An Introduction by HSLDA President J. Michael Smith:

Scott Woodruff is the author for this week’s edition of HSLDA Responds.

Harvard professor Elizabeth Bartholet has three basic, unsupported objections to the current state of homeschooling: First, she believes homeschooling needs to be regulated to protect children from abuse and neglect because parents have too much freedom and aren’t under enough oversight. Second, Professor Bartholet believes that parents are unqualified to provide a basic education for their children. Third, she asserts homeschooled children should attend public school so they can be exposed to things that their parents are “protecting them from.”

Scott will clearly and systematically explain why homeschooling does not need further regulation and why more regulation would be a bad idea. As an attorney and homeschool dad of four, he is eminently qualified to rebut the professor’s assertions.

The Woodruffs bring an interesting family dynamic.  After Scott and his wife, Jane, graduated their three older children, they adopted Marie, who had spent many of her first infant months fighting for her life at the University of Virginia Medical Center.  They didn’t adopt Marie because they wanted to give parenting or homeschooling another shot; they adopted Marie because she needed to have siblings who would shower Marie with love, affection, support, and approval, and a mother and a father who would give her the opportunity to grow up understanding and experiencing the love of God. Now 7 years old, Marie is thriving under the care of Scott and Jane.

As senior counsel at HSLDA, Scott wears many hats. He has been representing homeschooling families for over 20 years at HSLDA. He is a fierce advocate for homeschool freedom, which translates into the effective way he advocates for our members. Scott is dogged in his quest to resolve each family’s issues in a way that not only protects their right to homeschool but also advances freedom for every homeschooler in that family’s state.

Scott is an excellent communicator and writer. He has been very effective at testifying before various legislatures, protecting homeschool freedom, and advancing the right for loving parents to raise their kids in freedom. He has done countless interviews in every kind of media setting. He is especially adroit when responding to homeschooling opponents. He has written numerous opinion pieces about homeschooling and homeschooling freedom for news outlets and other venues, clearly making the case for homeschooling as one of the best ways caring parents can help their kids thrive. 

Our members love Scott because he is professional, approachable, intelligent, and witty—but most of all, because he is a fighter for their freedom. 

Scott speaks at many homeschool conferences , and if you get an opportunity to meet Scott personally, you will quickly realize why Scott is so successful as a lawyer—he is passionate about the freedom to homeschool and truly appreciates families who choose to teach their children at home.

 — Mike Smith, HSLDA President

* * *

Professor Elizabeth Bartholet’s 2019 article in the Arizona Law Review urges policy makers at all levels to create new, “reasonable” homeschool rules. She is upset that the homeschool community, judges, lawmakers, and Home School Legal Defense Association would oppose what she considers to be reasonable rules.

An explanation is in order: here are eight reasons HSLDA opposes expanding the regulation of homeschooling.

1. Minefield One: Paperwork

What kind of people deserve to go to jail? Criminals, we would say—not including the folks who double park or jaywalk. In most states, however, if parents violate any detail of the homeschool laws—filing a form late or forgetting to do something that’s required—they can be charged with a crime.

The math is simple: the more rules and requirements, the greater number of opportunities for a parent to slip up and find themselves in criminal jeopardy. Each additional required document is a new landmine that a good parent can step on. People who forget to file a form are not criminals.

But someone thought Ohio homeschooling mom Valerie Bradley was a criminal because she forgot to turn in a required form. She promptly took care of it after a reminder from the school . . . but that wasn’t soon enough.

She was charged with a crime and found guilty. It took nearly two years of litigation for the HSLDA legal team to finally reverse the conviction and clear her name.

Stepping on a “reasonable” rule can have unreasonable consequences. Homeschooling should not be a walk through a legal minefield.

2. Minefield Two: False allegations

What do you think of when you hear the phrase “child abuse and neglect”? Probably some pretty terrible stuff. But in many states, if a parent forgets to file a form or misses a deadline, they can be charged with child neglect.

Once a parent is mislabeled for child abuse or neglect, a judge can take control of the child. I saw it happen once, all because a parent messed up on a “reasonable” rule. It was heartbreaking.

