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September 9, 2010

Östberg’s Comments Moving Sweden Down Dangerous Path

A response to Bertil Östberg, State Secretary to Minister of Education Jan Björklund

In a recent interview with the Swedish newspaper Dagen1, Bertil Östberg, State Secretary to Minister of Education Jan Björklund, made a number of ill-informed statements about homeschooling. This is no surprise, since Mr. Östberg admits he has no evidence to support his opinions about homeschooling. Nevertheless, it is odd to see a senior government official, like Mr. Östberg, confess that he lacks an empirical basis for making policy in his area of expertise. Mr. Östberg’s comments are particularly revealing, as Sweden seems intent upon creating an increasingly hostile public policy climate for home-educating parents.

Policy makers have a duty to be informed about the subjects on which they comment and should make policy based on accurate and well-founded research. Mr. Östberg’s comments reflect a baseless, stereotypical view of home-educating parents and reveal much about Mr. Östberg’s apparent desire to control how children learn. Mr. Östberg states that homeschooling is a way to “circumvent” the law in Sweden. The truth is that homeschooling is allowed by law in Sweden, and a small number of parents have been homeschooling their children lawfully, with good results, for years. Mr. Ostberg is either ignorant of Swedish law or is purposefully ignoring the law.

In contrast to Mr. Ostberg’s admission of limited knowledge on homeschooling, we believe that we are well-informed on the subject. The Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) is an international advocacy organization dedicated to protecting the right of parents to teach their children at home. As the largest such organization, with more than 85,000 member families in the United States and in 36 countries, including Sweden, our experience with the academic and practical literature and considerations regarding homeschooling is extensive.

Recently, school districts in Sweden have been arbitrarily denying homeschoolers the right to educate their children. In June the Swedish Parliament amended the Swedish School Law, which now imposes drastic restrictions on home education and opens the door to criminal prosecution of home-educating parents. Though the Swedish government has placed homeschool families under intense scrutiny, authorities have found no evidence of mistreatment or educational neglect. There is simply no data to even suggest that child abuse is more prevalent in homeschooling families than in families whose children are being educated by other means. Instead, experience has shown that homeschooling parents are successfully providing their children with a solid education. It’s hard to reach any other conclusion than that Mr. Ostberg is abusing his power simply because he wants to control other people’s children. By making the false charge that homeschoolers are “circumventing” the law, he has maligned Swedish homeschooling parents, who are making great sacrifices to educate their children.

Mr. Östberg complains that it is “difficult to assess” whether these families have striven to homeschool in compliance with the law. This is a strange claim since most homeschool families are in close contact with Swedish schools and have provided relevant information to allow school officials to determine the academic progress of the students. Over the past year, Swedish homeschooling families have had consistent, in many cases in the courts, engagement with the local municipalities. Swedish authorities have also required homeschool families to submit to oversight by school officials. Mr. Östberg asserts that the right of parents to choose the best form of education for their children must be restricted by the government. He implies that parents do not know their children best and are incapable of providing them with adequate instruction to become productive members of society. Parents everywhere should be offended by these comments.

Mr. Östberg appears to believe that a government bureaucrat who has never even met a particular child is in the best position to know what is good for that child. This is a statist mentality which is truly frightening to anyone who wants to exercise their right to raise their own child. Mr. Östberg’s policy will create “cookie cutter” children who are “mainstreamed” into a society built by the government. His view is totalitarian in nature and conflicts with a bedrock principle of western society for millennia, which is that parents are in the best position to make decisions for their children. As the U.S. Supreme Court said in Pierce v. Society of Sisters, “The fundamental theory of liberty upon which all governments in this Union repose excludes any general power of the State to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only. The child is not the mere creature of the State; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations.”

Mr. Östberg takes the opposite view. For him, the child is the mere creature of the state and parents have no rights.

Mr. Östberg claims it is “difficult to measure social competence” in children who are schooled at home. In discussing the issue of “socialization” he says that “[t]here is a distinct difference between going to football practice several hours a week and playing with friends in leisure time—it simply cannot replace the necessary experience kids must have every day at school with peers.”

