This post reviews Robin L. West, “The Harms of Homeschooling” in Philosophy and Public Policy Quarterly 29, no. 3/4 (Summer/Fall 2009): 7-11 [Available here]
West, a professor of law at the Georgetown University Law Center, here provides perhaps the most blistering attack on homeschooling to be published in a reputable source in many years.
West begins with a very flawed historical account of the practice, asserting that prior to the 1980s homeschooling was “illegal, everywhere, and regardless of the parents’ motivations.” (8) This is simply not the case. In my bookI describe in detail the regulatory climate prior to the various legislative and legal initiatives in the 1980s. Though advocacy organizations like HSLDA have often claimed that prior to their heroic efforts homeschooling was illegal, such claims are false. In fact, prior to the movement activism of the mid 1980s, fourteen state compulsory education statutes said nothing at all about home based education, fifteen explicitly accepted it in one form or another, and the remaining twenty-one states allowed for “equivalent instruction elsewhere” than public schools or “instruction by a private tutor.” Responsibility for determining the acceptability of domestic education arrangements often devolved to the local school board or administrator, who might or might not be hospitable. As I describe in my book, many homeschoolers in the 1970s were able to work within the existing systems, though there were occasionally serious problems, sometimes leading to legal action.
Anyway, West makes this flawed historical argument so that she can set up next section. Why, she asks, would states willingly have ceded their responsibility to educate all citizens so abruptly to these well-organized homeschooling advocates? Her answer is that the state legislatures and courts who legalized and deregulated homeschooling in the 1980s and 1990s believed homeschooler rhetoric that falsely claimed a Constitutional right to homeschool. There is some truth to this for some states, but the reality is far more complicated than that. Again, in my book I tell the stories of several state legislative and legal battles. Homeschoolers did in fact make Constitutional claims (and still do), but with one important exception in Michigan, such claims were universally rejected by the courts. It was not the Constitutional but the statutory arguments that were more effective, and that’s because, as I said already, existing state statues governing compulsory education were often more hospitable toward homeschooling than were local school officials. In the cases where the statutes were not hospitable, homeschoolers were successful at getting new language written into the statutes. State legislatures re-wrote these laws not because of Constitutional concerns but simply in response to the powerful grassroots organizing of homeschoolers.
All of that is to say that West’s historical case is very weak. But let us press on. West proceeds to admit that homeschooling, even if it’s not a Constitutional right, has done a pretty good job overall in getting at least the self-selecting kids who take tests to do well on them. She thus doesn’t want to abolish homeschooling outright. Instead, she just wants to regulate it. Why?
Because, West argues, there are several dreadful consequences that result from unregulated homeschooling. Here they are:
First, kids who aren’t regulated are at “greater risk for unreported and unnoticed physical abuse.” (9) She has no evidence of this, but she notes that most domestic abuse is noticed by school teachers, and if abused kids aren’t in school, who will notice?
Second, kids who don’t attend school don’t have to get immunizations and thus pose a public health risk.
Third, kids who attend school are loved for who they are as individuals, not for who they are as offspring. West acknowledges that she has “yet to see studies of this” and must repeatedly describe “the ideal teacher” here, but the point seems to be that a teacher’s love is unconditional while a parent’s is contingent upon the child being his or her offspring.
Fourth, homeschooled kids (especially those of fundamentalist Protestants) risk becoming political automatons programmed by their parents to mindlessly parrot Republican talking points.
Fifth, she reiterates Rob Reich’s “ethical servility” argument that authoritarian parenting produces damaged, ethically unrealized slaves who can’t think for themselves.
Sixth, she fears (again without any evidence) that unregulated homeschooling is leading some kids to get truncated intellectual training–perhaps learning only a literal view of the Bible or maybe spending all day skateboarding.
Seventh, poor fundamentalist families living in trailer parks homeschooling their 14 children are not doing their kids any favors in terms of their future economic opportunities.
Because of these seven potentially harmful reasons, homeschooling should be more heavily regulated. How? Annual standardized testing, curricular review, and periodic home visits to make sure kids are getting immunizations and aren’t being abused.
I’ve already critiqued her historical component. How about her seven harms? Several of them have been discussed multiple times on this blog before. For a rigorous discussion of Reich’s arguments, see my posts summarizing the debate between Reich and Perry Glanzer here, and here. As I note in one of those previous posts, Reich himself has moved away from his ethical servility argument, largely as a result of increased interaction with real homeschoolers.
As for the political automaton thing, I should say at the outset that every homeschooling family will have its own dynamic and it is impossible to generalize. Having said that, one of the interesting findings I noted both in Kathryn Joyce’s Quiverfull book (which West cites) and in Rob Kunzman’s Write These Laws on Your Children is that even in the most conservative, most doctrinaire, most overbearing households, the kids often end up less radical than their parents. In Kunzman’s book especially one sees powerful examples of an extremely conservative dad gradually loosening the reins on his daughters. I might also add that I have taught several students here at Messiah College who were homeschooled for the entirety of their lives in the precise form of conservative Protestantism West is so distrustful of in this piece. Without exception so far I have found these students to be tolerant and respectful of difference, more so in fact than some of the students I teach who came from conservative Christian private schools. This is all anecdote of course, but it’s more evidence than West gives us, which is nothing.
As for the academic concern, I suppose it is plausible, and I have gone on the record several times on this blog endorsing some sort of evaluation of basic literacy and numeracy for homeschooled kids (West’s annual testing goes way too far in my view. How about once when a kid turns 12?). I can imagine some homeschoolers retorting that she should be less concerned with homeschoolers than with the tens of thousands of public school dropouts, who are far more likely to be skateboarding away their days.
A similar retort could be made to her poverty argument. If you want to talk about perpetuating the culture of poverty, it would be hard to think of an institution that has done a more thorough job of this than the urban public school. Of course you’d want to nuance that by noting that parent SES, not schooling, is far and away the best predictor of a child’s future economic status. In this section West offers one of her only appeals to actual evidence, from a USA Today article no less, which notes the NCES’ 2007 finding that homeschooling is increasingly an upper-class phenomenon. The backside-scratchin’, trailerpark homeschool stereotype she plays on here is belied by her own evidence.
That leaves us with immunizations and physical abuse, which are in my view legitimate concerns. As I have noted before, some homeschoolers do entertain conspiracy theories about immunizations. I discuss this issue in greater detail here. The bottom line is that we need more research about homeschoolers and immunization before we rush to craft policy increasing regulation.
Finally, for physical abuse. Again, I have noted on the blog before that this is a serious concern. I’m skeptical that West’s proposal for mandatory home visits would really turn up much abuse, and it would be both expensive and a scheduling hassle for all concerned. There probably are abusive parents who hide their actions behind feigned “homeschooling.” But what to do about it I have no idea. I noted in a comment on a previous post that my aunt has for decades been in social service and has dealt with thousands of child abuse cases. It is heartbreaking work that leads to a sense of hopelessness and despair. It is delusional to think that a couple of home visits would solve the problem.
In sum, this is a very weak article. West’s legal training and current academic position makes me certain that she could have crafted a more careful study of the issues. What we have here instead seems a hastily compiled litany of classic anti-homeschooler talking points by a scholar who has yet to think about these issues in a sustained and rigorous fashion. I hope this is only the first foray for West and that subsequent work will demonstrate increased knowledge of the complexities and nuances of homeschooling law, policy, and practice.