On Monday, the Cato Institute hosted a panel discussion about homeschooling. It was prompted by an uninformed article that was published in the Arizona Law Review. The author of that article, Professor Elizabeth Bartholet of Harvard University, was one of the four panelists. The others who joined her were Neal McCluskey and Kerry McDonald from the Cato Institute and Professor Milton Gaither from Messiah College. I encourage you to watch the entire discussion by clicking on the image above, but I cannot resist adding my own “color commentary.”
I watched the discussion live, and I appreciated the fact that all the panelists were collegial. While they all had different ideas regarding homeschooling, there were no personal attacks or insults. That can’t be said about the text comments that were being added by some of the people who were watching. According to the software, 1,100 people were watching once the introductions were over, and 2,009 were watching by the very end, which was just over an hour and a half later.
The main issue that all the panelists addressed was how much government intervention should exist when it comes to home education. Here are the ways I would summarize each panelist’s position as expressed in the discussion: Professor Bartholet thinks that parents must demonstrate that they will be effective educators and provide a safe environment before they should be allowed to homeschool. Kerry McDonald said that there really shouldn’t be any government intervention, since the government has shown that it cannot educate children well or keep them safe. Neal McCluskey said that there should be limited intervention, confined to making sure children are not being abused or neglected. However, he emphasized that this should be done through the existing criminal processes, which assume innocence until guilt is proven. Professor Gaither didn’t really offer an opinion, but said that he has been horrified by some of the news accounts of abuse done by homeschooling parents. He also gave a history of homeschooling that was a bit biased, but relatively accurate.
Not surprisingly, Professor Bartholet didn’t do a good job in making her case. The Arizona Law Review article she wrote (linked above) is full of misconceptions and falsehoods, some of which she used in the panel discussion. She claimed, for example, that when studies are done of college students who were homeschooled, they do pretty well, almost the same as everyone else. That, of course is utterly false. Study after study has shown that homeschool graduates are superior college students when compared to their peers who were not homeschooled (see here, here, here, here, and here, for example).
Professor Bartholet also claimed that a “study” of children who were tortured found that 76% of them were from homeschooling families. Bartholet said that this study is part of a group of studies that “hint” at the idea that homeschoolers are more likely to abuse their children. However, if you actually read the article, it is not a study. It is a collection of 28 anecdotes, and the only general conclusion that the authors draw is that there is a documentable condition that should be called “child torture,” and that people who work with children should be educated about it so they can spot the signs and rescue the children. They say nothing about it being more prevalent in homeschooling families.
Even though Kerry McDonald’s position is closest to mine, I don’t think she made a strong case, either. She started her opening remarks attacking Professor Bartholet’s position instead of elaborating on her own. Also, she offered little in the way of evidence that homeschooling is superior to public- and private-schooling. She made a strong case that the public schools are terrible at educating children and can also be incredibly dangerous for children. However, that doesn’t mean homeschooling is a better option. I think it is, but McDonald didn’t demonstrate that at all.
I was sympathetic to Neal McCluskey’s position, which came off as the most reasonable in this discussion. He said that the government has a vested interest in making sure kids have the basic building blocks of an education (reading, writing, and math) and that they are safe. So you must find some way of allowing the government to investigate physical abuse and educational neglect if there is reason to suspect that they are happening. In both cases, however, it must be done under the presumption of innocence. He further suggests that a “compromise” might be a yearly test to simply assess reading, writing, and math, along with an unannounced visit from time to time to check on the welfare of the students.
I disagree with both of his “compromise” suggestions. Unannounced visits should only exist when there is a credible reason to suspect abuse. As for the testing, McDonald brought up the most important point: Especially in the elementary years, whose standards do you use? For example, children become proficient readers at many different ages, and there is no indication that a child whose reading skill takes longer to develop is at any educational disadvantage compared to those who learn to read earlier. A test would have to impose arbitrary grade-level requirements, which is clearly counterproductive to learning.
The main thing I got from this discussion is the reason Professor Gaither is against homeschooling. I have read a lot of his work, and while he tries to pose as an unbiased observer, he is not. He regularly discounts the myriad of studies that show homeschooling is a superior form of education and instead emphasizes the few, poor studies that hint that it is worse. Indeed, in this discussion, he said that whether or not you are homeschooled has no effect on your outcomes later in life. The vast, vast, vast majority of studies disagree with that position. They show that homeschool graduates are better college students, better citizens, and more likely to take their spiritual life seriously than those who were not homeschooled.
So why is Professor Gaither against homeschooling? Based on his presentation and his answers to the questions that were posed afterwards, he thinks that homeschooling can be used as a cover for abuse, and that makes it dangerous. In addition, he thinks that the homeschooling community has too much of an adversarial position when it comes to the public schools. In direct opposition to the data, he thinks that public schools do a good job of educating kids, and the adversarial relationship homeschoolers have with the public schools has harmed them. As a side note, Professor Barthlolet also ignores the data and agrees with Professor Gaither that the public schools are doing a good job.
While nothing was decided in this panel discussion, I think the four presentations and the panelists’ answers to the questions that were asked by some of the viewers were valuable. While I am hopeful that McDonald’s view becomes the one that is employed by most governments, I can at least see the merits of McCluskey’s view. Bartholet’s view only serves to indicate what uninformed people think about homeschooling, and Gaither’s view shows what can happen when you allow emotion to override a rational look at the data.