This post reviews Robert Kunzman, “Education, Schooling, and Children’s Rights: the Complexity of Homeschooling” in Educational Theory 62, no. 1 (February 2012): 75-89.
Kunzman, as readers of this blog know very well, is one of the leading scholars currently working on homeschooling. He is author of the important book Write These Laws on Your Children: Inside the World of Conservative Christian Homeschooling; he’s written many articles on homeschooling; and he maintains a helpful site that catalogs homeschooling research here.
A couple of years ago I reviewed an earlier piece by Kunzman on government regulation of homeschooling that dealt with some of the same themes he addresses here. Back then Kunzman argued against various kinds of government regulations, concluding that only tests evaluating a homeschooler’s grasp of basic literacy and numeracy should be mandated.
This current article is a bit more theoretical. It aims not so much to set out an explicit policy proposal as to argue for why certain domains should be considered legal rights (and thus be scrutinized by the government) while other, perhaps equally important domains, should not.
Kunzman begins by asserting that the history of Supreme Court Jurisprudence on government regulation of schooling suggests a clear distinction between schooling and “Life as Education,” or LaE for short. In the landmark Supreme Court cases Meyer v. Nebraska (1923) and Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925) the Court was clear both that parents had the legal right to direct the overall upbringing and education of their children and that government had the legal right to regulate schools and to require certain subjects. The Supreme Court of the 1920s simply assumed that formal education was the same as institutional schooling, and that government could regulate it. Homeschooling of course challenges this distinction by making institutional schooling part of LaE.
Given the breakdown of this distinction, how should government regulate the “schooling” part of homeschooling? Here Kunzman is consistent with his earlier work. He considers three domains–basic literacy and numeracy, “autonomy,” and citizenship education. For government to have the right to impose requirements in each domain on homeschoolers, Kunzman argues, three criteria must be met. First, there must exist broad consensus about what we all want. Second, government must be capable of measuring achievement and enforcing requirements. Finally, it must be the case that these government requirements do not sacrifice greater freedoms for the sake of a lesser good.
For basic academic skills Kunzman argues that there is widespread consensus about a baseline competency. Furthermore, there are effective instruments for measuring whether a child has acquired competency. Kunzman doesn’t think that requiring kids to learn to read, write, and cipher infringes unduly on parents’ rights, so he’s for regulations here. He counsels that government regulations should emphasize outputs, not inputs–it should only evaluate whether kids know the stuff, not impose requirements for how they acquire such knowledge.
For autonomy Kunzman provides abundant evidence that even those who advocate for it are not clear on what exactly it is. Furthermore, even if you could come up with a baseline definition of autonomy–say the ability for a child to learn to think for herself–it’s not clear how the State would test whether or not a child has developed this ability. Moreover, if you take into consideration what actually happens in public schools today that are already under government control, it is far from clear that most graduates have attained the kind of autonomy being advocated for. Given these serious problems Kunzman thinks it misguided for government to impose some sort of autonomy requirement on homeschoolers.
for civic education again we have wide ranging disagreement about what it is among theorists. Furthermore, even if we limit it to a rather anemic baseline–stressing, say, basic understanding of how our government works–it’s again not clear how effective public schools today are at ensuring that their graduates become good citizens. Kunzman notes, for example, that the 2006 NAEP Civics assessment found that only 27 percent of high school seniors scored “proficient” or above (and we might note that the 2010 data for seniors is even worse). In both this and the autonomy cases, it seems to Kunzman that any government effort to impose certain requirements on homeschoolers would not only fail on its face due to lack of clarity and impossibility of measurement but would threaten parental rights to direct the upbringing of their children.
The conclusion of this article is thus the same as that of his 2009 piece. In my previous review I raised two possible objections to Kunzman’s point of view. To briefly reiterate them here, first, some homeschoolers (especially unschoolers) would be wary of government literacy and numeracy requirements because such mandates would require parents to push these things on their kids “before they’re ready.” Kunzman should be more explicit about what age such tests of literacy and numeracy should be required and what the consequences should be if a child fails them. Second, some homeschoolers, especially from some immigrant groups with very different ideals of gender roles than common in the American mainstream, might out of sincere religious belief think their girls should not be taught to read, write, and cipher. Does Kunzman here think government has the right to trump these parents’ commitments? If so, why, and how would government enforce this legal right?
That last concern leads me to the one big disappointment I had with this article. The term “Children’s Rights” is right there in the title, but the article doesn’t really go there at all. Theorists like Jim Dwyer and many others have long argued that children themselves possess rights that are often ignored in debates about public education and child welfare. Kunzman’s treatments of liberal theorists’ discussions of autonomy and civic education are models of clarity and precision. I wish he would do the same for the robust literature on the rights of children.