The Case Against Homeschool Regulation


Even as over one billion students around the world endure unchosen school‐​at‐​home during the COVID-19 pandemic, interest in authentic homeschooling has grown. A new survey by EdChoice found that more than half of respondents have a more favorable view of homeschooling as a result of this global health crisis, while 26 percent have a less favorable view. As a homeschooling mother of four children and author of Unschooled: Raising Curious, Well‐​Educated Children Outside the Conventional Classroom, I can confidently say that what we are all experiencing now, being stuck at home with our children and isolated from our larger community, is nothing like genuine homeschooling, but it is nevertheless encouraging to see more favorable perceptions of the practice. For opponents of homeschooling, however, heightened public interest in this educational approach is triggering calls for increased regulation and even “presumptive bans” on homeschooling, as put forth in a recent Harvard Magazine article. Here are some reasons that is a bad idea:

The “liberty interest of parents”

In the landmark 1925 US Supreme Court case Pierce v. Society of Sisters, the court overturned an Oregon law banning private education, stating that the “child is not the mere creature of the State.” That case examined private education broadly and did not specifically address homeschooling, which was virtually non‐​existent at the time. As the modern homeschooling movement emerged in the late‐​1970s, courts grappled with how to interpret a parent’s right to educate a child outside of a conventional schooling environment, and the practice became legally recognized in all US states by the mid‐​1990s.

As the number of homeschoolers swells to nearly two million US children today, courts continue to uphold parents’ rights to home educate their children. In 2018, the Georgia Court of Appeals overturned a lower court ruling against homeschooling, stating: “The liberty interest of parents to direct the upbringing, education, and care of their children is the most ancient of the fundamental rights we hold as a people, and is ‘deeply embedded in our law.’ This cherished right derives from the natural order, preexists government, and may not be interfered with by the State except in the most compelling circumstances.”

Compelling circumstances for government intervention include child abuse, where it is important to protect a child from harm. Homeschooling opponents argue that because homeschooled children are not in schools where there are “mandated reporters” of suspected abuse, they could be abused by parents and, therefore, homeschooling families require government monitoring or outright bans. Tragically, child abuse occurs everywhere, including in public and private schools. Singling out a particular group of people for increased suspicion and monitoring without cause simply because they choose to live and learn differently is a gross violation of privacy and liberty. Child abuse laws exist in all states and should be duly enforced, but subjecting an entire group to government oversight on speculation rather than proof is troubling.

Glass houses and stones

Abuse in public schools is disturbingly common; yet those who propose bans on homeschooling in the name of child welfare don’t suggest the same for public schools. According to a 2004 report by the US Department of Education, 1 in 10 students will experience sexual abuse by a public school educator by the time they graduate from high school. Additionally, physical abuse against public school students by teachers and administrators also regularly occurs, as does bullying and abuse by peers. Moreover, many students are deeply unhappy at school. A new Yale study finds that nearly three‐​quarters of American high school students have negative feelings toward their schooling. “Concern about the environment of other schools, including safety, drugs, and negative peer pressure,” is a primary motivator for today’s homeschooling families who choose to refrain from sending their children to schools that they deem unsafe or undesirable.

Families choose homeschooling for a panoply of reasons, but much of the recent growth in the U.S. homeschool population is being driven by urban, secular families who want a more personalized, less standardized learning environment for their children, as well as families of color who want to escape low‐​performing schools and institutional racism. Bans on homeschooling or increased regulation of the practice force compliance with government‐​imposed education standards that, in many cases, are exactly what families are fleeing when they choose homeschooling.

Homeschooling opponents, such as Harvard Law School professor Elizabeth Bartholet, argue for bans on homeschooling, saying it’s “important that children grow up exposed to community values, social values, democratic values, ideas about nondiscrimination and tolerance of other people’s viewpoints.” But recent research on homeschooling by Daniel Hamlin at the University of Oklahoma finds that homeschooled children actually have higher participation in cultural activities than their schooled peers, spending ample time in local libraries, museums, and other cultural venues. This echoes earlier research by Richard Medlin of Stetson University who found that homeschooled students exhibit strong civic engagement and social skills.

While more research is needed, most peer‐​reviewed studies on homeschooling outcomes show that homeschoolers academically outperform students who are conventionally schooled. Meanwhile, the most recent results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as the Nation’s Report Card, show lackluster academic achievement in conventional schools, particularly in reading where two‐​thirds of American children do not demonstrate proficiency. Parents should be free to pursue an educational path for their children that is not tied to a government system of questionable competence, both in educating children and in securing their overall welfare.

In the recent Harvard Magazine article against homeschooling, Professor Bartholet expresses concern about “authoritarian control” over children as a justification for banning homeschooling, but banning homeschooling is itself authoritarian. Parents have an evolutionary imperative to ensure their child’s well‐​being. Indeed, they have been the ones most capable of sustaining our survival as a species for millennia. They may not always succeed, but neither does the state. Placing trust in families, and preserving their “liberty interest” in raising and educating their children as they see fit, is the preferred pathway toward a free and tolerant society.

Kerry McDonald is an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom and a senior education fellow at the Foundation for Economic Education. She is the author of Unschooled: Raising Curious, Well-Educated Children Outside the Conventional Classroom (Chicago Review Press, 2019) and a regular Forbes contributor.  Her research interests include homeschooling and alternatives to school, self-directed learning, education entrepreneurship and innovation, parent empowerment, school choice, and family and child policy. Kerry’s articles have appeared at The Wall Street JournalNewsweekNPREducation NextReason MagazineCity Journal, and Entrepreneur, among others. She has a bachelor’s degree in economics from Bowdoin College and a master’s degree in education policy from Harvard University. Kerry lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts with her husband and four children.

Used with the permission of the Cato Institute / CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

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