An Introduction by HSLDA Attorney Jim Mason:

Tempus fugit, the old folks say, and I can attest it is true. The author of this edition of HSLDA Responds, Tj Schmidt, came to work at HSLDA in 2002 as a single young man—he worked as legal assistant for Senior Counsel Dewitt Black, who retired in 2015.

Before the end of 2003, Tj was twice promoted. At HSLDA, he took on full status as one of our state contact attorneys; at home, he became known as Susan’s husband, which was clearly an upgrade for Tj.

Susan and Tj were both homeschooled growing up, Susan as one of 11 children, and Tj as the oldest of nine. They now have seven homeschooled children of their own, ranging from Josiah at 16 years old to Ezra at 3 and a half.

Tj is one of the hardest working attorneys I know. As contact attorney for New York, the most heavily regulated state in America, he has his hands full. Yet he treats every family’s situation as if it is the most important one he is working on.

To argue against Harvard professor Elizabeth Bartholet’s law-review article, in which she calls for a ban of homeschooling, Tj brings a special perspective. Before she became known as an anti-homeschool intellectual, Professor Bartholet adopted children internationally and is a strong proponent of international adoption.

Three of Tj’s siblings are Haitian and were adopted while Tj’s mom and dad were serving as Christian missionaries supporting local churches in Haiti from 1989 to 1999.

In his article, “Homeschooling Equals Abuse? The True Motivations to Homeschool,” Tj recounts some of his life growing up and how that experience has shaped the dad and husband he is today. Our world is richer because of Tj’s mom and dad, and now because of Tj and Susan.

No matter what Professor Bartholet thinks.

— Jim Mason

* * *

In a recent Arizona Law Review article, titled “Homeschooling: Parent Rights Absolutism vs. Child Rights to Education & Protection,” Harvard Professor Elizabeth Bartholet’s foundational position is that there should be a presumptive ban on homeschooling: no one, barring those in exceptional circumstances, should homeschool their child. She believes that homeschooling should only be allowed when the parent can “demonstrate justification for permission to homeschool.”[1]

Among her reasons for banning homeschooling, Professor Bartholet asserts (without presenting evidence) that “child abuse and neglect characterize a significant subset of homeschooling families.” She goes on to say that “homeschooling in its current unregulated form poses serious risks of abuse and neglect.”

This article will examine the reasons parents have chosen to homeschool their children and refute Professor Bartholet’s claim that “many families choose homeschooling precisely because it enables them to escape the attention of CPS.”

My Personal Homeschool Experience

My parents raised my siblings and me in a conservative Christian home. I grew up attending church regularly, participating in family devotions, and being taught basic Christian beliefs at home. But those activities were not the primary reason we began homeschooling.

When I was 5 years old, our family moved from New Hampshire to rural Vermont, primarily to work toward getting out of debt. My parents bought approximately 30 acres, and my dad started building a house so we could move out of the small RV trailer we had parked on the property. My father built that first house in just six weeks, motivated by the anticipated arrival of my third sister and my mom’s desire to be settled in our new home. I remember really enjoying that summer, “helping” my dad with house building, exploring the new property, and even watching a team of four utility workers pull in electric and telephone lines to our home, about a quarter of a mile in from the main road.

Mom had already taught me to read and do basic math. As someone who loved teaching and had studied it in college, she was delighted to learn about homeschooling during an interview between the late Dr. Raymond Moore and Dr. James Dobson on the Focus on the Family radio program.

However, in 1981, homeschooling required the approval of the Vermont Agency of Education. Originally, home study programs were only an option for students who had an illness or disability. When more parents began looking for alternatives to their local public school in the early 1980s, some government officials were unwilling to approve home study applications. In many situations, the agency simply rejected any first-time application. I believe this is why my parents were rejected just before I entered kindergarten.

So that fall, I started kindergarten at the local school. While they were denied their choice to homeschool me in 1981, my parents, especially my mom, were unwilling to give up on the idea. Finally, after submitting a home study application every year for three years straight, our family was able to get approval to withdraw my next-youngest sister and me to begin homeschooling. The approval actually came after the school year had already started, but my parents were eager to begin and immediately pulled my sister and me out.

Why My Parents Chose to Homeschool

We began homeschooling us the same year that HSLDA was founded by Mike Farris and Mike Smith: 1983. But, at that time, both Mikes were living on the West Coast—a world away from us in northern Vermont. Our family wouldn’t hear of HSLDA for several years.

