It was hard to miss the outrage among conservatives on social media this week regarding a Harvard Magazine article called “The Risks of Homeschooling” about the Harvard Law Professor Elizabeth Bartholet’s claim that homeschooling “violates children’s right to a ‘meaningful education’ and their right to be protected from potential child abuse….” At National Review, Alexandra DeSanctis noted that Bartholet’s view tramples “on our country’s liberal tradition and long-standing respect for pluralism… but it also peddles harmful notions about what homeschooling is, how it affects children, and how a flourishing society should view the choice to educate children at home.” On Twitter, Princeton’s Robert George sounded the alarm: “The way this usually works is that secular progressives are in the red zone before conservatives and religious folk have noticed there’s a game going on and gotten onto the field. For once, just once, could we notice? A serious attack on parents’ rights and authority is underway.”
It will probably surprise Professor George and my friends at National Review to know that I was registered to attend the conference that Bartholet had planned to hold on this topic in June, albeit as a skeptical observer. Though Bartholet may sound like a typical secular progressive, she has acted independently and sensibly in other debates and has, as a result, been shunned by many leftists in recent years. So I was willing to hear her out.
Bartholet, who began her career decades ago as a lawyer for the NAACP, has maintained the views on race that once characterized that organization even while many of her cohort have moved away from them. In her work on domestic adoption, for instance, Bartholet has continued to defend the idea that children who have been removed from their homes because of abuse or severe neglect and are eligible for adoption should be placed in safe loving families regardless of race. She is one of the few academics or policymakers remaining in this field who has not bought into the idea that race-matching and cultural sensitivity should be the driving forces behind adoption. Nor does she think that minority children should be left in their homes to be abused simply because their parents have suffered enough.
In the field of international adoption as well, Bartholet has argued for removing the growing barriers. International bodies, foreign governments and America’s own State Department have dramatically reduced international adoption numbers on the theory that children are better off in their home countries—even if they are bound for a life at an orphanage, or experiencing the ravages of famine or civil war. God forbid these white saviors from America come and take them out!
Bartholet has long understood that Americans are actually exceptional in their ability to accept children who do not look like them. And she knows that people in other many countries would never take in an orphan from another race or tribe. Bartholet writes about how the doctor in Lima whom she asked to examine the infant she was adopting, looked at the three-year-old boy she had adopted previously “as if some small and dirty animal had invaded his office.” “What is he?” the doctor asked.
Bartholet believes that children deserve safe, loving, stable homes regardless of their race, even if that sometimes means they grow up with a different family in a different country. One liberal advocate in Washington scolded me for interviewing her for a story and likened her to “David Duke.”
But the nature of her work on why and how children are in unsafe situations in the U.S. is difficult to square with her claim that abusive parents are using homeschooling as a way to shield themselves from investigations by authorities. She has said that “70 to 80 percent of maltreating parents abuse illicit drugs and/or alcohol in ways that destroy parenting capacity,” a claim I have found to be confirmed in conversations with foster parents, judges, and federal officials. Most abuse and neglect in this country happens not in the way that some true-crime drama plays out on television. The perpetrators don’t generally engage in enough forethought to hide their actions ahead of time or cover their tracks afterward. Indeed, a surprisingly high percentage of children with substantiated claims of abuse and neglect are victims of repeat maltreatment. As Bartholet has written, we know about abuse and we return kids to these homes anyway.
Abuse also rarely happens in the way that Tara Westover describes in her memoir, Educated. Bartholet cites Westover’s experience in a law review article on this topic, but tellingly cites no large-scale studies about the likelihood of homeschool abuse compared with abuse to children in public or private school families. (There are none.) I certainly do worry about kids who grow up in cults, like the polygamous Fundamentalist Latter-day Saints communities in the Southwest—there is evidence that polygamous communities engage in higher degrees of sexual and physical abuse—but these are not your typical homeschoolers.
A single small study in Connecticut found a number of parents with prior child protective service involvement were taking their kids out of school and homeschooling them. At any rate, the solution seems simple enough—parents who have had substantiated abuse claims made against them should have a hard time getting permission to homeschool their kids.
As for Bartholet’s claim that homeschooling itself is a kind of neglect, it’s absurd. And her notion that being a public school graduate makes one better able to participate in American democracy is undercut not only by how badly many of our public schools educate students but also by studies suggesting kids at Catholic schools for instance have greater knowledge of civics and levels of civic participation upon graduation.
Bartholet is also well aware that religious people in this country make up the vast majority of those who are engaged in both international and domestic adoption that she favors. I cannot square this with the deep suspicion she has of religious homeschoolers, nor will I try to.
Bartholet has argued that there should be limits to parental rights. This is not a concept that sits well with conservatives, who don’t trust the government to make the best decisions about our children. And rightly so. The case of Alfie Evans (and before that, Charlie Gard), the terminally ill boy in London whose parents were prevented by the British government from seeking medical care for him elsewhere, has heightened such fears. If the government is the ultimate guarantor of a child’s well-being, where does that leave parents who want to save their son’s life?
But ultimately I think even these advocates would agree with Elizabeth Bartholet that the government has a certain responsibility to protect its most vulnerable citizens and that parents don’t always have their children’s best interests in mind.
Which is why I was surprised to receive a call from James Mason, a vice president at the Homeschool Legal Defense Association, a couple of years ago. He hoped we might be able to collaborate on two legislative changes he was pushing in Washington, with the help of a coalition of others from a group called ParentalRights.com. One was a change to the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act of 1988, which provides financial assistance for to states for the prevention, identification, and treatment of child abuse and neglect. He wanted to see the federal government use the funding to encourage states to bar the anonymous reporting of child abuse or neglect. And second, he wanted to change the Adoption and Safe Families Act—which requires states that receive foster care dollars to terminate the parental rights of children who have been in foster care for 15 of the past 22 months—to allow parents more time to get their acts together.
Both are, I think, terrible ideas. It’s true that people have wrongly accused others of child abuse, but do we really want to stop neighbors from calling if they hear a child’s screams through the wall? Or do we want relatives to risk the ire of their family if they think a niece or nephew is being left alone for days at a time? We allow people to anonymously report crimes all the time—because we want to know. It is the job of law enforcement and our court system to determine if the accusations are true. As for the Adoption and Safe Families Act, well, most states already fail to follow these guidelines and the result is that kids languish in foster care for years at a time.
Reasonable people may disagree about these matters, but I think my friends who do homeschool would be surprised that the Homeschool Legal Defense Association—which for decades has claimed to represent their interests—is engaged in this kind of lobbying. Maybe they think that secular elites like Bartholet have gone so far into the “red zone” that the only way to fix matters is to limit the government’s power to investigate child abuse. I certainly hope not.
Naomi Schaefer Riley is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Last updated April 23, 2020