The specific case I’m thinking about happened in the Midwest. The judge kept control of the child, not for days or weeks, but for years. These were good, loving, conscientious parents who failed to satisfy a state law technicality that had nothing to do with the quality of the child’s education.

Here’s another poignant example.

Tanya Acevedo, in New York City, filed exactly what she was supposed to file—on time. But the school official to whom she gave her paperwork neglected to inform another official in the chain of command. Consequently, the school counted Tanya’s child as absent without excuse and reported Tanya to child protective services. She was then subjected to a full-blown child neglect investigation.

HSLDA took the neglectful school officials to court. They acknowledged that they had messed up and agreed to make changes. But that didn’t erase the trauma that Tanya experienced.

Every additional rule—even a “reasonable” one—is a new landmine on which a parent can accidentally step and by which a loving parent can be mislabeled as an abuser or neglecter.

Every added rule also creates a new opportunity for an inadequately trained or underperforming official to make a devastating error. Just ask Tanya Acevedo.

3. The freedom thing

How would you like it if your state had a law telling you what color of clothes your kids had to wear and what kind of food they had to eat for breakfast? You would think that’s crazy! Those are normal parental decisions because dressing and eating are normal family functions.

Education is another normal family function. Even though you may not think of it as “schooling,” you are educating your child every day. You teach them right from wrong, how to behave, how to treat other people, how to take care of themselves, how to shoulder responsibility, and how to understand God. Educating is just as much a family function as washing clothes, feeding and dressing kids, wiping tears away, and putting Band-Aids on owies.

You would be aghast if there was a law telling you how to do this, because you instinctively know that it’s your job. And in order for you to do your job right, you must have the freedom to do it.

The world of education only became crammed with bazillions of rules after publicly financed schools became common early in the 20th century. Since they were spending public money, there had to be lots of rules.

But it is wrong to think that since there is a plethora of rules governing public education, there must be lots of rules governing homeschooling. The rule-laden world of public education does not apply to the family-oriented world of homeschooling. They may as well be two different planets.

Education is a normal family function. It’s what families do. And parents must have freedom to do it. Every additional rule—even a “reasonable” one—shrinks that freedom.

4. The divinity thing

For the first 15 years of my life, I did not believe in a divine being. I believed that my value and autonomy were equal to anyone else’s, and that therefore no one had a right to force their own personal moral order on me. Although I did not think of it like this, that was my “faith.”

There are probably folks who are considering homeschooling, who look at life as I did. People with that outlook may find that, for them, the value of freedom proceeds from the value of one’s personal autonomy. Looked at that way, every new rule—even a “reasonable” one—is an encroachment on one’s dignity and autonomy. It should therefore be opposed.

At age 15, I came to faith in the God of the Bible. As I understand Him now, He is completely good. I also believe He is free. 

Since everything about God is good, and God is free, I have come to the conclusion that freedom is good in and of itself. Therefore, protecting and expanding freedom is inherently good.

And this applies in the realm of homeschooling, as well.

5. The burden of proof

It is sometimes taken for granted that when an authority imposes a new rule, that rule will bring about some kind of improvement. That hunch generally turns out to not be true in the realm of homeschooling.

Some states have developed hefty lists of homeschool requirements; others take a very streamlined approach. New York is a prime example of the first type of state. Homeschool families there must

  • file a notice every year;
  • file a form annually listing the syllabus, textbooks and plans for all courses;
  • file progress reports four times a year;
  • keep daily and hourly attendance records; and
  • file a year-end assessment.

Let’s compare the New York law with the law of a neighboring state. In New Jersey, homeschool families must provide instruction equivalent to that in public schools. That’s it! No filing, no reports, no assessments. Just provide your child with an education that is comparable to a public school education.

You would think that all the extra requirements for homeschooling in New York would produce better educated kids than in New Jersey, right? Wrong.

The data shows that in the group of states with the highest number of requirements, kids do no better than the kids in the group of states with the fewest requirements do! In other words, all those extra rules provide no benefit to anyone.

Not only would new requirements create a bigger minefield, but they would also be a total waste of time—both for parents and for administrators.

6. And “reasonable” means what?

Let’s pause for a moment and look at the kind of new homeschool rules Professor Bartholet would see as “reasonable.”

