The Freedom to Homeschool
By Matthew Hennessey
Published in First Things, 08-17-12
“It’s a free country.” You used to hear that a lot. Mind if I have the last piece of pie? “It’s a free country.” Mind if I smoke? “It’s a free country.”
Too bad it has receded from everyday lingo, replaced by the ubiquitous, meaningless, “Whatever.” Something has been lost. “It’s a free country” was more than just whatever, it was, “Yeah, I mind. But I ain’t gonna stop you.” Isn’t that where the rubber hits the road in a truly free society?
My wife homeschools our oldest daughter. We are among the relatively few American families to exercise this freedom. According to the National Home Education Research Institute, only about 2 million of the roughly 55 million school-age students in the United States are educated in the home. While we do it for mostly personal reasons, we are keenly aware that the practice is viewed by many (if not most) as a political act. As such, it is a contingent and precarious freedom. A sudden shift in the political atmosphere could imperil our right to educate our children at home. Gun owners have known this feeling for a long time. The Catholic Church became familiar with it recently.
In Spain, where my brother-in-law and his wife are raising two young boys, if you don’t send your kids to school at the age of six, you get a visit from the cops. While homeschooling is technically illegal in Spain, about 2,000 Spanish families have taken advantage of vague language in the Spanish Constitution to homeschool while the issue wends its way through the courts. The Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), a U.S.-based advocacy group, reported last year that a shift in the Spanish political climate “has quickly gone from one of bureaucratic indifference to active hostility” toward homeschoolers. Daragh McInerney, president of La Asociaci¢n para la Libre Educaci¢n (ALE), the largest homeschool association in Spain, told HSLDA, “There are at least 25 families in Spain, that I am personally aware of, who are facing difficulties with the authorities over homeschooling.”
Do the Spanish live in a free country? I don’t know. They probably think they do. Compared to Saudi Arabia or China, Spain is practically a libertarian paradise, yet this capricious attitude of the government toward homeschooling seems to suggest otherwise.
“It’s a free country” may not continue to resonate with Americans for much longer either. As Obamacare’s individual mandate was predicated on the notion that costs incurred by an individual but borne by society necessitate government intervention, politicians in this country could easily be convinced — by, say, teachers unions — that homeschoolers are no different than the uninsured in the costs they impose on the rest of us. Doesn’t society suffer if kids aren’t being properly socialized? Don’t institutions suffer if children aren’t being properly educated into citizenship?
In fact, the argument is already being made. In a 2010 paper in the journal Philosophy and Public Policy Quarterly, Georgetown Law School professor Robin L. West characterized homeschooling families as a political “army,” whose objective “is to undermine, limit, or destroy state functions. . . . Also sacrificed is their exposure to diverse ideas, cultures, and ways of being.” Others see homeschooling as a potential threat to public health; a 2008 USA Today article claimed that some families homeschool in order to avoid mandatory vaccinations.
Stanford University political scientist Rob Reich has argued that homeschooling should be strictly regulated both to ensure that children become good citizens and to prevent them from becoming “ethically servile,” or victims of their parents’ blinkered worldviews. His idea is founded on what he perversely calls the “freedom argument.” Of his proposed regulations requiring parents to check in with the state he writes, “The minimal standard will include academic benchmarks as well as an assurance that children are exposed to and engaged with ideas, values, and beliefs that are different from those of the parents.”
Reich and West would like to see parental rights subordinated to those of the child. They see unregulated education in the home — especially in the homes of religious believers — as insufficiently committed to diversity, secular progressivism’s cardinal virtue.
Earlier this year in a Slate article subtitled “Why teaching children at home violates progressive values,” journalist Dana Goldstein asked, “Does homeschooling serve the interests not just of those who are doing it, but of society as a whole?” Like Reich and West, Goldstein cannot imagine homeschooling that doesn’t resemble involuntary confinement to a Wahhabi madrasah. But most homeschooling families I know make ample use of their scheduling freedom to pursue enriching and, yes, diverse opportunities: field trips to city halls and statehouses; substantive volunteer opportunities in hospitals, homeless shelters, and nursing homes, athletic contests, etc.
The progressive critics of homeschooling are less interested in promoting tolerance than they are in promoting compliance. It’s the freedom that bothers them, not what kids learn or how well they learn it. It’s about who decides. In other words — here, as in Spain — it’s about politics. And it won’t be long before some enterprising American politician proposes a set of rules that would effectively deprive my family of its right to homeschool. This will come not as an outright ban on the practice but as an array of guidelines and edicts couched in the most unobjectionable terms — ensuring diversity, promoting responsible citizenship, safeguarding public health.
If the state appoints itself to guard against indoctrination by parents, who is to protect children from indoctrination by the state? Critics of homeschooling rarely grapple with this question for the likely reason that they are committed to a value system that is as uniform and intolerant in its own way as they imagine the value systems of American homeschoolers to be.
Forget broccoli. A government that can force you to buy health insurance can surely force children into the public school system. When that happens, will we still be a free country?