Harvard Magazine's Authoritarian Slander Against Homeschooling

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When coronavirus swept the nation last month, schools scrambled with little warning to close their doors. Starting on March 12, almost all of the nation’s schools closed their doors to 50 million students within a two week window. Ready or not, we were a nation of homeschoolers.

Parents and guardians worried about paychecks, putting food on the table, and upended routines were suddenly cast as educators and day care professionals. As you might expect, they’ve exhibited a ferocious appetite for informed, practical advice on these new roles.

When Harvard Magazine responded to the shutdown with a story on homeschooling, it had several good options. It could have tapped Harvard alumni and faculty who are homeschoolers to share some of their experience and advice with its readers. Alternatively, it could have drawn on the formidable resources of one of the world’s leading universities to share insights from scholars who study neuropsychology, children’s development, curricular design, or much else.

At a minimum, one would expect Harvard University’s flagship publication to provide something knowledgeable, accurate, and civil.

That’s not what readers got. Instead, in its May-June 2020 story “The Risks of Homeschooling” by Erin O’Donnell, Harvard Magazine took this opportunity to publish an ideological, fact-free screed against homeschooling and prejudicial attack on homeschoolers. Built around the unsupported (and frequently false) assertions drawn from a conversation with Harvard Law School professor Elizabeth Bartholet, the article is little more than propaganda for her authoritarian impulses.

O’Donnell’s article, which has drawn well-deserved opprobrium from the likes of Ben Shapiro and Kevin Williamson, asserts that homeschooling “violates children’s rights to a ‘meaningful education,’” exposes children to child abuse, and “may keep them from contributing positively to a democratic society.” These are wrong-headed claims under ordinary circumstances; under the current circumstances, as Democratic and Republican governors alike are ordering parents to homeschool their kids, these claims sound downright bizarre.

In fact, the courts have made clear that homeschooling does not violate the right to a meaningful education enshrined in many state constitutions. In the landmark 1925 case Pierce v. Society of Sisters, the Supreme Court overturned an Oregon law mandating all children attend public schools. The Court held that states may set education standards but “may not pre-empt the educational process by requiring children to attend public schools,” as such a law unconstitutionally “interferes with the liberty of parents and guardians to direct the upbringing and education of children under their control.” That basic principle has been affirmed by countless courts over the past century.

O’Donnell suggests that homeschooling dangerously exposes students to child abuse. In reality, a 2018 review of all available empirical evidence found some evidence that homeschooled children are less likely to be abused than their public and private school counterparts.  

O’Donnell also parrots Bartholet’s contention that a lack of regulation means that homeschooled children generally don’t “receive a meaningful education equivalent to that required in public schools.” In fact, Vanderbilt’s Joseph Murphy has studied this topic extensively and concluded that homeschoolers perform about as well as other students and don’t “seem to be disadvantaged in any way.” Indeed, a 2013 review of 351 research papers on homeschooling found that “homeschooled applicants are accepted [to college] at roughly the same rates as their conventionally schooled peers,” and “that admissions staff generally expect homeschoolers to do as well as or better than their conventionally schooled peers.” While this evidence is far from conclusive, there is little or no evidence to support the Bartholet-O’Donnell complaint.

None of the foregoing even takes into account O’Donnell’s basic factual errors, like repeating Bartholet’s wild claim that 90 percent of homeschoolers are “driven by conservative Christian beliefs.” In truth, National Center for Education Statistics data indicate that religious instruction (of any faith) is a primary motivation for about half of homeschoolers.

Accurate information on all of this is readily available. Which is why it’s especially remarkable that neither O’Donnell nor Harvard Magazine’s editors bothered to do even basic fact-checking—much less avoid spreading falsehood and intolerance at a precarious national moment.

All of this — the slander, the sketchy data — isn’t just the product of shoddy, lazy scholarship. There’s a more nefarious purpose: to delegitimize homeschooling. Bartholet says so herself. After asserting that it’s “dangerous” for “powerful” parents to have 24/7 control over their “powerless” children, she says, “I think it’s always dangerous to put powerful people in charge of the powerless,” and that children should be legally required to attend schools outside the home. This is so vital, of course, due to the machinations of those conniving conservative Christian parents.

Those concerned about free inquiry often observe that one kind of bigotry is permissible, and even encouraged, on the 21st century campus: that directed towards conservatives and people of faith. Indeed, O’Donnell flatly repeats Bartholet’s claim — accompanied by neither data nor documentary evidence — that many conservative Christians homeschool because they “question science and promote female subservience and white supremacy.”

If an Ivy League magazine wrote something similar about any other group, the campus Bias Response Team would be leaping into action. In this instance, though, it’s just another day at the virtual office. 

Frederick M. Hess is the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. RJ Martin is a research associate at AEI.

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