Last week, the Tennessee Department of Education released a toolkit designed to ensure every child in the state receives a well-being check by an official.

The state guidelines provided direction and recommendations for local entities on how to check up on every child—from birth to 18—to identify needs and make resources and services available. Immediately, parents and policymakers across the state objected to the overreaching guidelines. Special thanks to Claiborne Thornton of the Tennessee Home Education Association and many other concerned groups who helped get the word out to affected constituents. Our reporting data indicates that more than 1,600 concerned citizens contacted elected officials in response to our call to action.

The department removed the toolkit just two days after releasing it, acknowledging its flaws and promising to reassess how to best help children. But this kind of proposal may be a sign of things to come as government officials consider how they can identify children in need.

The best of intentions

The guidelines were no doubt intended to help children who are struggling with the uncertainty and disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. But nearly 40 years of legal experience supporting and defending homeschooling families has taught us here at HSLDA that even government intervention that is designed to help may cause more harm than good.

The number one reason people homeschool is “concern about the environment of other schools,” and that was before the current global health crisis. So as school begins this fall, it is no surprise that homeschooling is on the rise.

This trend is concerning to some critics of homeschooling, like Harvard professor Elizabeth Bartholet, who would prefer to see homeschooling presumptively banned (despite is successes)—or at least heavily regulated by government officials to ensure children are well educated.

HSLDA recently published a series of responses to Professor Bartholet’s proposed homeschool ban. Her proposal shares the same flaw as the now-abandoned Tennessee child well-being guidelines: a presumption that government knows better than parents about how children ought to be raised and educated.

Parents know best

One of the most troubling details of the misguided Tennessee guidelines was the specific recommendation to bypass parents whenever possible and question children directly. A parent’s decision not to cooperate with a “well-being liaison” would be noted and tracked in a newly proposed roster of every child in the state.

The presumption that a government agent—potentially a 20-year-old volunteer with minimal training, according to the guidelines—would be able to identify a child’s needs better than the child’s parent flies in the face of American jurisprudence and significant scholarly research.

The US Supreme Court has consistently recognized a strong legal presumption that parents act in the best interest of their child, absent credible evidence to the contrary. While government intervention is sadly necessary at times to protect children, it is not a neutral action. Bureaucratic policy can and does cause unintended harms to the very children it is designed to help.

Unintended consequences

Significant scholarly research demonstrates that private interviews and examinations of children by strangers can cause both psychological and emotional damage. A leading scholar in this area, Professor Doriane Coleman, has noted that “even mundane abuse and neglect reports investigated by officials acting in good faith can result in deeply intrusive state action.” She concludes that “the majority of intrusions on family privacy do not directly benefit the children involved, and in many instances actually cause them demonstrable harm.”

A bureaucratic program that employs government actors to assess a child’s needs directly will inevitably lead to scrutiny of parenting decisions and unneeded intrusion. And while some families may benefit from the available resources and services, a one-size-fits-all approach increases the risk of overwhelming the system, making it more likely that children with genuine needs fall through the cracks.

The Tennessee guidelines were intended to be voluntary. If not, they would be unconstitutional since the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments prohibit government intrusion in the family without parental consent or credible evidence of child abuse or neglect. Still, they miss the mark on effectively helping children by equipping parents.

Helping children by equipping parents

The unintended consequences of government intervention illustrate why it is better policy to empower parents to nurture, care for, and educate their children, rather than double-check and second-guess their decisions.

HSLDA is committed to supporting parents and families who are seeking creative and innovative ways to safely educate their children this fall.

In addition to offering practical tips and legal guidance about homeschooling, HSLDA’s attorneys are available around the clock to talk with members who receive a visit from a government official.

We applaud Tennessee Governor Bill Lee and Commissioner Penny Schwinn for listening to the critical feedback on the proposed guidelines. And we stand ready to meet the moment and advocate for children and families, should similarly overreaching proposals be released in other states across the country.

If you would like to stand with us, please consider joining HSLDA!