Neal McCluskey, Cato Institute’s director of educational freedom, hosted an online discussion on homeschooling last week—one that explored far-ranging views on the topic. 

The panel included Harvard professor Elizabeth Bartholet, Messiah College professor of education Milton Gaither, and homeschool advocate Kerry McDonald. 

The panel was labeled “Homeschooling: Protecting Freedom, Protecting Children,” and was prompted by the avalanche of commentary and controversy sparked by Bartholet’s law review article and coverage by various Harvard publications.

For the Children

My interest in this sort of discussion starts with me being a parent of seven, I believe that children are a blessing; it is a privilege (challenging at times to be sure) to be a father, and unthinkable that a parent would ever abuse a child. I also believe that our constitutional framework that limits government intervention by due process is a heritage that also protects everyone from harm.

As moderator and panelist, McCluskey began the discussion by correctly articulating an important defense of due process by affirming that when it comes to examining allegations of wrongdoing. He wrote, “the legal norm is suspicion, investigation, and trial with a presumption of innocence. That remains the best approach because a government empowered to inspect our homes and families without probable cause is a dangerous, insufficiently constrained government.”

But then he said something that surprised me. He said “it may be reasonable to have occasional, maybe once-annually, unannounced drop-ins on homeschooling families.”  He prefaced this comment by saying that because “nobody has a sort of inherent right to control the life of someone else… I get concerned when we frame this [homeschooling] as parents’ rights.”

Focus on Freedom

I was somewhat surprised because I have read many of McCluskey’s writings and talked with him about his ideas that usually are critical of bureaucratic meddling in education. But these comments sounded more like something a homeschooling critic might have said.

Because I know Neal, I reached out to him about these comments. He told me that, as moderator, he was trying to provoke a discussion; he clarified that he had not been suggesting these ideas for policies but merely for the sake of discussion. I was glad to hear this explanation, an expansion on which you can read here.

Still, the experience made me ask why a movement as successful as modern homeschooling continues to encounter criticism and real calls for serious policy restrictions such as those raised by other panelists.

HSLDA has done a lot of work defending the Fourth Amendment rights of families to be safe from unwarranted government interference. We see unannounced home visits as strictly unconstitutional.

Neal’s comments about parents’ rights is one that we’ve heard before. As he says in his blog post, government does have a role in protecting children when there is reason to believe abuse is happening. HSLDA agrees that this is an appropriate role for government, but I think it is also important to affirm certain underlying principles that can get lost in this issue—an issue that is, understandably, often emotionally charged.

A Duty to Care

The first is that, as a society, we presume that fit parents act in the best interest of their children. Contrary to Professor Bartholet’s assertion, we have never asserted that parents have absolute rights. Parents have a profound duty to care and protect children.

The second principle is that we recognize that parents do have a fundamental, constitutionally protected right to direct the education and upbringing of their children. This means that the government must provide due process before intervening in the life of the family. 

The fact is the vast majority (some sources say up to 90 percent) of child abuse investigations are terminated for a lack of evidence of any wrongdoing, which does suggests a need for reform of the system. HSLDA has a few suggestions, and we are ready to work with any groups to advance real reforms to protect more children and families from harm.

For example, requiring more stringent guidelines for screening allegations of abuse and neglect would allow CPS authorities to give the appropriate level of attention to serious cases. A graduated investigative approach would ensure that only legitimate concerns are investigated while also protecting innocent parties from full, lengthy, and unnecessarily intrusive investigations. Eliminating anonymous reports, while still keeping the names of people confidential, would also help, by reducing the number of false and malicious reports.

It is possible to protect children and freedom without abandoning either.