While the modern homeschool movement was still very new, my parents had several reasons why the idea was appealing to them.

First, my mother had a real interest in teaching. She had nearly obtained her teaching degree before realizing that teaching in a public school classroom full-time was not for her. But my mom knew that she enjoyed teaching my younger siblings and me.

My parents, like most parents, naturally taught us many things as we grew from infants into young children. Learning occurs continually, and as many parents realize, it can be naturally encouraged in children on an individualized level before formal “schooling” begins. My mother had encouraged learning in our family and had already put me almost a year ahead by the time I entered kindergarten at the local public school.

Because my mom and dad knew my siblings and me better than anyone else and could provide one-on-one instruction, they also had the audacity to think that they could do as well as local school officials could do in educating us. This belief did not belittle the Barton Elementary School officials—it was just a recognition that, just as in many other schools, one teacher was trying to teach 20–30 kids of varying levels in several different subjects.

The second reason my parents were interested in homeschooling us was because we were living in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. A very beautiful area, but not very densely populated. Where we lived, the next house with any kids was about a mile down the road. I was the second person on the school bus and had more than a 45-minute ride one-way to school. My mom and dad were concerned about their 5-year-old spending an hour and a half everyday riding back-and-forth to school.

Finally, my parents were interested in teaching my siblings and me more than just academics. They wanted us to be educated, to be successful, and to be able pursue anything we were interested in. My mom and dad were growing in their Christian faith and wanted to be able to use some Christian material as part of our educational program. Interestingly, their decision to use Abeka® curriculum—a program that was used primarily by Christian schools across the country—was what finally convinced Vermont officials to approve their educational program.

Religious Reasons to Homeschool are Just as Important as Other Reasons

According to Professor Bartholet, between 50–90 percent of homeschoolers choose homeschooling primarily for religious reasons.[2] This was not the primary reason that my parents began homeschooling, but it was a reason. I think this prioritization was true for many of the homeschool friends’ families over the years—while for many others, religious instruction wasn’t a reason at all. Later, after beginning to teach us at home, my parents’ Christian faith became an important reason why they continued to homeschool us.

Professor Bartholet implies that, because of their desire to pass on their faith or belief to their children, those who homeschool because of their religious faith should be suspect—even banned from homeschooling. But those who are homeschooling primarily because of their religious faith should not be marginalized or treated with suspicion.

It appears that Professor Bartholet has forgotten the integral role of religious freedom in the United States’ founding and the core protection the US has given this freedom throughout our history. The earliest European settlers in North America came because of a desire to freely practice their religious faith. And a foundational principle of our Constitution guarantees our right to exercise our freedom of religion—or no religion at all: this includes freedom from being forced by the government to follow organized religion or being told how to think.

The National Educational Alliance (NEA)’s policy states that “schools should teach the rights and responsibility associated with the freedom of religion, the religious heritage and diversity of the United States, respect for the beliefs of others, and the historical and cultural influences of various world religions.”

And Calvin Coolidge, our 30th President (who was born in Vermont!) said, “the strength of a country is the strength of is religious convictions.”

Common Reasons for Homeschooling: Is CPS Avoidance Among Them?

The National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES), the main federal entity that collects and analyzes data related to education in the US, first included questions about homeschooling in 1994, the year after I graduated from my family’s homeschool program. The NCES has conducted additional surveys approximately every four years since, asking respondents to list the reasons that they were homeschooling. Respondents could give more than one reason for homeschooling.

In the very first report by the NCES on this issue, titled Homeschooling in the United State: 1999, the most common reason that parents homeschooled was to give their children a better education.[3] The next-highest reason had to do with religious motivations; several other reasons included concerns about poor learning environments at traditional schools, a need to provide more academic challenge, and even the students’ own desires to be homeschooled!
Comparing this first survey with the most recent NCES survey from 2016 provides some interesting correlations and contrasts. The first thing to note is that the NCES estimated the number of homeschooled children approximately doubled between 1999 to 2016, from 850,000 children to 1.69 million children.[4]

The next important aspect of the 2016 survey has to do with the reasons that parents homeschool: now, the most frequently identified reason had to do with concerns over school environments, “such as safety, drugs, or negative peer pressure.” The second-most common reason given was dissatisfaction with traditional schools’ academic instruction, and the third reason was a desire to provide religious education.

