Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Law professor makes a half-baked attempt to bash homeschooling

I'm a regular follower of Milton Gaither's blog, and I like it even more now that he recently posted a complimentary review of my MA dissertation.

In a recent blog Gaither reviewed Catherine J. Ross, “Fundamentalist Challenges to Core Democratic Values: Exit and Homeschooling.” in William and Mary Bill of Rights Journal 18, 991-1014 (2010). As the whole essay was available online (which isn’t always the case with articles or studies in scholarly journals), I decided to take a look at Ross's arguments.

As a homeschooling mother myself, I admit that I’m biased. However, I feel that homeschoolers do themselves a disservice when they simply dismiss what the detractors of homeschooling have to say by invoking conspiracy theories. The concerns of those who critize homeschooling can't be just brushed off and ignored. I believe that it's important to address their arguments with an open mind. With this in mind, I started reading Ross's essay.

I couldn’t decide whether Ross just has an ideological objection to homeschooling, or whether the claims she makes are borne of ignorance as well. Her bias clearly comes through in her essay, in which she stated that homeschoolers poses a threat to fundamental democratic values. In fact, Ross makes a number of claims. She asserts that “the growing reliance on homeschooling comes into direct conflict with assuring that children are exposed to… constitutional values” (such as tolerance). She claims that the overwhelming majority of homeschoolers are religious fundamentalists who want to “protect their children from conflicting messages.” She argues that the requirement of state oversight applies not only to the educational attainment of homeschoolers, but also to religious indoctrination by homeschooling parents. Ross also claims that the state’s interest in a pluralist democracy entitles it to monitor such indoctrination in homeschooling families, at least during those hours when they are educating their children.

Although the article is written in a scholarly tone, and relies heavily (in some sections) on legal citations, its flaws expose it as being rather tendentious. In fact, when I examined Ross’ sources, I was astounded at the way in which she cherrypicks quotes out of context to support her statements. And, to quote one of my favorite statements from daytime television “that’s not all!” Ross’s article is one long example of how to manipulate quotes and statistics in order to make it seem as though they to support your point of view.

Ross starts out by describing the historical background of homeschooling in the USA, before moving onto the current situation. The first thing that jumped out at me when I read Ross’s essay was her assertion that “almost ninety percent of parents who homeschool do so for reasons stemming from their religious beliefs.” Ross’s conclusion is based on surveys conducted in 2003 and 2008 by the National Center for Education Statistics of the U.S. Department of Education. She states that in 2007, eighty-three percent of homeschoolers reported that they chose to keep their children at home to ‘provide religious or moral instruction’.” In this survey, only 36% of homeschooling parents cited this as their primary reason. However, Ross argues that any degree of religious motivation places homeschoolers in the category of fundamentalist. In light of the fact that nearly 84% of Americans identify themselves as having a religious affiliation, and that I know several moderate homeschooling Christians who do not prevent their children from being exposed to other teachings, I don't get Ross's point. According to the Pew Report, 26% of Americans are evangelical Christians, which does indicate that, with 36% of homeschoolers having religion (or moral teaching) as their primary motivation, this element is, to a certain degree, overrepresented in the American homeschool population, but I can't see it being 90%. Aside from this, homeschooling for reasons stemming from your religious beliefs does not equate teaching your child intolerance. Martin Luther King was religious and I don't think that Ross would regard him as an example of intolerant.

What Ross does next with the results of these surveys is the part that took my breath away. When I read that “homeschooling parents cite their desire to protect their children from “negative peer pressure,” much as the Amish parents in Yoder worried about the goings-on in high school”, I started smelling a very stinky rat. I have no religious beliefs myself and one thing that I really like about homeschooling is the fact that it reduces negative peer pressure on my children. I don’t have a problem with the fact that my 17 year old son is way more responsible than his peers, and, even though he’s an avid blues and rock guitarist, isn’t interested in drugs or alcohol. I’m quite happy that my nearly 14 year old daughter still has no desire to shave her legs or wear make-up. However, I wasn’t aware that this makes me a religious fundamentalist. According to Ross, however, not only are those who primarily homeschooled because they were “concerned about the school environment” (21% in 2007) but also those who said they were “dissatisfied with the academic instruction at other schools” (17% in 2007) religious fundamentalists in secular clothing. She only regarded the group whose primary motivation was interest “in a nontraditional approach to children’s education” and those with special needs children as genuine non-religious homeschoolers.

After my initial “WTF?” reaction to this assertion of Ross’s I decided to test it. I found the actual questions asked by the NCES and shamelessly posted them in the form of a poll on a secular homeschooling forum. I know that this doesn’t count as a scientific survey, and there is the possibility that some respondents might have checked out the answers before responding themselves, but the results of my little survey were that over 30% of the secular homeschoolers cited concern with the school environment or dissatisfaction with academic instruction as one of their main motivations. I wonder if Ross might conclude that the secular homeschoolers’ forum is crawling with religious fundamentalists, if she was even willing to accept the possible validity of my results.