She says that no one should be allowed to homeschool unless they are given permission by their local school system after demonstrating exceptional reasons. In other words, she says the school system could grant you a favor and let you homeschool, but you would not have a right to homeschool.

She says that “the new regime should deny the right to homeschool, subject to carefully delineated exceptions for situations in which homeschooling is needed and appropriate.”[1]

Especially since public schools can provide home-bound instruction, it’s not likely a superintendent would ever conclude that homeschooling is “needed and appropriate.”

It’s also a textbook conflict of interest scenario. The superintendent’s school system will lose pupil-linked funding if the homeschool is approved.

Another example of what she views as “reasonable” comes from the California court case known as “Jonathan L.”[2]

The first time the court looked into the facts of that situation, it ruled that no one can homeschool in California unless they have a license to teach.[3] This meant that ordinary parents were forbidden from homeschooling. Professor Bartholet says the homeschool community promptly “transformed it into a case about unreasonable restrictions on homeschooling.”[4]

Since she condemns the homeschool community for thinking it’s unreasonable to allow only licensed teachers to homeschool their children, she obviously thinks such a requirement is reasonable.

In other words, a rule that forbids virtually every parent from homeschooling is “reasonable” in her eyes.

Why does the homeschool community oppose “reasonable” new homeschool rules? Because it would mean virtually no one can homeschool their children.

 7. Why parents care

Professor Bartholet seems blindfolded to the reasons why millions of parents want to homeschool their children. Her resulting lack of understanding and empathy is one reason she is outraged that there is so little support for her ambition to add new rules to homeschooling.

But there are good reasons—even powerful ones—and they must be acknowledged. Here are two.

I recall hearing an ironic saying once: “No two people are the same. That’s why everyone should be treated alike.” Nowhere is this so regrettably apt as in public education. The best classroom teacher can’t give a different education to each of the 25 students in the class. All the kids get the same treatment, and the results are often poor.

That’s where homeschooling offers hope. Parents can design an education that matches their child’s unique needs. Kids thrive when their needs are met.

My dad taught public school after retiring as a Navy fighter pilot. I visited his classroom one day to observe. Johnny (not his real name) entered my dad’s math class along with the other students, glanced around, laid his head on his folded hands on his desk, and promptly fell asleep.

Soon, Johnny was drooling on his desk. Eventually awakened by the end-of-class bell, Johnny jumped up and headed to his next class.

When I later asked my Dad why he let Johnny sleep, his answer was: “He’s so far behind that he will never pass. If he sleeps, at least he gets some benefit out of my class period.”

Sadly, there are thousands of Johnnys in public school. And all Johnnys desperately need something a classroom teacher cannot give them but that a loving parent can: an education that is exactly right for the child.

When my wife suggested that we homeschool our kids, I thought that she was nuts. I let her do a pilot program over the summer—so she wouldn’t (so I thought) ruin my kids’ education. I expected to come home from work daily to find my wife in tears, my kids screaming, the house a wreck, and dinner burnt.

To my amazement, my wife and kids were all happier! That sold me on homeschooling.

What I realized later is that homeschooling gives the family a mission. And having a mission is very powerful force for connecting people and keeping them connected. Watch the awesome movie Apollo 13, and you’ll know what I mean.

Thinking back to my personal experience growing up, alienation gradually crept in between my two siblings and me as we grew older. We unconsciously shifted our allegiances from our parents and from each other toward our various public school teachers. That distance remains to this day.

But with my wife and children, the powerful unifying force of the mission prevented alienation. My own family—with three adult children and three grandchildren—remains much closer than my own family of origin. I attribute this to the fact that we homeschooled. Alienation is not inevitable.

A better educational model. Less alienation. That’s what homeschooling means for me and—I’m sure—for many others who choose this way of life.

8. The bottom line

Professor Bartholet groundlessly accuses us of advocating for absolute freedom. We don’t.[5]

In every state, the laws are such that if parents don’t educate their children, they can be punished. If someone abuses freedom, that freedom can be taken away.

But imposing new rules on the entire homeschool community is the equivalent of punishing the innocent. That is not the American way.

The American way is a compass with four points: freedom, fairness, family, and faith. They all point to one conclusion: we should continue to oppose efforts to add “reasonable” new homeschool rules.