An Introduction by HSLDA Vice President Jim Mason:

In Generational wins for homeschooling, we said there are three things you need to know about HSLDA: (1) we believe in homeschooling, (2) we believe in homeschoolers, and (3) we believe in homeschool graduates. The author of this week’s edition of HSLDA Responds hits the trifecta.

Dan Beasley’s parents homeschooled him through high school. He came to work at HSLDA as legal assistant to Senior Counsel Mike Donnelly, while earning his law degree from Oak Brook College of Law in his off-hours. Dan then worked a stint in private practice in Milwaukee. Along the way, he married homeschool grad Bethany. They had four kids and became homeschooling parents.

When longtime HSLDA Senior Counsel Dee Black retired in 2015, we invited Dan to join our merry band of co-laborers as a staff attorney. Dan now serves our members in 13 states, helps with litigation, and acts as our legal department’s liaison to all things techy.

In addition to being a fine young lawyer, Dan is an excellent colleague and an exemplary family man.

Dan and Bethany are in the crosshairs of Harvard law professor Elizabeth Bartholet and her now-infamous proposed presumptive ban of homeschooling.

Even more so, because like their parents, Dan and Bethany have chosen to raise their kids with their Christian faith and values.

Read Dan’s article Don’t Ban Homeschooling Based on Stereotypes, then tell me that Professor B. is right.

I dare you.

Jim Mason, Vice President of Litigation and Development

* * *

My stomach churned a little because I knew doing the right thing would cost me, literally. TurboTax’s projected tax refund disappeared and became a tax obligation when I included the income from my small dog-boarding business. I was self-employed, and I’d been paid by customers in cash and checks. But I knew I had to include it anyway—it’s how I was raised.

The business had been the perfect high school job for me because it offered excellent flexibility and decent income. More than that, though, it taught me several lessons about the real world.

Just 15 years old, I met with my customers and cared for their needs, took out an ad in the phone book (yes, the phone book was still a thing—as well as my primary advertising source), kept basic accounting records, worked hard outside, and increased my revenue slowly as I repaid my parents for the concrete and space they provided to help set up the kennels.

Homeschooling provided the flexibility I needed to start this business while in high school. And it empowered my parents to instill and reinforce values that I treasure today. Like honesty, hard work, loving my neighbor, and many other moral principles I still strive to live out daily.

Our home environment was safe, loving, fun, and always a bit hectic. My parents chose to teach me and my eight siblings at home because they wanted to teach us religious and moral values they didn’t think were adequately taught in the local public schools. And they couldn’t afford private school.

It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t always pretty. And I don’t agree with everything my parents taught. But I regularly look back at my childhood with fondness and overwhelming gratitude for the sacrifices my parents made to teach me at home.

My gratitude has only increased as I have started homeschooling my own children, and I can better appreciate the amount of effort my parents expended to homeschool nine kids.

All my siblings have graduated from high school, most from college, and all are actively involved in their communities. Current occupations include working as a civil engineer, mechanic, lawyer, small business manager, social worker, statewide child outreach director, accountant, college psychology student, and electric-motor shop apprentice. This variety reflects my siblings’ varying interests, to which my parents tailored curriculum and education plans.

My siblings are still some of my best friends. And we regularly rehash childhood memories that homeschooling contributed to or made possible. Like when we dropped all of our schoolwork for a day to help a young family from church cut up dozens of huge tree branches that had been blown down in a windstorm, played our band instruments for nursing-home residents, or raked our widowed neighbors’ lawns for no charge, to say nothing of the basketball brawls, board-game debates, and embarrassing moments from homeschool co-op presentations.

Looking back, homeschooling is one of the best things that has happened to me, in part because it allowed my parents to teach moral and religious values right along with academic and hands-on instruction. I was able to learn in a safe environment that prioritized both academic proficiency and moral character.

Yet, Harvard Law professor Elizabeth Bartholet would like to see the practice banned, with limited exceptions for parents who can obtain permission from local school officials.[1]

Professor Bartholet argues in a lengthy Arizona Law Review article that homeschooling is dangerous to US democracy because, among other objections, a “very large proportion of homeschooling parents are ideologically committed to isolating their children from the majority culture and indoctrinating them in views and values that are in serious conflict with that culture.” [2]

By relying on tired stereotypes and erroneously labelling parents’ motivations, Professor Bartholet sweeps into her extreme description of homeschoolers all religious parents who want to incorporate the Bible in their core curriculum. These parents—like my own parents—must seek educational alternatives since public schools cannot legally advance a religious belief.

