On Homeschooling

While citizens should have the freedom to homeschool their children, in the same way they should be free to choose private schools over public schools, that does not mean there are no disadvantages to such a choice, to individuals and society at large.

There are some 2 million homeschooled children in the United States today, roughly 3% of students. Parents cite several reasons for homeschooling their children, including the desire to provide “religious and moral instruction,” a “concern about the school environment,” and “dissatisfaction with the academic instruction” at schools. A 2009 Department of Education report revealed 83% of homeschool parents held providing religious and moral instruction as one of their reasons for partaking in this practice. Almost 70% of homeschool families are white, and the National Home Education Research Institute believes about 70% are evangelical Christians. This is still largely the white, conservative Christian movement it was when it launched in the 1980s, though we can happily say it is becoming more diverse: there are more minority families now, more people choosing this route not because of religion but because of factors like racism in schools or the sad state of many poorly-funded city school districts. However, the words of President Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council still explain why conservative evangelicals homeschool:

As a homeschooling parent myself, I understand the desire to give children an environment that affirms traditional values. The government has eliminated God from the classroom and too often replaced Him with an anti-life, anti-family curriculum that misses life’s deepest meaning.

Again, parents have the right to think this way and keep their children at home. Nevertheless, the central disadvantage of homeschooling lies in its very purpose. The true danger isn’t that kids will be isolated or socially inept; a few may, but most homeschool children participate in sports, organizations, and other social outlets (though it’s not as extensive as being among peers 8 hours a day or having instant access to a broad array of free clubs, societies, and teams). Children being homeschooled against their will is dangerous, as it can breed resentment against parents, but that is not universal. The real problem is that children are primarily exposed to a single worldview. And of course that is the whole point.

It’s a disappointing state of affairs. Consider how many teachers one has in a public K-12 education in the suburbs or the cities: perhaps 50-60. Each of these teachers has his or her own worldview and life experience, family background, job history, travels, religion, political beliefs, ethnicity, sexual orientation, income level, and, perhaps most importantly, degree in education. No reasonable person would suggest one or two parents, no matter how well-educated, could provide the depth of knowledge that 60 people with specialized degrees and experience could in physics, mathematics, the arts, history, English, and so on.

There is a reason we have multiple teachers from 6th grade up, rather than just one: it is a task no one person should have or could possibly be qualified for. This is not to say homeschool education can’t be successful (homeschool students often excel in college and have higher state test scores, as any child receiving one-on-one, individualized instruction should), but I believe that education will not be as strong or as well-rounded if coming from a single person with a single worldview and life experience. What a shame that homeschooled students have nearly no chance of learning about Islam from a Muslim, evolution from a trained biologist, or communism from a Marxist. To me it’s a shame, to others it’s the point. Instead, students are limited to a narrow perspective, which will at best provide instruction from a parent less qualified than someone with an actual degree in a particular subject, and at worst outright lies about the world (anti-evolution, anti-climate change) and intolerance toward certain people (homosexuals, trans Americans).

One might make the same point about the social value of having more extensive interaction with diverse students. Instead of primary interaction with siblings or other homeschooled children who hold the same religious, conservative ideas, wouldn’t it better prepare students for a diverse world, and help them think critically from multiple viewpoints, if they interacted daily with Hindus, atheists, and African Americans? This is not to say homeschooled students don’t meet and befriend such kids at scouts, ballet, or football, but public school classrooms provide much longer, broader interactions, in an academic environment. There is value in that.

We value the integration and interaction of public schooling over homeschooling for the same reason we value integration and interaction over racially segregated classrooms. As I write in my book:

Integration is our hope because it is only through interaction that we come to know the Other. Separation and isolation is a breeding ground for misunderstanding, misjudgment, fear, and hostility. Interaction is diminishing arrogance and eradicating hatred at every moment. White soldiers of the Civil War forsook prejudice and assisted their black comrades to relocate when the cannons finally quieted because they had served with and befriended those men of color. Religious fundamentalists come to accept homosexuals when they find themselves sitting next to each other and conversing. Young students’ fear of special needs children fades away the longer they share a classroom. Integration serves a moral and social purpose.

The public school classroom provides the most direct interaction of diverse students, encouraging acceptance and understanding. The primary reason to reject homeschooling is the primary reason to support public schooling.

Public schooling is a precious creation. Our tax dollars should provide equally and adequately funded schools that are free and open to the public, contingent only on geographic location. Geographic location is not perfect, as our living arrangements and thus our schools are still very much divided by race and class, but it provides the best opportunity for students to learn with and from others of all political persuasions, religions, sexual orientations, races, income levels, and dietary preferences. Interaction and integration will breed peace and understanding, as it always does. That is what I want my tax dollars to build and what I think students need to experience, not private, corporate-controlled, or home education. There are still many other challenges in the world of education, such as eliminating high-stakes testing or expanding democratic control of standards, but public education is worth preserving if we desire a more tolerant society.

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