All Commentary
Tuesday, October 10, 2023

No, John Oliver, Homeschooling Doesn’t Need More Regulation

Many parents choose homeschooling specifically because of the harms they believe are caused by public schooling.

Image Credit: John Oliver "Last Week Tonight" - YouTube

Those of us who have homeschooled for years are accustomed to periodic calls for greater regulation of homeschooling. Whether it’s a Harvard professor or NPR, the hackneyed hollers to regulate homeschoolers remain unconvincing.

Joining the tired chorus is comedian John Oliver, who earlier this week hosted an episode of his “Last Week Tonight” HBO show calling for more homeschool regulation.

“It does seem like giving parents a get-out-of-all-scrutiny-free no-questions-asked card just isn’t the answer here,” said Oliver, “because being a parent doesn’t automatically make someone moral and being with a parent doesn’t automatically make a child safe and the truth is a few extra security measures would not hurt the many parents who homeschool their children responsibly but they definitely safeguard against those who use personal liberty as an excuse to neglect or harm.”

The issue with regulation in general, and homeschooling regulation in particular, is who decides? Creating these homeschooling “safeguards,” as Oliver urges, grants that power to the State, not parents. Is it “neglect or harm” to teach creationism to children? Is it “neglect or harm” to teach children that they can change their gender? Parents may have their own, deeply-held beliefs on both of those issues, and a multitude of others, and should be free to raise and educate their children accordingly, without State interference.

When it comes to clear examples of child abuse, we already have solid laws against that and parents suspected of such abuse should be vigorously prosecuted. But to place an entire group—homeschooling parents—under anticipatory scrutiny presumes guilt over innocence. While there are horrible examples of parents, including homeschooling parents, who abuse their children, research suggests that homeschooling does not lead to statistically significant differences in child mistreatment.

There is also no compelling evidence that greater regulation of homeschooling families makes children safer—but it could make children less safe. Making it harder to homeschool could, for instance, make it more difficult for children who are being bullied in school or dealing with school-related mental health issues to get out.

Indeed, many parents choose homeschooling specifically because of the harms they believe are caused by public schooling. According to the US Department of Education, the top motivator for homeschooling parents is “concern about the environment of other schools, including safety, drugs, and negative peer pressure.” More recently, EdChoice found that student safety is a key priority in parents’ educational decision-making, especially for homeschooling parents. Protecting a child’s well-being is a common catalyst for homeschooling.    

“School was very dehumanizing,” said Rachel Goff, a New York City public school teacher for 16 years who pulled her own children from school in 2019 for homeschooling while still working as a public school teacher. “Even though a lot of times the teachers would try and help, I would just hear the way that they were speaking to students. And oftentimes it was just hurtful, telling kids that they weren’t ever going to be anything. That’s just very disrespectful. I’d see some teachers even grab children, and once I had my own children, I just started thinking about how that could be my child, like that’s somebody’s baby,” Goff told me on this week’s LiberatED podcast episode. 

She taught for two more years while homeschooling and then quit in 2021 to launch Creative Space, a child-centered learning center for homeschoolers located on Long Island. “I just couldn’t keep turning the other cheek seeing that,” said Goff. “Each day it just got more and more soul-crushing to go to work,” she added.

Like so many homeschooling parents, Goff wanted a more nurturing, learner-driven, respectful educational environment for her own children. As a teacher, she also wanted it for other children as well. Becoming an education entrepreneur enabled her to create a learning model that would support and inspire childhood curiosity and self-determination while emphasizing core academic content. She currently serves over 20 homeschooled learners. 

Adding layers of homeschool regulations would not only infringe on parents’ rights to direct the education and upbringing of their children, it would also halt the growth of joyful learning environments like Creative Space that are now sprouting all across the country. The US Census Bureau estimates that more than three million children are currently being homeschooled, which is well above pre-pandemic levels. Many of them attend new microschools or learning centers like Creative Space, with the majority of these programs founded by former public school teachers like Goff who’ve become disillusioned with conventional schooling. 

“I am excited by thousands of education entrepreneurs starting microschools, learning pods, hybrid schools, co-ops, and other unconventional learning environments,” said Michael Donnelly, a homeschooling parent of seven who is mocked in Oliver’s video while talking about homeschool science experiments. Donnelly was a senior counsel at the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) advocating less regulation of homeschooling. He now serves as Vice President of the yes. every kid. foundation that supports education entrepreneurs and champions more decentralized, personalized education options for young people. “These innovative approaches better respect the inherent dignity of children by meeting their individual needs and interests,” he told me in a recent interview. “By removing burdensome regulations from all education—private as well as government-run—we can foster a dynamic and free marketplace where families and educators are trusted to meet the needs of children.”

More regulation of homeschooling is unlikely to make children safer, but it could keep them trapped in unpleasant district schools and will certainly stifle the growth of innovative, child-centered learning models, such as microschools and pods. When it comes to protecting children’s well-being, look to parents and teachers—not the State—to do the best job.