Ross then quotes the following from David Sikkink, author of Conservative Protestants, Schooling, and Democracy (supra note 27) : “a significant minority of conservative and evangelical Protestants have chosen some form of an exit strategy in favor of religious schools.” However, Sikkink puts this figure in perspective by stating that 69% of conservative Protestants want to work with public schools, a similar percentage to Catholics at 67% and not far below mainstream Protestants at 76%.

Later on in her essay, Ross cites Sikkink once again, to support the point that “some
data indicate that students in evangelical schools demonstrate less comfort with freedom of speech than their peers in public schools.” (supra note 111) It’s ironic that she tries to shore up her arguments with quotes from a source that contradicts her major thesis. Right after Ross’s former quote from Sikkink, he says “I argue that there is little reason to be concerned that these schools will have dire consequences for a healthy democracy – at least judging in terms of curriculum, practices and civic philosophy.”

Sikkink concludes, “All told then, it appears that conservative Protestants and their institutions are not the strongest and most consistent supporters of a traditional democratic education within schools, but divisions on schooling issues within the movement make it unlikely that conservative Protestants pose a significant threat to democracy.” He perceives a greater threat to democratic education from too much testing, the emphasis on individual choice and the cultural assumption that education is about private choice, but he doesn’t link the latter to conservative Protestants or homeschooling specifically. In this article Sikkink specifically addressed many of the issues that concern Ross.

On examing the rest of Ross’s essay, I found some more citations that didn’t seem to reflect the conclusions of the sources she quoted. As I mentioned before, she cites a number of legal judgements to support her view that “the state can and should limit the ability of intolerant homeschoolers to inculcate hostility to difference in their children—at least during the portion of the day they claim to devote to satisfying the compulsory schooling requirement.” Not only does this idea have a faintly Orwellian ring to it (I can’t imagine how this could realistically be implicated, other than by actively listening in on homeschoolers) but the judgements that Ross cites contradict this.

Ross fails to mention that the various courts’ rejection of the claims by homeschoolers for autonomy and for freedom from oversight are specifically limited to the academic content of their children’s education, the content of public school curricula or in dealing with cases where there is evidence of child abuse or neglect. She mentions that “circuit courts that have reached the question have uniformly held that once parents enroll their children in public school, (my emphasis) their rights to restrict the curriculum to which their children are exposed are extremely limited” but spends the rest of that section assuming that US courts would extend this limitation of rights to homeschoolers. Rather than take my word for it that Ross is misrepresenting these judgements to support her case, let’s see what the judgements themselves say (these are all judgements that Ross quotes from (directly or indirectly) or cites in her article:

Mozert v. HawkinsCounty Public Schools: The parents in the present case want their children to acquire all the skills required to live in modern society. They also want to have them excused from exposure to some ideas they find offensive. Tennessee offers two options to accommodate this latter desire. The plaintiff parents can either send their children to church schools or private schools, as many of them have done, or teach them at home. Tennessee law prohibits any state interference in the education process of church schools:
The state board of education and local boards of education are prohibited from regulating the selection of faculty or textbooks or the establishment of a curriculum in church-related schools. TCA 49-50-801(b). Similarly the statute permitting home schooling by parents or other teachers prescribes nothing with respect to curriculum or the content of class work.

Swanson vs Guthrie: The board's policy… does not prohibit them from home-schooling Annie in accordance with their religious beliefs, and does not force them to do anything that is contrary to those beliefs.

Brown vs Hot, Sexy and Safer Productions: (arguably the court judgement with the most salacious title)
The Meyer and Pierce cases, we think, evince the principle that the state cannot prevent parents from choosing a specific educational program -- whether it be religious instruction at a private school or instruction in a foreign language. That is, the state does not have the power to "standardize its children" or "foster a homogenous people" by completely foreclosing the opportunity of individuals and groups to choose a different path of education. … We do not think,however, that this freedom encompasses a fundamental constitutional right to dictate the curriculum at the public school to which they have chosen to send their children.

Parker vs Hurley: …while parents can choose between public and private schools, they do not have a constitutional right to "direct how a public school teaches their child.

Combs v. Homer-Center School District: (a case that Ross says lies at the core of her argument) Parents do not have a constitutional right to avoid reasonable state regulation of their children’s education. Act 169's reporting and superintendent review requirements ensure children taught in home education programs demonstrate progress in the educational program. The statute does not interfere, or authorize any interference, with Parents’ religious teachings and/or use of religious materials.

Blau v. Fort Thomas Pub. Sch. Dist: The critical point is this: While parents may have a fundamental right to decide whether to send their child to a public school, they do not have a fundamental right generally to direct how a public school teaches their child. Whether it is the school curriculum, the hours of the school day, school discipline, the timing and content of examinations, the individuals hired to teach at the school, the extracurricular activities offered at the school or, as here, a dress code, these issues of public education are generally "committed to the control of state and local authorities."

