The year 2020 brought unprecedented disruptions to the country’s public schools. Fortunately for hundreds of thousands of parents and their children, private home education offered them real solutions—and hope—during a troubled year. Preserving the freedom to homeschool should be a top issue in 2021 for conservatives.
Reliance on self and on voluntary associations rather than on the state.
These are three bedrock principles often associated with conservatism.
They are also prominent attributes of the modern homeschooling movement.
Homeschoolers as a rule do not look to the government for much help with education, other than to reduce the bureaucratic friction that often poses a barrier to entry and makes innovation more difficult.
Homeschoolers typically bear the expense of educating their own children and can be wary of the entanglement and loss of liberty that often accompanies public funding. With public money comes strings, and unnecessary strings can repress the animating spirit that contributes to the success of homeschooling — both for individual families and for the movement as whole.
With homeschooling today being widely practiced and accepted as a mainstream option, it is easy to forget that early homeschoolers faced real legal peril and were often stigmatized as oddballs. In the early days of homeschooling, in the 1980s and 1990s, prosecutors in many states charged homeschooling parents with the crime of truancy for teaching their own children because the parents did not have state-issued teaching certificates.
Thankfully, those days are long gone.
But one of the greatest products of the early adversity was the development of private homeschooling networks and associations. These networks contributed both to the educational success of homeschooling families and were instrumental in creating one of the most successful and dynamic social movements in modern American history.
But there are no guarantees that yesterday’s successes won’t become tomorrow’s setbacks. The same holds for homeschooling freedom.
In one of the most ironic cases of bad timing, just as America’s schools were closing in April due to COVID-19 and thousands of families were finding the safe harbor of homeschooling, Harvard Magazine profiled a law review article by Harvard law professor Elizabeth Bartholet. In her ill-timed publication, she proposed banning homeschooling in all but a tiny set of circumstances.
The Harvard Magazine article went viral and "prompted a tsunami of critical responses."
As Notre Dame sociology professor David Sikkink wrote, "Bartholet seems to take the ‘home’ in homeschooling too seriously, as if their windows have prison bars. In actual practice, homeschoolers are ‘organized for instruction’ in complex networks with educational organizations, civic, religious, and cultural organizations, informal personal and virtual support groups, friendship circles, extended family, and so on."
He concluded, "In a COVID world, homeschooling may have something to teach us."
Professor Bartholet is not alone in the elite academic world in calling for greatly reducing the freedoms parents have today to help their children thrive by homeschooling them. She cochaired an event with William and Mary Law School professor James Dwyer, called The Homeschooling Summit: Problems, Politics, and Prospects for Reform (the event was cancelled due to COVID-19). Each of the featured speakers would have called for reducing homeschooling freedom at a minimum, all the way up to Professor Bartholet’s presumptive ban of homeschooling.
While it is true that many homeschoolers are more conservative than others, many who would not describe themselves as conservative also choose to homeschool their children. These parents are motivated by many of the same things as more conservative homeschoolers: safety concerns, crowded classrooms, lack of individual attention, and an educational philosophy that is not suited to the confines of four walls and seven hours per day.
The same conservative principles that protect homeschool freedom for conservative homeschoolers also protects the freedom of all parents — no matter their ideology — to look out for the best interests of their children. That is a civic virtue of great value. By putting conservative principles into practice, the ideal of liberty for all has become a reality.
Preserving and expanding that freedom—and protecting it from the Professor Bartholets of the world — should be a top priority in 2021 for conservatives, and for liberals too.
Jim Mason is the Vice President of Litigation and Development at the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), the largest homeschool organization in the US. Since joining HSLDA to lead the litigation team in 2001, Jim has represented homeschooling families in a wide range of challenging situations and has set precedents that have expanded freedom for the homeschool community. Under Jim’s leadership, HSLDA’s 4th Amendment litigation work has changed the way three states (North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and New Mexico) approach social services investigations. In Wilson v. Russo, HSLDA won a $700,000 settlement for our client, a single parent whose children were seized by a rogue child protective services investigator. In addition to serving as HSLDA’s Vice President of Litigation and Development, Vice President of HSLDA Action, and penning many of the most popular articles in HSLDA’s Home School Court Report magazine, Jim serves as the president of ParentalRights.org. Before coming to HSLDA, Jim represented numerous right-to-life groups in campaign finance cases and clerked for an appellate court in Oregon. He graduated with highest honors from Regent University School of Law in 1996. Jim is a veteran of the U.S. Navy and served on active duty in Operation Desert Storm. Read Jim Mason's Reports — More Here.
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