- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 7, 2020

No sooner had Harvard Law School touched off a campaign for a government crackdown on home-schooling than every student in America began learning at home, thanks to the coronavirus shutdown.

And while plenty of parents would never want to repeat the experience, indications are that some may stick with it instead of sending their children back to public or private schools, setting the stage for what could be the largest single-year surge in U.S. home-schooling history.

J. Allen Weston, executive director of the National Home School Association, said the deluge of calls and emails began two months ago as families sought tips on making it through the temporary classroom closures, but lately the tenor has changed as some parents decide that home-schooling “isn’t totally out of the question.”

“In the last week, we’ve had a 10-fold increase in emails, easily,” Mr. Weston said. “Maybe as many as 40% that are contacting us for information have decided that this is going to be a permanent change in their lives.”

In addition, he said, another 20%-25% of the thousands of families that have contacted his organization are “wavering.”

“I’m guessing there are anywhere from 3%-4% of parents who have been thrust into this that are warming up to the idea to where they could seriously consider this as a lifestyle change,” he said. “They’re reaching out to organizations like ours and saying, ‘OK, if we were going to do this, how do we do this?’ “

Such a surge would run counter to the agenda put forth by Harvard law professor Elizabeth Bartholet, who called for a “presumptive ban” on home-schooling in the May-June issue of Harvard Magazine, a report based on her March 9 article in the Arizona Law Review.

The Harvard Law School Child Advocacy Program, which she heads, followed up by announcing a “Homeschooling Summit” for June 18-19, featuring an array of home-school critics. The event has since been postponed due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Ms. Bartholet expressed alarm at the rise of home-schooled students, who now account for as many as 3%-4% of school-aged children, arguing that teaching them at home violates their right to a “meaningful education,” increases the risk of child abuse, and hampers their ability to contribute positively to a democratic society.

Home-schooling is legal in all 50 states, thanks largely to the efforts of the Home School Legal Defense Fund. The Education Department estimates that about 2 million students are being home-schooled, but that number is probably higher, given that 26 states don’t keep count.

“We have an essentially unregulated regime in the area of home-schooling,” Ms. Bartholet told Harvard Magazine.

Other foes have piled on, including former Tennessee education commissioner Kevin Huffman, who penned a March 27 op-ed in The Washington Post, “Homeschooling during the coronavirus will set back a generation of children.”

The blowback on the right has been fierce, with critics taking to the pages of Forbes, National Review, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post to denounce the “thoroughly unfounded attack on home-schooling,” as Reason Foundation director of school choice Corey DeAngelis put it.

“Home-schoolers do not threaten society, but sweeping edicts that rely on misguided tropes can do much harm,” Crossway Books editor Samuel James, who was homeschooled, said in an April 24 op-ed.

Harvard student Cevin Soling organized and hosted last week an online forum, “The Disinformation Campaign Against Homeschooling,” featuring a host of home-school advocates and critics of the education establishment.

One Harvard alumna, Kerry McDonald, senior education fellow at the Foundation for Economic Education, said she was “appalled” by the “disinformation campaign against home-schooling,” pointing out that she has home-schooled her four children.

While Ms. Bartholet argued that home-schooled children are more vulnerable to abuse, a 2004 Department of Education study found that nearly 10% of public-school students will be targeted for unwanted sexual attention or assault by employees by the time they graduate from high school.

“Tragically, child abuse happens everywhere, but home-schooling is the exit ramp for many loving families who want to protect their children from the harm they endure in public schools,” Ms. McDonald said at the online forum.

The anti-home-school drive also has been accused of anti-religious bias. As many as 90% of home-schoolers are driven by “conservative Christian beliefs, and seek to remove their children from the mainstream culture,” said Harvard Magazine, while Ms. Bartholet said such parents include “extreme religious ideologues.”

Ms. McDonald countered by citing Pew Research Center data showing that about two-thirds of home-schoolers are Christian — the same percentage as the nation as a whole — as well as a federal report that found the primary motivator for families who choose home-schooling was concern over the school environment, including safety, drugs and peer pressure.

“Much of the recent growth in the U.S. home-school population over the past decades has come from urban secular families like mine who want more freedom and flexibility for our children’s learning,” she said.

What worries advocates is that home-schooling will be tied to the increase in domestic violence and child abuse that has accompanied the stay-at-home orders and quarantines.

“This [abuse] is not because of home-schooling, although it will be blamed on home-schooling because that’s the perfect narrative that they have — well, as soon as you started home-schooling, all these kids got abused,” said Mr. Weston. “They got abused because their parents weren’t used to having them around. But they [critics] are going to use that narrative to dissuade people in the future.”

Some home-school experts argue that the current situation is not authentic home-schooling, given that most parents were thrust into the situation with no preparation and continue to rely on their schools for online learning.

“This situation is further exacerbated by schools and the media referring to this as home-schooling, which it is not,” said Patrick Farenga, former editor of Growing Without Schooling. “People who choose to home-school do so after they give careful thought about how they’re going to work and live together as a family. What is occurring is remote learning and crisis schooling, not home-schooling.”

The Arizona Law Review article, titled “Homeschooling: Parent Rights Absolutism vs. Child Rights to Education and Protection,” called for a “radical transformation of the home-schooling regime and a related rethinking of child rights,” prompting concerns that the real agenda may be greater government control over the family.

“This is really about much more than home-schooling,” Ms. McDonald said. “I think home-schooling is the straw man in a much larger, more pernicious effort to remake American society, and in particular to reinterpret the U.S. Constitution and the ways in which that has preserved the liberty interest of parents to raise and educate their children.”

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