When A Harvard Professor Pulls The Homeschool Fire Alarm

 

BY JEANETTE LENOIR

 

There’s a firestorm brewing and this time it’s not the usual suspect causing the uproar. It’s a highly acclaimed Harvard professor who ruffled the feathers of the homeschooling community by suggesting an all out ban on the practice if stricter regulations and measures aren’t put in place to protect homeschooled children.

Elizabeth Bartholet, Wasserstein public interest professor of law and faculty director of the Law School’s Child Advocacy Program, says although the risks for homeschooled children are real, her position is misunderstood. “I do not propose a ban. I propose that those who want to homeschool satisfy a burden of demonstrating they have good reason to homeschool and are capable of providing their children with an adequate education. I also make clear in the article that there are many parents homeschooling today who have very good reason to do so, including problems their local schools may present, and that many of them are providing educations superior to what their children would receive in the public schools,” she said in a statement to ePa.

Bartholet goes on to say, “I think if you take another look at my article it will clarify that various critics have not been giving an accurate picture of my position. There are dozens of articles and books on homeschooling that make many of the same descriptive and critical points I do and that make a wide range of regulatory proposals. Many of these call for regulation to address the child maltreatment issue. Many call for regulation to try to ensure adequate education. Some go far beyond me in the restrictive direction to propose an absolute ban.” Nonetheless, the damage has been done as many homeschoolers say they feel picked on and attacked by Bartholet and her anecdotes. Those who took particular offense are the religious homeschoolers.

Below is a Q & A with self-described religious homeschoolers Matt and Jenn Kallman from Michigan.

ePa: What are your thoughts on the report authored by Prof. Bartholet on the risks of homeschooling? 

As I read the abstract, I couldn’t help but picture the overweight, middle-aged man criticizing the performance of the professional athletes on the television in his living room.  With that metaphor stuck in my brain, I charged into digesting the 80 pages. The central thesis seems to me summed up in the statement “Anecdotal evidence is alarming.”  (pg 17).   On pg 56 she cites as one of these anecdotes, “A bill was introduced in Michigan in 2015 in response to the death of two children found in a freezer. They had been withdrawn from school for alleged homeschooling despite the mother’s prior CPS involvement.”

As life-long Michiganders, we remember this horrible story from the news. These stories are clearly awful and it is a tragedy that any children live (and die) with such horrors. But, it seems an enormous stretch to suggest situations like this are “homeschooling”. By no definition was that place a “home” and it is likely no “schooling” was attempted.

Should Professor Bartholet protest that it is lax regulation like in Michigan that enables such things so we ought to consider them part of the “homeschool community”, I would wonder whether societies like Germany which outright prohibit homeschooling are totally free of anecdotes of awful parents who escape the system designed to protect children. Should Professor Bartholet demonstrate that there are no anecdotes of such behavior, then I would begrudgingly put such anecdotes back into the homeschool circle. But, I doubt she could point to a society that is “anecdote free”.

Other than anecdotal information, I can’t find any supporting data for statements like “Many homeschooling parents are simply not interested in educating their children. Some remove their children from school specifically because they have been accused of truancy. Some do so specifically to avoid child protection laws.” (pg 11)

The article is filled with assertions like “A very large proportion of homeschooling parents are …” (pg 5-6) and “These parents are committed to homeschooling largely because they reject …”.  If from my house I wrote an article about the educational system in Russia, I could very well gather information and make assertions about the educational system there. If I don’t know the language nor have ever visited Russian educational facilities and talked with those in the system it’s doubtful I’d have a very good perspective. Professor Bartholet clearly knows neither the language of the homeschooling community nor has ever made a significant effort to assess things “on the ground” to get an informed perspective.

The author clearly lives in the political perspective of academia. An innocent example is how she naively assumes we will read a statement like “HSLDA’s influence is illustrated by the fact that the current U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos met with HSLDA leaders early in her tenure” as a clear negative.

Here in Betsy DeVos’ hometown we’re quite happy that she would meet with a pro-educational-freedom organization like HSLDA. A not-so-innocent example is this statement: The U.S. Constitution with its negative rights structure is an anomaly, outdated and inadequate by the standards of the rest of the world.

To seriously believe the U.S. Constitution is an outdated anomaly is not mainstream political thought in the U.S. and re-enforces one of the reasons we homeschool. The combination of bureaucrats and academics being in charge of education is a recipe for failure in the long run. Families who homeschool are doing it for many different reasons that boil down to a genuine desire to do the best for their children. There are awful anecdotes of situations in the real homeschool community where depravity of adults destroys the lives of children. Homeschoolers care about those children and want to ensure society can protect those instances without infringing on general freedoms of families to choose the best option for their children. Professor Bartholet unknowingly makes the case that the anecdote is not the reality. Or would she have us believe that a large group of lazy, under-educated, unintelligent child abusers has one of the most effective political lobbies in the United States?

ePa: Why did your family decide to homeschool?