This is one of the more bizarre claims. Mr. Östberg appears to be very confused about “social competence.” Socialization is the way we learn to be part of a community. Since people spend most of their lives as adults, it makes sense to homeschool families to socialize their children among adults. In contrast, the peer-segregated environment of an institutional school is artificial and bears little resemblance to life as an adult. Very few people actually believe that children will learn everything they need to know from each other. Children need to learn to join a community they will be a part of their whole lives. They need to learn to become adults. Furthermore, peer pressure that results from a child only interacting with a similar age group has a negative impact on proper socialization. This kind of “experience” actually ends up keeping children immature for a longer time. Homeschooling, on the other hand, is superior to education in a traditional school setting as it offers far more opportunities for positive interaction with a range of age and social groups—not just in the fake environment of the school.

With over 2 million homeschooled children, America has over 30 years of experience with home education. Numerous studies have looked at many issues regarding home education. At least one scientific study has shown that in standardized measures of social competence homeschooled children actually perform at or slightly higher than their public schooled peers (see Francis and Keith, “Social Skills of Homeschooled Children, 2004,” The Home School Researcher). Another research study performed in 2004 entitled “Homeschooling Grows Up” surveyed over 5,000 homeschooled graduates in their adult years. The results demonstrated that homeschooled graduates became productive members of society, going on to college at higher rates than their peers and becoming civically engaged more frequently by a factor of 3. In fact, homeschoolers are in attendance at all levels of American higher education, including all of America’s top colleges and universities. Furthermore, many colleges actively recruit homeschoolers because they have proven themselves to be especially adept and outperform their peers both academically and socially.

In measures of academic performance, numerous scientific studies over the past 25 years have shown that homeschooled students score an average 25–30 percentile points higher on standardized achievement tests. There is no doubt that homeschooling is an effective method of education. Research also shows there is no correlation between high test scores and government regulation. Homeschooled students across America consistently score at a high level despite the level of regulation. This means an overbearing state is simply wasting taxpayer money and parents’ time because its efforts do not improve the results of homeschoolers.

Rather than ignoring the facts, Sweden would do well to look beyond its borders and see how homeschooling works in other countries. Sweden has produced a handful of homeschooled graduates, one of whom is studying at Sweden’s finest medical school, the Karolinska Insititutet, to become a medical doctor. In other countries homeschoolers are flourishing. In addition to the United States, homeschooling is growing rapidly in Australia, Canada, France, Russia, South Africa, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom. Homeschooling is also a legal educational option in other Nordic countries such as Denmark, Finland, and Norway. In each of these countries, homeschooled students achieve high test scores, interact maturely with peers and adults, and embark confidently on college and careers.

In his interview Mr. Östberg says that “children have a right to go to school.” One wonders what legal authority Mr. Östberg is referring to. By law, Sweden allows for homeschooling and private schools, as well as public schools. Certainly there is no such requirement that children attend a particular school, but rather that they receive an education. Mr. Östberg defines education as attending a public school, which contradicts both Swedish and international law. The truth is that Swedish law and international treaties recognize that parents, not the state, are to make decisions about what is best for their children, including the method of education.

As Mr. Östberg admits, his views have no evidentiary support. When presented with evidence, however, his statements on homeschooling are revealed to be narrow-minded and uninformed. Mr. Östberg’s views reflect a statist mindset that presumes that the state has the responsibility for raising the next generation. Mr. Östberg, as a senior government policy maker, ought to know his facts better. His comments are embarrassing to himself and the government of Sweden.

While nations have their own culture and laws, homeschooling is a natural right of parents that should be protected. We call upon Sweden to cease its persecution of homeschoolers and change the current law on education to allow parents the freedom to direct the education of their children. Mr. Östberg should apologize to homeschooling parents all over the world for his offensive comments and reconsider his views in light of facts and evidence.

Michael P. Donnelly, Esq.
Director of International Relations
Home School Legal Defense Association