In a lively debate on June 15, Elizabeth Bartholet and Kerry McDonald discussed homeschooling, parental rights, and the state’s responsibility in education. Bartholet serves as a professor at Harvard University, and McDonald is a homeschooling mother who also serves as an adjunct professor and has dedicated her life to protecting the rights of homeschooling families. Milton Gaither joined the discussion as a professor from Messiah College. Neal McCluskey, the director of the Center for Educational Freedom at the CATO Institute, moderated the debate, presenting the questions sent in and directing the overall conversation.

The primary question posed in the debate was whether the state should intervene in the homes of homeschooling families to ensure that the rights of children are protected. While parents are usually the primary care givers of their children, who is ultimately responsible for a child’s education, the parents or the state? This is a fundamental question with far-reaching implications. How one answers it is ultimately determined by one’s convictions on the role of the state and family.

As was revealed in the debate, Bartholet believes that parents should not be trusted with the final responsibility for educating their children. She is suspicious of parents, and believes children need to be exposed to ideas that compete with their parent’s worldview from an early age. However, in Ephesians 6:4, Paul says, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” Bartholet disagrees and says that the state should bring up children in the way they should go.

In her opening statement, Bartholet argued, “Children should have rights that are equivalent to adults because children are not able to protect themselves like adults are.” Because of the cases of child abuse involving homeschooling families, she concludes that the state should have higher regulations imposed upon homeschoolers in order to prevent abuse or neglect of children. She proposed state home visits and “a balance” between state intervention and parental control when it comes to rearing children.

Bartholet is concerned about three main issues: the academic, physical, and ideological wellbeing of all children. “My problem is not with homeschooling per se,” she said, “but with the lack of regulations on homeschooling.” Bartholet says that parents cannot be trusted to take good care of their children because they are not “certified,” and therefore, there needs to be state intervention in order to ensure that all children have a chance to make it in life.

Academically, Bartholet is concerned that homeschool students cannot meet the requirements set out by standardization in the school system. She claimed homeschoolers only do “pretty well” academically. McDonald responded by asking, “Whose standard? Where two out of three of public school students can’t read? The public schools’ standards?” Homeschooling families recognize that the standard for academic excellence in the public schools is not the standard they desire for their children. Homeschooling is “another form of private education,” says McDonald, “and parents ought to be allowed to escape the situation.”

In terms of the physical wellbeing of children, McDonald responded to Bartholet’s concerns by calling attention to the fact that government schools are highly regulated and yet, “One in 10 students who attend public government schools will be sexually mistreated by a staff member by the time they graduate high school.” Nationally, McDonald explained, “That’s five million kids!” Moreover, she noted that at least half of all students grades four to 12 are bullied at least once a month. In other words, children who attend school are not necessarily more physically safe than homeschooled children.

Unfortunately, there have been cases of allegedly abusive parents removing their children from the public school system and beginning to “homeschool” them in order to avoid further inquiry. The public schools are aware of these children, and yet child services do nothing. According to the National Home Education Research Institute, “Legally homeschooled students are 40% less likely to die of child abuse or neglect than the average student nationally.”

Finally, Bartholet is concerned that homeschool students are ideologically isolated from the world and are not getting exposed to other ideas. She argued, “Children have a right to exposure to some other people and ideas about how one might live their life. So that when they become adults, they have some meaningful opportunity to choose something other than the views, the values, the culture that their own parents have chosen.” McDonald responded by noting, “You cannot mandate exposure to other positions.” Ironically, it is also noted in the debate that while Bartholet wants to regulate the exposure of homeschool students to other ideas, the public school system is not mandated to require exposure to specific religious ideologies.

So, why do I care about this debate? Because I was homeschooled throughout grade school, and just last month, I graduated from university. Looking back on my education experience, I believe my parents advocated for me by personalizing my education, encouraging a love of learning, teaching critical thinking skills, and making me feel safe at home. Homeschooling gave me an opportunity to learn more than just the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic and how to take the SAT. It provided me with opportunities to see the world and learn firsthand about other cultures and history. In other words, homeschooling prepared me for life. My parents were well-suited to advocate for me because they know and love me. The state is simply not capable of advocating for me in this way; they do not love or know me as my parents do. Child advocacy starts at home, and what better way than through homeschooling?

Christian parents have a biblical responsibility to oversee their children’s education. While homeschooling may not be the right option for everyone, all parents have a role to play and must be actively involved. Moreover, Christian parents have a special responsibility to disciple their children in the faith. A child’s spiritual formation cannot be delegated to the church, a youth group, or a Christian school. Discipleship begins and ends in the home. While the church should complement the spiritual education that takes place in the home, it can never replace the role that parents play in cultivating their child’s walk with God. In fact, in the Old Testament, Jewish parents were charged specifically with the responsibility to teach God’s law to their children. In Deuteronomy 6:7, Moses said, “You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” Teaching our children to walk in the fear and admonition of the Lord is an ongoing way of life that never ends. Thus, while homeschooling may not be for everyone, Christian parents must steward the time God has given them with their children well and do everything in their ability to raise children who love, follow, and obey God. 

Bartholet is right to be concerned about a child academically, physically, and ideologically. She is correct in saying that we should protect children from harmful situations, but she is misguided in suggesting that parents and the home are harmful to a child’s well-being. Christian parents have the opportunity, through homeschooling, to advocate for their children by teaching them academically from a biblical worldview, by playing with them and physically being present in their daily lives, and by helping them to foster a relationship and love for the Lord. Child advocacy starts at home, not necessarily because the state is incapable, but because of the God-given responsibility of parents to raise the next generation to love and fear Him.

Molly Carman is a policy intern at Family Research Council.