Record: Andrea Vieux, “The Politics of Homeschools: Religious Conservatives and Regulation Requirements” in The Social Science Journal (9 July, 2014). [Abstract Here]
Summary: Vieux, a Political Science professor at the University of Central Florida, here provides quantitative data to try to determine the degree to which a state’s percentage of religious conservatives correlates with its level of homeschooling regulation.
Vieux begins with a cursory history of the homeschooling movement, emphasizing the growing secularization of public education that has prompted religious conservatives to turn increasingly to homeschooling. She suggests that homeschooling policy could be an area where James Davison Hunter’s famous “culture war” theory could apply. Hunter had argued in a very influential 1991 book that the United States was increasingly divided into two separate and hostile cultures of religious conservatives (who identify with the Republican party) and secular liberals (who identify with the Democratic party). Vieux notes that the homeschooling movement, most noticeably the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), is carefully allied with the broader religious right movement discussed by Hunter and many others. One of the central purposes of the religious right is to try to influence government to pass legislation consistent with its values. Given this commitment, and given conservative Christian homeschoolers’ animus against government oversight of what they believe to be their God-ordained responsibility for their children, it is plausible that the more conservative Christians in a state, the looser that state’s homeschooling regulations will be. Is it true?
To find out Vieux obtained data from the year 2000 from the Glenmary Research Center pertaining to percentage of Evangelical Protestants in a state’s population. Her analysis included variables that tried to control for possible counter-explanations for a state’s lax or strict laws, including percentage of state population that is rural, strength of teacher unions in the state, state’s quality of public schools, state expenditures on public education, the level of professionalization in a state’s legislature, and citizen ideology.
Her dependent variable that stands for level of regulation is whether or not a state requires that homeschoolers notify the government of their intent, using 2009 data on state laws. When she ran her data she did indeed find that states with higher percentages of Evangelicals were more likely to have no registration requirement. Other significant variables include Republican control of legislatures (more Republican meant less likely to have a registration requirement) and level of professionalism (more professional legislatures are less likely to want to require registration because they want to avoid controversies over homeschooling). When she ran her numbers while controlling for citizen ideology, the same variables remained predictive, suggesting that “in some cases–particularly education policy-making–religiosity is more relevant than ideology.” (p. 6)
Vieux concludes with a few speculations about future policy directions. In states that permit vouchers and where homeschoolers are allowed to register as private schools, it is possible that in the future public money in the form of vouchers could be used to pay for homeschooling, even religious homeschooling (as the Supreme Court’s 2002 Zelman v. Simmons-Harris decision permitted). She also wonders aloud about the history of homeschooling regulations. Have they grown steadily less restrictive over the years or has it been a back-and-forth sort of thing?
Appraisal: This article is intriguing in that it uses a very complicated methodology to try to prove something that I’m not sure it actually proves. There are 11 states that do not require registration. Here they are: Alaska, Connecticut, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, Oklahoma, and Texas. In 2000, which is the year Vieux uses for her data on percentage of Evangelicals, 5 of those states’ Electoral votes went to Al Gore (the Democrat) and 6 of them went to George W. Bush (the Republican). To me that just doesn’t square with what she claims to have found in her data. If it’s really true that percentage of religious conservatives in a state predicts whether or not that state has a registration requirement, you’d expect the regulation map to line up with religiosity maps, but it doesn’t. Bible belt states like Arkansas, Tennessee, and the Carolinas have more restrictive regulations than Connecticut, Michigan, and New Jersey. What’s going on?
A lot more than this article is able to address. To really answer a question like “why does a given state have the law it has” one cannot simply tabulate a few statistics. As long-time observers and participants of homeschooling know, each state’s story is unique. Michigan, for example, had the most restrictive law in the country until 1993, when a Michigan Supreme Court Decision declared the Michigan requirement that homeschooling parents be certified to teach unconstitutional. This had nothing to do with percentage of Evangelicals, Republican control of state legislatures, level of legislature professionalism, or any of the other variables Vieux considers. Her methodology is just not the right approach to answer the question she poses.
A second and less significant concern I have with her methodology is its reliance on data from 2000. The Culture War thesis has been much debated since Hunter wrote his book, and it is generally agreed that 2000 was about the pinnacle of the influence of the Religious Right. Since then religious conservatism has been in a slow and steady decline, not only in terms of its political influence but in terms of its percentage of adherents in the population. This article’s thesis would have made more sense a decade ago, but the culture wars paradigm is less and less plausible and the nation grows ever more religiously pluralistic. Having said that, homeschooling laws haven’t changed all that much since 2000 (though what changes have been made have almost uniformly loosened regulations), so were her analysis correct for then it would remain largely correct by simple historical inertia today. But as I noted above, I just don’t think she’s right. She compiled a lot of data from sources she cobbled together from all sorts of disparate places, but all you have to do is look at the states that do or don’t have the registration requirement to know that she’s just not correct.
Milton Gaither, Messiah College