NCES’s statistics and related longitudinal data lend no credence to Professor Bartholet’s assertion that “many families choose homeschooling precisely because it enables them to escape the attention of CPS.” Rather, her argument is entirely based upon a statement in a 2015 Georgetown Law Journal article titled “Educational Empowerment: A Child’s Rights to Attend Public School” by Carmen Green; the article suggests that “a substantial amount of anecdotal evidence also show that some abusive parents, who have no intention of educating their children, have taken advantage of lax homeschooling laws to hide their children from mandatory reporters in the school system.”[5]

Ms. Green’s statement is just as unsupported as Professor Bartholet’s by any actual scientific evidence.

If we rely only on anecdotes, then I would argue that my own personal homeschool experience provides me with a far greater foundation and authority to comment on this premise. I’ve been involved at a personal level in homeschooling since 1983, and I have worked at HSLDA for over 18 years. I’ve lived in eight different states and two countries, making friends with hundreds of homeschooling families and interacting with thousands of families over the years through HSLDA—and I have never met a family who said that chose to homeschool their children because they wanted to hide their children from mandatory reporters or from CPS.

I’m not alone in my skepticism; others, like empirical social scientists Patrick J. Wolf, Mathew H. Lee, and Angela R. Watson, have evaluated Professor Bartholet’s claims and have said “the article contains a number of assertions about homeschooling that are clearly undermined by the facts and unsupported by her sources.”[6]

One researcher, Rodger Williams, reviewed reports from the US Department of Health and Human Services and the US Department of Education to calculate that “legally homeschooled students are 40% less likely to die by child abuse or neglect than the average student nationally.”[7]

This statistic doesn’t hold true for students in traditional schools: a report by the US Department of Education in 2004 titled “Educator Sexual Misconduct: A Synthesis of Existing Literature” estimated that “1 in 10 students will experience school employee sexual misconduct by the time they graduate from high school.”[8] A 2017 report titled “A Case Study of K-12 School Employee Sexual Misconduct: Lessons Learned from Title IX Policy Implementation” cited numerous media reports and studies that supported this finding.[9]

In addition, the NCES reported that just over the 2017–2018 school year, “an estimated 962,300 violent incidents and 476,100 nonviolent incidents occurred in US public school nationwide.”[10] Yet Professor Bartholet is certain that the public educational system does a better job than parents can to protect their own children.

Main Reasons Black Families Homeschool

Minority homeschooling families in America would also object to Professor Bartholet’s claims. By all accounts, homeschooling has been increasing across racial lines. The PhillyVoice reported in 2015 that Black families make up approximately 10 percent of the homeschool community.[11] At the time of the publication of the article, it was estimated that 220,000 black children were being homeschooled.[12] Similar to the increase in homeschooling in general, it is estimated that the number of black homeschooled children has increased at least 60 percent to as much as 90 percent from 1999 to 2016.

In a nationwide survey in 2015, Dr. Brian D. Ray surveyed African American homeschool parents on their motivations for homeschooling.[13] The most popular reason why respondents chose to homeschool was that they preferred to teach their child at home to provide religious or moral instruction. Close behind was a desire to be able to transmit values, beliefs, and worldview to their child. A desire to develop strong family relationships was the third-most popular reason followed by the ability to customize or individualize the education of each child. These were followed by concerns surrounding academic rigor, school environment, racism, and education about Black culture.

Another study, “Resisting the Status Quo: The Narratives of Black Homeschoolers in Metro-Atlanta and Metro-DC,” found that there were five key motivations of those surveyed. The negative experiences in schools regarding a “culture of low expectations”, the “plight of Black boys” and the “psychology of safety” made up three of the reasons. In contrast, respondents were attracted to homeschooling because of the “positive opportunities in home education,” which included “imparting Black/African American culture” and “seeking a global perspective.” In their study, the authors summarized that “Black home education represents a vehicle of resistance to institutionalized racism and ideological mismatches between black families and their children’s education needs.”[14]

Ama Mazama, a professor and the director of graduate studies within the Department of Africology and African American Studies at Temple University, is one of the preeminent researchers on black homeschoolers. One of her more recent studies is titled “African American Homeschooling Practices: Empirical Evidence,” first published in Theory and Research in Education in 2015.[15] In this article, Professor Mazama sought to examine the reasons and daily instructional practices of black homeschoolers.

