In their May-June 2020 issue, Harvard Magazine published an article by Erin O'Donnell titled "The Risks of Homeschooling." Harvard law professor Elizabeth Bartholet, quoted extensively throughout the article, "recommends a presumptive ban on the practice," claiming that homeschooling violates children's rights and inculcates conservative Christian, anti-scientific, misogynist, and racist views.
Homeschooling in Arkansas has grown steadily over the last 20 years; therefore, these charges deserve consideration.
Defamatory stereotypes of homeschoolers, such as those alleged by Bartholet, are based on old assumptions that all homeschoolers hold similar beliefs, but if this was ever true, it is untrue today. As more families join the movement, their reasons for choosing homeschooling are diverse.
According to National Center for Education Statistics' data, only 16 percent of homeschool respondents reported "a desire to provide religious instruction" as their most important reason. More popular responses included dissatisfaction with academic instruction and concern about the environment of other schools.
Nor is the homeschooling movement a demographically monolithic community. While the vast majority of American students are currently schooled from home in the wake of covid-19 school closures, approximately 3 percent of the nation's students (and 4 percent in Arkansas) are regularly homeschooled.
Eric Isenberg of Mathematica Policy Research estimates that as many as 10 percent of all American students have been homeschooled at some point in their academic careers. A recent report by Aaron Hirsch of the Center for Reinventing Public Education finds that two of the most rapidly growing demographic groups within the homeschooling movement are African American and Hispanic families.
Precisely because homeschooling doesn't look like traditional schooling, it is becoming increasingly popular among students for whom the traditional classroom doesn't work. LGBTQ students use homeschooling to escape bullying. Gifted students like Billie Eilish, Simone Biles, and Misty Copeland choose homeschooling to accommodate busy schedules. Military families may use home-schooling to preserve a sense of educational continuity for their children. Homeschooling is becoming more compelling to more people for a broader range of reasons.
Perhaps because their education is tailored to meet their specific needs, homeschoolers excel academically, both while homeschooling and when pursuing a college education. A new literature review by Lindsey Burke of the Heritage Foundation finds roughly two-thirds of all studies examining the academic outcomes of homeschoolers find positive associations. Only 5 percent "find negative or worse outcomes for homeschooled students relative to their non-homeschooled peers."
A common criticism leveled against homeschooling is that it fails to prepare children to participate in a democratic society. Bartholet contends that the state has the primary responsibility in educating children in order to expose them to "democratic values" and "ideas about nondiscrimination and tolerance of other people's viewpoints." Aside from the obvious intolerance of her statement, to claim that homeschoolers can only develop these values through state-sponsored education is a statist argument as old as our nation and clearly not easily won.
Research suggests quite the opposite. Brian Ray of the National Home Education Research Institute finds that homeschooled students are at least as developed socially, emotionally, and psychologically. Vanderbilt's Joseph Murphy argues that these students are at an advantage because their socialization comes from interacting with adults, in addition to other children. Richard Medlin of Stetson University finds homeschooled students are less likely to report feeling stressed, tired, or angry, and less likely to report harmful behavior like drug abuse or attempted suicide.
Many of Bartholet's charges criticize homeschool families for things such as supposed abuse and racism that certainly occur in public and private schools. While we should never turn a blind eye to child abuse or neglect, a close reading of the research raises the question as to why homeschooling has been singled out for a proposed ban.
The Supreme Court has upheld parents' "right and duty" to choose how their children are educated, and homeschooling is allowed in all 50 states with wide regulatory variation. Arkansas' homeschool growth, in response to covid school closures, could increase dramatically as more parents decide to continue schooling from home, particularly if a parent is already working from home.
Angela Watson is senior research fellow at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy. Matthew Lee is a graduate student in education policy at the University of Arkansas.
Editorial on 05/21/2020