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Defending the Right to Educate Our Children

The State should provide parents with the resources necessary to educate their own children

Trent Horn

The Covid-19 pandemic has shuttered schools across the world and, as children turn to online instruction from their teachers, many parents have considered simply homeschooling their children if they cannot physically attend a school. However, there is a growing movement in the United States that seeks mandated, government education of children and would ban all other forms of education that teach children ideas that are “outside the mainstream.”

For example, the Arizona Law Review just published an article by Harvard law professor Elizabeth Bartholet entitled “Homeschooling: Parent Rights Absolutism vs. Child Rights to Education & Protection.” Bartholet’s piece was in turn uncritically presented in a Harvard Magazine, “The Risks of Homeschooling,” which featured an image of a child locked inside a home built of books whose spines read “Bible” and the misspelled “Arithmatic” (which was later changed). Bartholet says the State has an interest in breaking up the “monopoly” that parents have over a child’s educational development and argues for “a presumptive ban on homeschooling, with the burden on parents to demonstrate justification for permission to homeschool.”

But the United States Supreme Court has upheld the right of parents to educate their children and has not recognized the government as having any similar kind of right. In 1922, Oregon outlawed private and religious education, and it was only a 1925 Supreme Court decision that kept the state from winning a monopoly on education. Pope Pius XI quoted this decision in Divnii Illius Magistri when he wrote, “The child is not the mere creature of the state” (37).

Parents have a natural and inalienable right to determine the education that is most appropriate for their children. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says “Parents have the first responsibility for the education of their children” (2333) and the Second Vatican Council teaches that:

Parents who have the primary and inalienable right and duty to educate their children must enjoy true liberty in their choice of schools. Consequently, the public power, which has the obligation to protect and defend the rights of citizens, must see to it, in its concern for distributive justice, that public subsidies are paid out in such a way that parents are truly free to choose according to their conscience the schools they want for their children. (Gravissimum educationis, 6).

When it comes to education of children, the State should provide parents with the resources necessary to educate their own children. Even if you choose government-run schools for your children, you should be concerned by Bartholet’s main claim that parents should not have ultimate authority over their child’s education. Such thinking has motivated some government-run schools to prohibit parents from withdrawing their children from portions of “sexual education” classes that promote unhealthy and dangerous sexual deviancy.

In order to justify her claim that homeschooling (as well as some private schools like homeschool cooperatives) ought to be presumptively banned, Bartholet would have to show that these educational options are more likely to result in child abuse or educational neglect. But she doesn’t come close to doing so: the data shows that, on average, homeschooled children have better educational and health outcomes than their government educated peers.

Bartholet cites the 2011 and 2014 Cardus surveys as evidence that homeschoolers have poor educational outcomes, but this study only uses a small sample (90 students) whose participants were less likely to attend college, and those that did attended “less prestigious universities” (even though many successful people do not attend expensive universities). When it comes to measuring academic success, however, homeschooled students’ median standardized test scores are typically in the top twentieth to thirtieth percentile, and one out of four of home school students are enrolled one or more grades ahead of their peers in public and private schools. While some children who are homeschooled may suffer from educational neglect, this is in no way unique to homeschooling. It’s not hard to find in U.S. News and World Report’s school rankings government-run high schools where more than half the students don’t graduate and 80% are not proficient in reading or math.

For her charge that homeschooled students are more likely to be abused, Bartholet uses examples and studies of parents who have tried to hide abuse under the guise of homeschooling (she even refers to this as “alleged homeschooling” rather than homeschooling proper). But many children who attend government-run schools still become victims of abuse, both at home and at school. Charol Shakesraft, professor of educational leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University, has shown that 20% of students have been victims of bullying and nearly 10% of students are targets of “educator sexual misconduct”. This only shows that safeguards need to be implemented across all populations to protect children from abuse, not that homeschooling is more dangerous than other educational settings.

Bartholet also argues that homeschooled children are deprived of the right to encounter alternative viewpoints and, as a result, will become less tolerant of others in society. Recent research indicates, however, that homeschooled students have a greater “willingness to extend civil liberties to people who hold views with which one disagrees.” Moreover, government-run schools often censor alternative viewpoints, which is evident in teachers banning controversial speech topics like abortion or disciplining students who publicly espouse what they deem to be intolerable ideas, like that there are only two genders.

Bartholet isn’t concerned that children won’t be exposed to “different ideas,” she is concerned that they won’t be indoctrinated with what she and her confreres believe are the “correct ideas.”

Given the harms associated with government-run schools, one could easily take Bartholet’s argument and invert it to justify a presumptive ban on government education of children. Of course, few proponents of homeschooling would support such a ban, but the point remains that Bartholet’s argument is entirely inadequate to challenge parents’ natural right to be their children’s primary educators and decide how their children will be educated.

Bartholet claims parents shouldn’t have a “monopoly” over their children’s education. But it is only parents and caregivers whose intimate knowledge of their child’s maturity lets them know when they are ready to be exposed to certain ideas and how they should be exposed. A child is not a consumer over which one has a “monopoly” but a person whose parents have a sacred duty to teach and nurture. Indeed, Bartholet shows her true intentions when she writes, “Religious and cultural groups that deserve to survive will survive, even if their children are exposed to the larger society’s views and values. [emphasis added]”

When the Second Vatican Council referred to the dangers of “educational monopolies” it was in reference to the State’s role in providing children with educational opportunities and warned against the attitude Bartholet espouses:

[The State] must always keep in mind the principle of subsidiarity so that there is no kind of school monopoly, for this is opposed to the native rights of the human person, to the development and spread of culture, to the peaceful association of citizens and to the pluralism that exists today in ever so many societies. (Gravissimum educationis, 6).

And when Pope Pius XI said “The child is not the mere creature of the state” he did so in the face of socialist states that aggressively advocated for that idea. Karl Marx’s collaborator Friedrich Engels longed for a time when “the care and education of the children becomes a public affair.” Pius XI strongly disagreed:

There is a country where the children are actually being torn from the bosom of the family, to be formed (or, to speak more accurately, to be deformed and depraved) in godless schools and associations, to irreligion and hatred, according to the theories of advanced socialism; and thus is renewed in a real and more terrible manner the slaughter of the Innocents (Divini Illius Magistri 73).

Just as we don’t “presumptively ban” parents from sending their children to government schools whose students graduate with substandard academic and social skills, we should not “presumptively ban” parents from educating their children at home for the same reason. Instead, we should all support safeguards that protect children from educational neglect and child abuse, which can be done without depriving parents of their natural right to be the first and primary educators of their children.

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