Professor Bartholet’s suggested ban on homeschooling would turn the law upside down from its current form and place the burden on parents to prove their program is adequate—even though such a ban would cause some children to miss out on a better education. She admits that school officials are bound to make errors in judgment and “some parents who should be allowed to homeschool will be denied this opportunity.”[3]

Professor Bartholet’s Problem With Homeschooling? Religion

Professor Bartholet slams homeschooling because “extreme religious ideologues” are allowed, she says, to raise their children in “near-total isolation” and teach their children views that are in serious conflict with those “generally deemed central in our society.” She suggests, based on outdated data, that up to 90 percent of homeschoolers are in the “conservative Christian wing, including many Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Seventh-day Adventists,” and she claims that they use homeschooling as a cover to indoctrinate their children.[4]

She attacks these conservative Christian homeschoolers because many of them are committed to teaching values that are not taught in public school. But she assumes that these values must be negative. Some important values that my wife and I want to instill in our children include the following: a sincere love for God, which necessitates a genuine love and respect for all people, regardless of their differences, status, or opinions; a life-long love for learning and a humble desire to seek objective truth, even when unpopular; gratefulness; joy; and a strong work ethic. All these positive values are more effectively taught outside a traditional classroom.  

Still, an exit from conventional schooling and the values it instills, Professor Bartholet argues, breeds intolerance.

As a legal basis for her presumptive ban, she refers to the state’s role in “child-rearing” and emphasizes that “the state has a powerful interest in educating children in ways that enable positive participation in the larger society.” And this must include, at a minimum, “values and beliefs other than those of their parents.”[5]

American Law Protects Homeschooling and Religion

But there is a problem with this plan. In Pierce v. Society of Sisters, the US Supreme Court famously affirmed that “[t]he 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.”[6]

And a longstanding legal presumption established in Parham vs. J.R. recognizes “that natural bonds of affection lead parents to act in the best interests of their children.”[7] This is, of course, a presumption that can be rebutted, but doing so requires credible evidence to the contrary.

Because parents are responsible for their child’s care, they are uniquely positioned to be most interested in their child’s success and most burdened by their child’s failure. My parents were the most committed (and sometimes vocal) fans during my high school basketball games across the Midwest and some of my most trusted advisers during life’s storms.

The First Amendment also specifically bars the government from prohibiting the free exercise of religion, which encompasses parents’ liberty to provide religious instruction to their children.[8] Indeed, my parents genuinely believed that passing along moral virtue was just as important as teaching academic knowledge. And they didn’t just teach this virtue, they lived it.

A Proposed Solution: Religious Intolerance

To overcome these legal barriers that preserve the freedom to homeschool and teach religion, Professor Bartholet proposes rejecting the long line of Supreme Court cases protecting these cherished liberties and instead learning from other countries that emphasize a child’s right to a state-provided education, like Germany—where homeschooling is effectively banned.

She points out that Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court has held that homeschooling may be prohibited because society has an interest in “avoiding the emergence of parallel societies based on separate philosophical convictions” and “the social integration required for a tolerant society could only be achieved through attendance at public or private schools.”[9]

Professor Bartholet assumes that the teaching in public schools is more tolerant because it supposedly reflects the views of most Americans. But this assumption crumbles upon review.

Bad Facts Make Bad Law (and Bad Policy Proposals)

In a unique study at a small private Christian college, Dr. Albert Cheng measured the impact of homeschooling on participants’ political tolerance, defined as “the willingness to extend civil liberties to groups who hold views with which one disagrees.” He found that “instead of decreasing political tolerance among students who are more conservative in their religious beliefs, homeschooling is associated with greater political tolerance.”[10]

Cheng notes specifically that this result conflicts “with the belief that a common system of public schools is essential not only for all students but particularly for religiously conservative students to learn political tolerance.”