Homeschooling can be hard. There are days we wonder if it is worth the effort. However, we decided to homeschool and continue to decide that because we believe it is best for our family and children. It forces us to be together and work together as a family. We have the opportunity to give our children our perspective on religion, science, art, music, et cetera. This perspective includes giving them a broader perspective than they would receive in a traditional school. We also feel it is most natural to continue educating our children within our family just like the early years of their childhood. Similarly, we take care of our children’s health on a daily basis and reach out to experts for information, help and diagnosis. We see education similarly.

We love the flexibility homeschooling provides us to capitalize on unique opportunities. For example, last month we spent time in the English countryside, London and Copenhagen. The socialization opportunities are so much better than a traditional school organized by age group. And we believe educational needs are changing (when I was in high school Google was barely a thing) and it’s easier to evolve educational approach outside of the large system.  Additionally, we have found homeschooling really helps us tailor the educational pace and content to each particular child.

ePa: Bartholet states that studies show that 90-percent of parents choose to homeschool for religious reasons, specifically conservative Christian beliefs. Since your family falls in this category, (on being religious only, as I don’t know your political standing) what are your thoughts on her assertion that some of these parents are extreme religious ideologues who question science and promote female subservience and white supremacy? You’re welcome to share your political views in your response. 

We don’t personally know anyone in our homeschool community that is a white supremacist. Bartholet would think we question science and promote female subservience. We don’t, but she would think that of us. Our Christian perspective does influence our thinking around origins and we believe the Bible gives equal value to all humans but equips each of us in a family with different roles and responsibilities. We do hold traditional Christian views based on many thousands of years of tradition and perspective.

Are there homeschoolers who we think have an incorrect ideology? Of course. Just like we think Bartholet has an incorrect ideology. However, that is the essence of a free society. We live, we discuss, we learn from each other and we shouldn’t attempt to impose Bartholet’s ideas on homeschoolers any more than we should impose our ideas on other families.

ePa: Have you experienced any form of racism in your homeschooling community and are you part of a diverse community of religious homeschoolers?

No, we have not experienced racism. Yes, we are part of a diverse community of religious homeschoolers. We are a multi-ethnic family with two sons who were born in China and we are welcomed and loved in our homeschool community.

ePa: Would you recommend homeschooling for others as a permanent option, as most parents are having to homeschool their own children due to the global health crisis? 

Each family should consider what is best for them. We think it is right for us at this time and place, and we recognize it is not right for some families. Each area may have different levels of homeschooling support. We leverage a lot of online curriculum and content. Additionally, our area has an enormous homeschool community, even a Homeschool Building.

ePa: Is there anything in her report that you agree with? 

The page numbers all appear to be accurate. Just kidding. I think philosophically we have extremely different perspectives, but I would think we share an understanding that a deep discussion of what is best for children is a worthy endeavor!

ePa: What would you like Bartholet, and others, to know about homeschoolers that you think she missed in formulating her opinion? 

Homeschoolers are people. Some highly educated and quirky, others more down to earth, conservative, liberal, free-wheeling, by-the-book, big families, small families, religious, and atheists. You should connect with some personally to expand you perspective. Maybe you would still reach the same conclusions, but with a better educated perspective.

ePa: Is there anything else you would like to add that I didn’t ask but is worthy of mention? 

After answering all the questions above I went and watched the video of the interview of Professor Bartholet talking about international adoption. I was genuinely surprised as it seemed she was on the opposite side of logic in the debate surrounding international adoption compared to the arguments around homeschooling. As Professor Bartholet responded to criticism of ancecdotes of adoption failures, “overall it’s an amazingly rosy picture.”

Presuming Bartholet’s intentions were pure and meant to advocate positive change in the homeschooling community makes no difference unfortunately, because the blaring sound of the fire alarm she pulled is echoing across the land and causing brows to furrow. Nonetheless, with more parents having to take on the challenge of homeschooling their children during a nationwide lockdown due to the Coronavirus pandemic, it is a worthwhile subject to approach. Preferably without insulting those who take deep pride in teaching and molding their children as they see fit. After all, teaching starts in the home.

Homeschoolers and ePa’s Jeanette Lenoir discuss Professor Bartholet’s report via Zoom: https://youtu.be/jJ8Rr0CMzto

Zoom discussion participants are: Ramona Persaud, Isabella Ehrlich, Ken Walling, Kris Shea and Sue Lappan. *Kris Shea follows American homeschooling regulations while in UAE.

 

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