
A third misguided approach to regulation tries to force homeschoolers to expose their children to a range of views on controverted topics like evolution or politics. Here again, Kunzman describes how homeschoolers can obey the letter of the law (say, expose their children to evolutionary theory) while undermining its spirit (by teaching evolution as a stupid theory promoted by godless secularists). There is simply no way government regulators can really require parents to present fairly views the parents find objectionable.
Finally, regulations advocating testing are generally misguided as well. 15 states require some form of test be given to homeschooled children, and 9 more include them as an option for evaluation. Here again Kunzman provides examples from his research showing how easy it is for homeschooling parents to beat the system. Furthermore, calls for more extensive testing risk turning homeschools into the same hothouse of test-craziness that has created such controversy among public school policymakers.
Having rejected certification, curriculum and diversity requirements, and increased testing, what does Kunzman want? Kunzman thinks regulation should exist if an only if these three criteria are met:
1. Vital interests of children or society are at stake.
2. A general consensus exists in society as to the standards for meeting these interests.
3. An agreed-upon method for measuring whether the standards are being met exists.
Kunzman thinks a test of basic literacy and numeracy would pass muster here. The ability to read, write, and do basic math are nearly universally recognized as vital skills for today’s world, and there do exist tests with good track records for evaluating such skills. He thinks that anything more than basic skills would get into controversial territory. States would do better devoting their limited resources to “enforcing areas of widespread consensus” rather than “debatable standards.” (p. 324) [In a footnote, Kunzman acknowledges that even this minimalist test would require that all homeschoolers in a state register with the government.]
Kunzman concludes by surmising that most homeschoolers would welcome his minimalist evaluation, for it would save many of them who reside in states currently requiring much more cumbersome evaluations a lot of busywork. He warns policymakers that any attempt to impose more rigorous requirements not only guarantees a swift and powerful grassroots reaction but will not work in the end, for parents can easily fake forms, tests, and so on. Best to just leave it at basic skills and be done with it.
All of this sounds reasonable, but I can imagine two lines of attack on Kunzman here. First, he is not clear about exactly when these tests would need to be administered or what would happen if a student failed them. By what age must a child be able to read, write, and cipher? For some unschoolers such skills are not deliberately taught until a child wants to learn them, which could be as late as 10 or 12. Such children would fail the Iowa test of Basic Skills, perhaps repeatedly. What then? Kunzman says in a footnote that failure doesn’t mean kids should be forcibly placed in public schools, for they might do even worse there. All he says is that repeated failure shoud prompt “a closer look by the state into that particular homeschool context, the quality of instruction, and the needs of the student before deciding how best to protect his or her educational interests.” (p. 328) This I find unhelpful and vague. Why bother administering the test at all if there’s no clear consequence for failing it?
Kunzman could solve these problems by declaring an age when the test should be administered and being more explicit about the consequences. He might say that if a student cannot by age 12 pass the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, that child should be required to receive some sort of outside intervention. I don’t know what he’d think about this possible development of his view.
A second, and much more controversial line of attack on Kunzman might come from some of the more radical homeschool elements who use the practice as a means of sidestepping the gender equality norms of mainstream U.S. culture. Though it has not been widely studied, it is quite possible, even probable, that there are some families who homeschool their girls so as not to expose them to forms of education they believe should be engaged in only by boys. This is especially the case for some immigrant cultures, and it’s possible that on the extreme fringes of the quiverfull movement there may be some of this as well. In the case of a legitimate conflict between sincerly held religious beliefs that girls should not be taught to read and write and a public polity that wants equal educational opportunity for all, what should we do? Kunzman assumes that there is consensus on the question of basic skills. What if there’s not?