By Eric Wearne
The United States government – our federal government – has taken what some might consider an alarming position in the question of whether families that prefer homeschooling can seek asylum here when teaching children at home is considered a crime in their own countries, punishable with prison terms and even having children removed from parental custody.
The U.S. position is pretty straight and forward, as it is being argued in a Tennessee case that involves parents from Germany who came here in 2008. The U.S. Department of Justice in federal court documents has argued that home schooling is not grounds for seeking asylum. The case has not finally been decided but Uwe and Hannelore Romeike could lose their children and even face prison time if they are forced to return to Germany where home schooling is banned.
The Virginia-based Homeschool Legal Defense Association summed up the government’s brief in Romeikes v. Holder, with Holder being U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder:
“First, they argued that there was no violation of anyone’s protected rights in a law that entirely bans homeschooling. There would only be a problem if Germany banned homeschooling for some but permitted it for others … let’s assess the position of the United States government on the face of its argument: a nation violates no one’s rights if it bans homeschooling entirely.”
“There are two major portions of constitutional rights of citizens—fundamental liberties and equal protection. The U.S. Attorney General has said this about homeschooling. There is no fundamental liberty to homeschool. So long as a government bans homeschooling broadly and equally, there is no violation of your rights. This is a view which gives some acknowledgement to the principle of equal protection but which entirely jettisons the concept of fundamental liberties.
“A second argument is revealing. The U.S. government contended that the Romeikes’ case failed to show that there was any discrimination based on religion because, among other reasons, the Romeikes did not prove that all homeschoolers were religious, and that not all Christians believed they had to homeschool.”
Oglethorpe University professor Joseph Knippenberg wrote about the Romeike case recently at First Things, arguing that, “I worry about what the future holds in my country. I’ve seen my share of liberal elite hostility toward homeschooling. I can at least conceive the possibility that a state might seek to regulate it out of existence.”
Would any state be tempted to regulate homeschooling out of existence? Homeschooling is now legal in all 50 states. Writing last fall in is new book, a review of the existing research on homeschooling titled Homeschooling in America, Vanderbilt University professor Joseph Murphy said, “…only 10,000 – 15,000 children were being homeschooled in the 1970’s. By 2010, somewhere in the neighborhood of two million students were part of this group.” This number currently represents “something between 3 percent and 4 percent of the school age population.” Research shows that homeschooling parents “tend to have moderate to high levels of education,” are “solidly middle class” and, there seem to be relatively few very poor or very wealthy homeschooling families.
Murphy said research determined parents choose homeschooling for many reasons including perceived academic weakness or environmental and social problems in public schools, religious reasons, and for other personal family reasons. He also gives some historical background since the 1970s, arguing that homeschooling as a movement began with many conservative Christian and secular liberal families, and is becoming more mainstream. While evangelical Christians still make up the largest subset of homeschoolers today, there are also sizeable subsets of urban, liberal homeschoolers and of less politically-motivated homeschoolers as well.
As far as academic achievement, Murphy emphasizes the fact that there are few high-quality studies from which to draw conclusions; “…the body of empirical work on the impacts of homeschooling is rather thin.” With that caveat, given the research we do have, Murphy cites a 2005 study which concludes, “…the two great divides that public school children face – race and class – are inconsequential for student achievement among home-educated children.”
Murphy explores the various types of curricula homeschoolers use (many evangelical publishers are listed), though there is somehow no mention of the large number of Catholic homeschool offerings, and only a single paragraph about how homeschoolers are using online methods to supplement their learning.
Finally, in the social realm, while homeschoolers have fewer peers of the same age, they score well, often above students in traditional schools, on surveys of self-concept and socialization. They often tend to be more civically involved than their counterparts in traditional schools. From this existing research Murphy concludes that, “critics should be cautious about placing bets against homeschooling on the socialization rationale…”
Therefore, the case certainly can be made that in the U.S. homeschooling is exponentially increasing in popularity across the political spectrum, the academic outcomes seem to be positive, and socialization and civic participation among homeschoolers are excellent. Is it any wonder then that parents like Uwe and Hannelore Romeike saw these shores as opportunity?
There is no reason to conclude that homeschooling is under imminent threat by the federal or state government. Ultimately, state laws are the vehicles which have opened the doors for homeschooling, and right now every state allows it. But it seems that the federal government does not share support for this form of school choice. The Romeikes themselves aside, their case and the issue it represents deserve more attention.
(Eric Wearne is an Assistant Professor at the Georgia Gwinnett College School of Education. Previously he was Deputy Director at the Georgia Governor’s Office of Student Achievement.)