Homeschooling has secured its place as a permanent fixture in American education.

That was the conclusion of education scholar Paul E. Peterson last week at the close of the inaugural session of a homeschooling conference sponsored by Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

Thursday’s discussion considered the following question: “Is it time for a change to homeschool law?” Additional sessions are scheduled weekly through June 17.

Early in last week’s event, Peterson, who directs Harvard’s education policy program, noted homeschooling’s astonishing growth. His observation seemed to establish the tone of the discussion as a civil consideration of how lawmakers should address homeschooling moving forward—instead of whether the educational method ought to be tolerated at all.

Nevertheless, the session did present what panelist and HSLDA senior counsel Mike Donnelly characterized as a “clash of worldviews”—not just regarding homeschooling, but also on foundational issues such as the role of parents and the state in the upbringing of children.

Fearing Parents

Again, the most extreme position was espoused by Harvard Law Professor Bartholet, who last year called for a “presumptive ban” on homeschooling.

She opened with a cursory compliment: “I acknowledge that many homeschooling families are providing a terrific education to their children.” Yet she went on to describe homeschooling as endangering rights that she insisted state governments—not parents—safeguard on behalf of children. These include rights to personal well-being and an education.

She categorized parents as inherent threats to those rights, citing statistics indicating that when children are murdered, the culprits are usually their mothers or fathers.

She decried current homeschool laws as inadequate for protecting children from their own parents.

In an apparent dismissal of the fact that many parents withdraw children from public school in order to provide a safer environment, she said, “Parents are completely free in today’s homeschool regime to isolate and torture that child.”

Looking to the State

James Dwyer, a professor at the College of William and Mary, also seemed to consider homeschooling from a perspective that makes the state preeminent and questions the fitness of parents to teach their own children.

Though he called for homeschooling to be treated with respect and acknowledged good in the educational method, he also implied that government should be given wide latitude for regulation.

He rejected the “libertarian idea” that parents are by nature empowered to make decisions regarding their children.

For this and other reasons, he said it was “reckless and unconstitutional” to grant parents what he called a monopoly over a child’s development.

Dwyer also cited statistics on the number of adults who struggle with mental illness and addictions, exhibit low intelligence, or adhere to outlandish theories, such as the belief that the earth is flat.

“There’s a lot of dysfunction among adults in society,” he concluded. Given this reality, Dwyer argued that it would be unwise to let adults educate their children without guidance.

Guided by Freedom

Donnelly countered those views by explaining why he homeschools his own children and by outlining Home School Legal Defense Association’s guiding ethos in advocating for homeschool freedom.

Many of the principles behind the homeschooling movement, he added, are recognized in American jurisprudence and international law.

In Pierce v Society of Sisters, for example, the US Supreme Court upheld the right of parents to choose the means of education for their children, declaring “the child is not the mere creature of the state.”

Likewise, in Parham v J.R., the high court ruled that unless there is proof to the contrary, “the Constitution requires that parents are presumed to act in the best interests of their children.”

So instead of operating on the basis of guilt and suspicion, HSLDA works to empower loving parents to create custom learning environments designed to help their children thrive.

Based on the evidence that millions of additional students have found a haven in home education during the current pandemic, Donnelly concluded that “we also see that homeschooling works and is safe.”

Which Way Will the Law Go

Building on these various positions, the panelists outlined the legal reforms they would like to see applied to homeschooling.

Bartholet called for some means of screening parents to ensure that they are capable of teaching and for testing to see if homeschooled children are receiving adequate instruction. She envisioned such a regime to include mandated activities in a traditional school and a guarantee that children are empowered to exercise “some choice as to their lifestyle.”

She characterized current regulations as wholly ineffective for keeping students safe.

“We need to ensure all homeschooled children are viewed on a regular basis by mandated reporters,” she insisted.

Dwyer made no specific recommendations, but he implied that it was reasonable for the state to insist on certain kinds of instruction.

He pointed out that even if the government continued with the current public school model, that after classes, on holidays and vacations, “parents would still have ample opportunity to teach their kids what they want to teach them.”

Embracing the Future

Donnelly, on the other hand, predicted that lawmakers will continue the trend they have followed since the emergence of modern homeschooling in the 1980s. As the practice has grown and as its adherents have demonstrated its effectiveness, legislators and policymakers have moved toward granting more flexibility and freedom.

He added that HSLDA is advocating for measures that will ensure fairness for homeschool graduates as they pursue careers and further education.

Panelist Eric Wearne, a professor at Kennesaw State University, built on Donnelly’s observation, going so far as to suggest that changes in education may quickly render some current criticism out of date.

He cited his own research into what he called hybrid homeschooling, which mixes at-home instruction with various kinds of classes in other settings, both virtual and in-person. Wearne noted that the folks in his studies didn’t always agree on whether they considered themselves homeschoolers or private schoolers, possibly because they were too focused on finding innovative ways to keep students engaged and learning.

When it comes to education, Wearne said, “we’d be better off acknowledging that people want different things.” He added that homeschooling is going to continue to adapt to meet the needs and challenges of our times, “and people should be OK with that.”