Similarly, Jeffrey Dill and Mary Elliot’s 2019 study, published in the Peabody Journal of Education, highlights how parents’ reasons for homeschooling undermine Professor Bartholet’s narrative.[11] “Ironically, homeschooling could have the ability to free children from the very indoctrination its critics fear.”[12]

Based on empirical observations of homeschoolers, the study suggests that rather than homeschooling to indoctrinate their children, parents choose to homeschool to keep their children from being indoctrinated in an ideology—one of social conformism—that they perceive as combative toward their own. They conclude, “Insofar as homeschooling serves as an environment that encourages reflexive thinking, it may contribute to democratic diversity in ways not yet perceived.” [13]

Some of the parents in the study were religious, some were not. But across their “diverse spectrum of motivations, from unschoolers to religious homeschoolers,” the parents were united in “opposition to a perceived lack of diversity, or lack of tolerance for it.”[14] This objection to conventional schooling was not just in the teaching itself, but in how the public school model threatened students’ ability to think for themselves.

Data from the Department of Education’s National Center on Education Statistics indicate that religious motivations are not the primary reason parents homeschool. In contrast, the top two “most important” reasons given for homeschooling were “concern about the environment of other schools” and “a dissatisfaction with the academic instruction at other schools.”[15]

A reasonable implication from these data is that homeschooling parents have a desire to educate their children and protect them from harmful influences, whether based on religious beliefs or not.

Professor Bartholet is dismissive of these statistics and insinuates that a few extreme and harmful religious views are commonplace amongst homeschoolers, to the extent that legal policy should reflect skepticism of homeschooling generally.

A Greater Threat

While Professor Bartholet may argue that homeschooling is a threat to both children and US democracy, homeschooling is actually a tool that equips parents with freedom to provide a more wholistic education in a nurturing environment. The plethora of resources and support available to homeschoolers today empower parents to put together an educational plan as unique as each child.

Implementing a presumptive ban on homeschooling that forces children to be taught a conflicting morality as fact, in an environment their parents believe to be harmful, assumes religious parents do not have their child’s best interests at heart.

To assume so would be un-American and intolerant.

This is especially true since there is no universal answer to how a child ought to be educated. While some, like Horace Mann and John Dewey, prioritize utilitarian ideals, others prioritize teaching morality consistent with their religion; still others embrace a more wholistic view of education that includes broader objectives.

A pluralistic society embraces ideological diversity and encourages discussion of conflicting ideas. Pluralism is threatened by a coerced conformity to only one ideological viewpoint, even if that viewpoint is embraced by the majority.

According to Professor Bartholet, the way to achieve tolerance is to force religious parents to send their children to a school system that may be legally prevented from teaching the parents’ religion or values.

This is permissible under our current constitutional framework, Professor Bartholet argues, because requiring a child to attend school for six–seven hours a day is not an undue burden on a parent’s ability to influence their child’s views and ideas.

But her express purpose for the ban is to stop certain religious parents from shaping their child’s views.

Professor Bartholet’s insidious intolerance of religious homeschoolers is the real threat to US democracy.

Homeschooling Is Good for Children and US Democracy

As I’m typing, my kids are reading about Galileo Galilei, the 17th-century astronomer who was forced under threat of torture to recant his extreme views and held under house arrest because he believed that the sun—not the earth—was the center of the solar system. His views were considered dangerous when, in fact, they were correct. This is just one example of how, sometimes, the majority gets it wrong.

It also helps illustrate why I’m grateful that American law embraces many aspects of pluralism and preserves freedom of speech and religion.

Bad parents with extreme views may choose to homeschool, just as some bad parents send their children to public school and some bad parents teach at public and private schools. But the possibility of conflicting or even harmful viewpoints is no reason to ban a practice that provides so much good for children.

The US Supreme Court rejected this notion in Parham: “The statist notion that governmental power should supersede parental authority in all cases because some parents abuse and neglect children is repugnant to American tradition.”

Professor Bartholet’s proposed ban on homeschooling relies on inaccurate or erroneous stereotypes and offers a solution that would only exacerbate problems for children. She paints a false portrait of homeschooling, casting it as predominantly a bunch of religious extremists who have no interest in educating their children.

This indicates that she is either unfamiliar with homeschooling families or dismissive of the research that paints a vibrant picture in stark contrast to the nightmarish strawman she has created.

Though imperfect, parents are objectively best positioned to and subjectively most interested in raising their children well. Thus, they ought to be afforded a presumption that their decisions are best for their children even—no, especially—when those decisions are based on sincere religious beliefs. Indeed, that is the case now in America. It is Professor Bartholet’s intolerant views that are out of step with American tradition.

I’ll be forever grateful that my parents chose this unconventional educational method, and I will continue to advocate that American law and policy encourage other parents to do the same.