Schools have closed for just about every student over the last two months in an attempt to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. In April, Harvard Magazine published an all-out attack on homeschooling — just as everyone was starting to do it. The article highlighted the work of Harvard Law School Professor Elizabeth Bartholet by covering the apparent “Risks of Homeschooling” and calling for a “presumptive ban” on the practice.
Professor Bartholet argues a presumptive ban is warranted because homeschooling supposedly “violates children’s right to a ‘meaningful education’ and their right to be protected from potential child abuse.” Bartholet had also organized a now-canceled anti-homeschooling conference to be held at Harvard Law School next month. The official description of the invite-only event said that “the focus will be on problems of educational deprivation and child maltreatment that too often occur under the guise of homeschooling.”
But that was only the beginning. Just last week, a Harvard University employee wrote an anti-homeschooling article, “In Defense of Elizabeth Bartholet,” in the Harvard Crimson. Bartholet also came out swinging. The Harvard Gazette just ran an interview with her titled “A warning on homeschooling.” They should have saved the characters and called it what it really is: a war on homeschooling.
Echoing her previous work, the Harvard Law School professor started her anti-homeschooling interview with anti-conservative and anti-Christian fearmongering. Without evidence, Bartholet claimed that “many homeschooling parents are extreme ideologues, committed to raising their children within their belief systems isolated from any societal influence.” She said homeschoolers might not be taught democratic principles, “such as tolerance of other people’s views and values,” which is ironic, seeing as she doesn’t seem very tolerant of conservatives and Christians. And we already live in a highly polarized society. Does she really think the 3 percent of children who were homeschooled before the lockdown are the root of our problems?
Bartholet also argued that “there is a strong connection between homeschooling and maltreatment” and that some homeschooled “children are simply not learning basic skills or learning about the most basic democratic values of our society.” She doesn’t have any legitimate evidence for these claims.
But we do have hard evidence of widespread educational failures and abuse in public schools. The Nation’s Report Card just came out last month, and the results aren’t pretty. Only 15 percent of students were proficient in U.S. history, and 3 out of 4 students were not proficient in civics or geography. The most recent report on the subject from the U.S. Department of Education estimated that 1 in 10 children in government schools will experience educator sexual misconduct by the time they graduate from high school. A 2018 report from the Department of Education also found that 79 percent of government schools recorded that a violent incident or crime occurred on their campuses and that about 20 percent of students were bullied in the most recent school year. Based on her own logic, perhaps Bartholet should be calling for a presumptive ban on government schooling.
Indeed, Bartholet accidentally made an argument for homeschooling when she said “the biggest teachers’ unions in the country have found homeschooling deeply problematic.” The teachers union isn’t in the business of helping students; it’s in the business of protecting a monopoly. In fact, the nation’s largest teachers union recently rejected an initiative to “dedicate itself to the pursuit of increased student learning” and not to waver “in its commitment to student learning.” And a 2019 publication in the American Economic Journal found that teacher collective bargaining harms students by reducing their earnings later on in life.
The main logic behind Bartholet’s proposed “presumptive” ban is that “if parents have nothing to hide, they shouldn’t have anything to worry about.” If that logic is justified, shouldn’t we all be forced to send our children to the government before the age of 5 because of the “potential” for abuse? And if we all want children to eat healthy food, shouldn’t we all be forced to pay for government employees to sit at our dinner tables each night because of the “potential” for malnourishment? And why stop at the age of 18? Shouldn’t 100 percent of adult couples be forced to attend government counseling sessions because of the “potential” for abuse? Of course not. We shouldn’t punish all families for the actions of a few bad actors.
We would also have to get rid of the Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures and our Fifth Amendment right to remain silent, because “if you don’t have anything to hide, you shouldn’t have anything to worry about.” The same logic can be used to justify stop-and-frisk policies, which can come along with all sorts of unintended consequences such as racial discrimination and accidental deaths. A presumptive ban assumes we are all guilty until proven innocent, which cuts against the very core of America’s understanding of justice.
Bartholet argues that “our federal Constitution provides parents with powerful constitutional rights to raise their children.” But the Constitution doesn’t grant us our rights. Instead, it is a check on government abuse of power against our rights. Our rights preexist the government.
The Harvard professor has also said that “effectively, there’s a right to abuse your child and to not educate your child, so long as you homeschool.” This is absurd. Abusing children is illegal — and rightly so. Of course, no serious advocates of homeschooling are arguing that anyone should be able to abuse children.
In her most recent interview, Bartholet says that even for “parents granted permission to homeschool,” she would “still require that their kids participate in at least some school courses and extracurricular activities.” This is a further argument for state-compelled schooling. What Bartholet is describing is a ban on homeschooling altogether, even for the parents she deems worthy of educating their own children at home.
But this is all window dressing for her true goal. In her Arizona Law Review article calling for a ban on homeschooling, Bartholet alludes to a prohibition on private education altogether. She contends that “some private schools pose problems of the same nature as homeschooling” and that “it would be deeply unfair to allow those who can afford private schools to isolate their children from public values in private schools reflecting the parents’ values, while denying this possibility to those unable to afford such schools.”
Both bans are obviously unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court held that parents have the right to “establish a home and bring up children” and “to control the education of their own” in Meyer v. Nebraska in 1923. Two years later, the court held that parents have the right “to direct the upbringing and education of children under their control” and that “the child is not the mere creature of the State” in Pierce v. Society of Sisters.
Luckily, both sound logic and evidence are on the side of freedom in education. But the Harvard professor’s relentless attacks on homeschooling during a pandemic prove that the fight for liberty never ends. Based on the public backlash to the proposed ban, I am confident that families will continue to fight to prevent the government from taking away their right to educate their own children at home.
In just a few days, more than 1,000 people signed a petition for Harvard Law School to host a debate on homeschooling featuring Bartholet. As an elite academic institution, Harvard should be more than happy to set it up for the sake of civil discourse and ideological diversity. And Elizabeth Bartholet should be more than happy to debate her ideas in public if she is confident in them.
A version of this column first appeared in the Washington Examiner.