June 17, 2020, article republished with permission from CATO Institute.
A couple of days ago Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom hosted a discussion on one of the hottest topics in education: homeschooling. The issue is in the front of many people’s minds because COVID-19 forced just about every child in the world to school at home. But people have been debating the right degree of parental and government control of education for centuries, and the debate specifically concerning homeschooling reached peak heat last month with a Harvard Magazine article pondering “a presumptive ban on the practice.” Our event featured Elizabeth Bartholet, the Harvard professor who called for the presumptive ban; Cato adjunct scholar and homeschooling advocate Kerry McDonald; historian and Messiah College professor Milton Gaither; and me, serving as both a panelist and moderator.
In my opening remarks I endeavored to quickly work through a libertarian thought process on the role of government vis‐à‐vis homeschooling, with an emphasis on the difficulty of fitting children into a basic libertarian framework. That basic framework is grounded in freedom for people whom we assume are capable of self‐government – typically adults. For at least some amount of time—we can debate how long for any given person—children cannot make many informed decisions for themselves, nor can they defend themselves against abuse or neglect. Someone else controls them.
In light of that, the homeschooling debate is more complicated than simply concluding that parents should be able to do whatever they want with their children. Few people, for instance, would disagree that government should stop child abuse or neglect. Of course, the norm for dealing with criminal activity, as I explained in my remarks, is for someone to suspect a crime is occurring, an investigation to occur, and if an investigation provides sufficient evidence for government to intervene, alleged perpetrators are charged and tried, with their innocence assumed unless they are proven guilty.
That said, our event was intended to discuss difficult issues from multiple perspectives, hopefully with all involved trying to understand how reasonable people could hold opinions different from their own. With such a discussion as a goal, and knowing that there have been very rare, but also very devastating, cases of isolation and abuse of children under the guise of homeschooling, in my remarks I said that it “may” be reasonable to “maybe” annually have some government official drop in unannounced on homeschooling families to briefly check in on children.
Many people heard this and thought that I was asserting that such a policy should be implemented. That was not my intention – I wanted to offer food for thought, and perhaps something that could spur a search for common ground.
So where do I stand? Again, 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. The same presumption of innocence and due process should apply to how we deal with potential educational neglect, which I define as failure to educate a child to read, write, and calculate – the building blocks a child needs to become self‐governing and access more expansive education.
I also, though, believe that we need to spend more time and effort thinking about how we can protect children from abuse and neglect. This may well mean reforming child protective services, encouraging communities to pay closer attention to families that appear to be isolated or in crisis, and maybe just discussing abuse more to raise the public consciousness. And we must remember that children are not adults—many cannot defend themselves or self-govern—rendering the policy framework we use for them more complicated than simply letting people do as they want as long as they do not forcibly impose things on others. No matter what, someone other than the child is imposing on them.