Perhaps I was wrong. Just a few weeks ago, right after the presidential inauguration, one of my wife’s close friends, another parent in our homeschooling co-op, expressed her fear that homeschooling is likely to come under greater scrutiny with the new administration. I shook my head in dissent. Sure, I acknowledged, there are some, particularly on the Left, who are suspicious and critical of homeschooling. But ours is a strong movement with political clout, I assured her, with millions of American kids currently being taught at home. It would be foolish, and unnecessarily provocative, to target homeschoolers right now.
Then, earlier this month lawyer and prominent author Jill Filipovic—whose articles have appeared in the Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Guardian, among others—launched a polemical frontal assault on what she terms “pro-life, pro-family homeschooling advocates.” These “right-wingers,” to quote Ms. Filipovic, undermine “children’s basic safety and right to an education.” She accuses conservative homeschooling parents—many of whom, she asserts, lack the necessary credentials and training to teach properly—of willfully keeping their children ignorant, as well as shielding their youth from ideas that might threaten their religious beliefs. She even implicitly claims that homeschooling parents are racists.
Granted, even though Ms. Filipovic’s writing is influential—she has won several awards and written a couple widely-acclaimed books—her opinion on homeschooling is still a minority one. Indeed, a 2020 poll found that a not-insignificant percentage of parents are likely to homeschool even after the COVID-19-related lockdowns come to an end. And while parent satisfaction with the quality of their children’s education significantly declined in 2020, the percentage of K-12 parents who homeschool doubled, according to a Gallup poll.
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Nevertheless, those familiar with the “Overton Window” know that the more such arguments are made in the public square, especially by those with cultural clout, the more frequently will there be calls to regulate and curtail homeschooling. Indeed, Harvard Law professor Elizabeth Bartholet was already pushing that window further open last year by making claims similar to those of Filipovic. The more academia criticizes homeschooling, the more the legacy media will report on those critiques, and the more everyday Americans will be inclined to be suspicious of it, for the kinds of reasons Filipovic and Bartholet provide.
Not that those reasons are particularly good ones. Though I presume it is true that there are abusive parents who exploit homeschooling to shield themselves from the intrusion of authorities, there is a paucity of evidence that this represents a significant trend or problem.
In contrast, there is plenty of evidence demonstrating that public schools are unsafe for children. A 2019 article in the New York Times noted that public K-12 schools “have become notorious for failing to recognize and address sexual assault, and employing tactics to intimidate victims and avoid lawsuits.” Another 2019 article in Commonweal cited a former advisor to the Department of Education (DOE) who explained that “the aggregate number of children abused in the public schools would be larger than in the Catholic Church scandal.” Another DOE advisor has argued that sexual abuse cases in public schools far outnumber those in Catholic schools.
Of course, one might claim that abuse comes in many forms, not only sexual or physical. Famous evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins famously asserted that indoctrinating children in religious beliefs is a form of child abuse (though one imagines Dawkins would say indoctrinating children in materialist philosophy or atheism is not). Would Filipovic label any orthodox Catholic doctrines to be “abusive” in nature? She has attacked various “conservative” Christian beliefs like male headship and claimed that Catholicism is “detrimental” to feminism.
Perhaps it wouldn’t take much pushing for Filipovic to accuse Catholicism of “brainwashing” children to hold patriarchal norms, what with its all-male priesthood and pro-life advocacy that supposedly limit female freedoms. Only those religious beliefs in conformity with the tenets of our woke progressivist elites—like Filipovic’s ersatz “church,” a “candle-lit yoga class”—might be deemed acceptable for some future federal homeschooling guidelines.
This potential (and perhaps increasingly possible) future scenario sheds light on an underlying problem in our secular America. Though our political traditions and laws have consistently affirmed religious liberty, they do not countenance religious beliefs or practices considered a threat to the disestablished, religiously indifferent political system, or its citizens. Such a state of affairs may not represent an existential threat to the Church as long as the State (and broader culture) is sympathetic to Christianity, as it largely has been for our nation’s 250-year history.
But as our society becomes increasingly religiously unaffiliated, the voices contending that traditional Christian teachings on sexuality and gender are inherently oppressive, and even abusive, will get louder. More Americans may, by effect, become persuaded that the Catholic Church, and Catholic homeschooling parents, must either be coerced into ideological conformity or have their parental rights rescinded to prevent further “abuse.” Lest you think such a scenario preposterous, consider that one candidate in the 2019 Democratic presidential primary argued for removing tax exempt status for religious organizations that oppose same-sex marriage.
Thankfully, as noted above, this remains unlikely, given the popularity of homeschooling. Moreover, Filipovic’s other arguments against homeschooling—that parents lack the necessary credentials or training—are in most cases risible. It does not require much expertise to teach elementary-aged curriculum, and to do it far more speedily and effectively than a trained teacher. My wife and I are both former credentialed secondary-level educators (math and social studies, respectively), and readily admit our professional degrees do not necessarily equate to being a good teacher. Yes, Filipovoc is correct that all states need to have basic standards to ensure all homeschooling children graduate with sufficient knowledge in core subjects to pursue university education or get a job. That’s the purpose of homeschooling co-ops or policies that allow homeschooling students to take courses at a local school or community college.
Filipovic warns of the “indoctrination” of conservative, Christian home-schooling. Yet she seems oblivious to her own prejudices and ideological commitments that she seeks to impress upon young minds. She castigates conservatives for trying to shield their children from threatening ideas and beliefs, yet fails to recognize that public school districts actively shield students from conservative and Christian beliefs viewed as threatening. And I speak as one whose entire K-12 experience was in public schools, where, in high school, I was assigned a lot of postmodern, sexually-explicit literature, and who taught public school history.
Those like Filipovic who attack homeschooling wax eloquent regarding children’s rights. As much as they talk about protecting children from sexual or physical abuse, I’ll support them. Yet the content of their arguments leads me to think this is simply cover for shifting pedagogical and child-rearing authority away from parents whose ideas they find reprehensible to a paternalistic (or maternalistic, as Filipovic would likely say) secular state. And as a student and former teacher of history who knows a thing or two about totalitarianism, I find such a prospect deeply troubling.