Fields v. Palmdale Sch. Dist. is the only recent judgement that I found which comes closest to supporting Ross’s assertion: In fine, education is not merely about teaching the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Education serves higher civic and social functions, including the rearing of children into healthy, productive, and responsible adults and the cultivation of talented and qualified leaders of diverse backgrounds.
This judgement also states that the right of the parents "to control the upbringing of their children by introducing them to matters of and relating to sex in accordance with their personal and religious values and beliefs" is not protected by the constitutional right to privacy, at least not as that purported right is understood by the parents in this case.

This part refers to the claim by the parents in this case, who objected to the inclusion of questions of a personal and sexual nature in a survey conducted among pupils at a public school. The idea that the limitation of such rights is intended to apply within the context of public school attendance is further strengthened by the following quote from this judgement:
In sum, we affirm that the Meyer-Pierce right does not extend beyond the threshold of the school door. The parents' asserted right ‘to control the upbringing of their children by introducing them to matters of and relating to sex in accordance with their personal and religious values and beliefs,’ by which they mean the right to limit what public schools or other state actors may tell their children regarding sexual matters, is not encompassed within the Meyer-Pierce right to control their children's upbringing and education.

At a stretch, it could be argued that the reference to “other state actors” stretches the applicability of this issue beyond the public schools, but this is unlikely, given the context of this case. I would assert that Ross would have to provide more concrete and relevant evidence than this to support her assertions.

Ross quotes the Combs decision as stating that the state "has a proper interest in the manner in which those schools perform their secular education function” to justify that “the state can and should limit the ability of intolerant homeschoolers to inculcate hostility to difference in their children.” However, this quote, which is actually from a 1968 Supreme Court decision, says nothing about religious education. Contrary to Ross’s assertions, it actually concludes that the state is not responsible for monitoring the religious content of a child’s education, only the secular content.

Ross also draws on a well-publicized Californian judgement to support her assertion that the intolerance of religious homeschoolers necessitates state intervention: “Similarly, in Jonathan L. v. Superior Court a California appellate court held that there is no constitutional right to homeschool, even when motivated by religious beliefs." What the court actually said was that no absolute right to home school exists. Although the difference between a constitutional right and an absolute constitutional right may seem trivial, I would argue that it is significant. If parents had an absolute right to homeschool, they could do it under any circumstances, even those where their children were being abused. The court realizes that an absolute right would leave children who are in danger of criminal abuse at the mercy of their parents.

Although the circumstances referred to in the judgement are those in which there is strong suspicion of child abuse, Ross infers (supra note 96) that the court is addressing the way in which the children’s education impacted on their economic and social success. Although the court states that education serves an economic, political and social purpose and that “The public schools bring together members of different racial and cultural groups and, hopefully, help them to live together ‘in harmony and mutual respect’” it declares, “We are…not concerned with the interference with the rights of a fit parent.”

Ross also devotes part of her essay to arguing that because private schools are subject to state oversight, homeschools should be too. As an example of state intervention in intolerant teachings at a private school, she cites a radical madrassa which “taught its students to challenge the authority of the United States and urged students to grow up to be suicide bombers,” adding that “This decision would not, in my view, compromise the rights of the teachers or the parents to continue to voice their opinions outside the temporal space reserved for compulsory schooling, as long as they did not violate any criminal statutes, including those governing incitement.” Ross is using the example of state intervention in a school that does something illegal (incitement to violence) to support her call for the state to prevent schools and parents (for part of the day) indoctrinating children with ideas that are not illegal. Such ideas certainly are repellant to many people, but there's no law against them. Much as I disagree with these ideas, it’s a far cry from teaching children that homosexuality is a sin and the earth was created in 7 days and women should submit to their husbands to telling them they have to stone gays or assassinate someone whohttp://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gif teaches evolution or organizing polygamous marriages for underage girls. However, the practices that Ross would like to limit in religious homeschooling families are not illegal and until they are, Ross is going to come up with a much, much stronger argument to make her point. The court judgements that Ross cited all support the rights of parents teaching their children to choose what ideas they're exposed to, so she’s got quite a job ahead of her.


Teri said...

As someone who is seriously looking at home-schooling her child in a large part to avoid negative peer pressure, I really have to thank you for such a well-researched article. We have a few years before we have to make any decision and I'm only scratching the surface of the homeschooling controversy thusfar, but it's good to know I'm not alone in thinking that homeschooling doesn't have to be done just for religious purposes.

stephanie said...

Good article Rina! The right of parents to educate their children themselves is constantly on the attack! Im a Liberterian and oppose mandatory attendance in government schools. Each child learns differently, public or private school is good for some while home education is the better fit for some. I was educated in both Catholic school and public school, but most of my learning has been self taught throw reading. My son is in public school and is doing well. people homeschool for different reasons religious or the child has a medical condition that homeschooling is easier. Im glad that right now we have the different options to educate our children. Here in the USA most public school are a train wreck with the focus being on passing standardrised test instead of the three R's. It wasnt like this when education in the USA was in the hands of localities instead of the state and federal government.. now we have kids who cant even make change with a calculator or read well. Sad state of affairs.