Of the families surveyed by Professor Mazama, nearly 73 percent used co-ops in the instruction of their children; 92 percent of the families used museums as a homeschool resource, and 86 percent took their children to parks on a regular basis. Clearly, these Black homeschool families were very active and integrated in their community.

One common theme in this article and in other studies published by Professor Mazama on Black homeschoolers is that these families viewed the traditional school curricula as racially and culturally oppressive. The stated desire of those participating in these studies by Professor Mazama was to help their children increase self-confidence and develop emotional, social, physical, artistic, creative, and spiritual potential. Black homeschoolers also wanted to cultivate a positive and in-depth look at Black culture, more so than that typically provided in public schools.

The growth in homeschooling within the Black community and the reason behind these decisions is very close to my heart, as three of my siblings are Black. And my siblings are part of my life primarily because of homeschooling. But more on that later.

Clearly, most homeschooling parents have several reasons for choosing to homeschool their children. However, a similar overall theme runs throughout the data: parents desire to educate their children in a way and with a program that meets the need of their child, family, and community.

Homeschooling Provides Quality Education for Children with Special Education Needs

The families that I talk to nearly every day are homeschooling their children because they want what is best for their children and truly believe that homeschooling is the best option for them. I have assisted families who, after years of frustratingly little progress for their children with special educational needs, decided to homeschool. Many of these families have followed up with me years later to share the progress their child has made.

One family I remember talking to in New York many years ago shared how they had recently had their special needs child evaluated by a school psychologist. With tears in her voice, the mom shared how the psychologist was amazed at the progress her son had demonstrated while homeschooling. The psychologist commented that if the child had remained in school, he likely would not have made nearly as much progress.

While the 2016 NCES report on homeschooling only reported that 6 percent of parents homeschooled primarily to meet their child’s special educational needs, 20 percent of respondents indicated that this was at least one of the reasons they were homeschooling.[16] The ability of homeschool parents to develop individualized home instruction programs and spend more one-on-one time with a child with special needs is often what parents report has resulted in the most progress.[17]

Conclusion

While my parents were homeschooling me and my biological siblings, we moved to Haiti and the Dominican Republic—for much of the time between the age of 10 and 20, this was my home. While in Haiti, they felt the call of adoption and the desire welcome several young children who needed a family into ours. While they already had six biological children, my parents decided that we all needed to expand our capacity to love—so they adopted my three younger siblings. And none of us children would change anything.

Even though our skin color is different, my adopted sister and two brothers are as much a part of our family as any of my other siblings. Even though we are all now adults out on our own and we haven’t lived together in our parents’ home for over 16 years, we all enjoy getting together—as crazy as it may be at times. I love hearing how my siblings are doing and would do anything for them, just as I know they would do for me.

But if my parents hadn’t followed through with their desire to homeschool me and my younger sister all those years ago in northern Vermont, I likely wouldn’t have the same relationships with my youngest three siblings. It was because we were homeschooling that my parents felt like they could move our entire family to Haiti.

While in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, we experienced two different cultures and made countless friends. We worked with feeding programs, schools, churches, medical teams and clinics, orphanages, and even children with severe special needs. And I got three more siblings!

While my mom and dad were not perfect, they tried to make every decision with the best interests of their children in mind. Especially the decision to homeschool. While I don’t agree with every decision they made, I am so thankful that they made so many right decisions. They taught us all the things that we needed to know or pointed us in the right direction to discover the answers, nurturing curiosity, love of learning, and initiative. Ultimately, my parents prepared us well for adulthood and then let each of us go, trusting that God would help us continue learning, growing, and making our own unique contributions to the world.

Thousands of families across the country have made a similar decision to homeschool their children. They have done so for a variety of reasons. These reasons may be tied to some religious faith or not. The reasons may have changed over time and may be different for each child.

But no one makes this decision lightly.

To claim, as Professor Bartholet has, that “many parents” homeschool to escape CPS or that parents who abuse and neglect make up a “significant subset” within the homeschooling community is contrary to all of the evidence. Those who abuse their children and neglect their education are not homeschooling. And they have certainly given up their right to direct the upbringing, education, and care of their children.