Homeschoolers: Guilty Until Proven Innocent?

My eight-year-old daughter and I recently read about the Salem witch trials. She had heard about Salem from a friend who visited the nearby town during its popular Halloween festivities, and she was curious about the witches. We went to the library to get some books on the topic of how 20 innocent people were put to death for “witchcraft” in 1692, with scores more accused and jailed.

What struck me most about revisiting the Salem Witch Trials with my children was the fact that these English Puritans who had recently settled in Massachusetts Bay Colony had no presumption of innocence. Those accused of a crime at the time, both in the New World and elsewhere, were guilty until proven innocent. The presumption of innocence in trials, with court defenders and impartial juries, would take centuries to catch on. The phrase “innocent until proven guilty” was coined by an English lawyer in 1791, but even then it took a long while to become the legal precedent we all now take for granted.

A Pattern of Privacy Invasion

Of course, this legal designation is still imperfectly applied, particularly in cases of fear and bias against certain groups. The US PATRIOT Act, for instance, allows law enforcement agencies the authority to conduct surveillance on individuals and groups by monitoring personal phone calls, emails, and financial documents without a court order. First passed in 2001 in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and reauthorized since, it is intended to root out the evils of terrorism but does so by violating individual liberty and presuming guilt over innocence.

We see this pattern of privacy invasion by the state and presumed guilt in other areas, as well. In the United Kingdom, for example, there has been such a dramatic rise in the number of homeschoolers that the state believes it must regulate and monitor the practice. Estimates suggest that the number of homeschoolers in the UK increased 40 percent in just three years, and it is thought to be the fastest-growing education option in the UK, with approximately 60,000 homeschooled children in 2018.

The rapid growth of parents taking back control of their children’s education has led to calls by government officials to create a “compulsory register” of homeschooled children and to monitor their education. The UK’s Department of Education told the BBC through a spokesperson this week:

Where children are being home educated, we know that in the vast majority of cases parents are doing an excellent job. We also know, however, that in a very small minority of cases children are not receiving the standard of education they should be.

The idea that all homeschooling families in the UK must now be presumed guilty of neglect because a “very small minority” might be is not a legitimate reason to violate the privacy and personal freedom of law-abiding citizens. There are already laws to protect children from abuse and neglect in the UK and elsewhere, and those laws should be duly enforced; but subjecting all homeschooling families to regulation and oversight because of fears of a few is a blatant example of state intrusion.

Guilty Until Proven Innocent

Families often choose the homeschooling option because they are especially attentive to their child’s well-being. As The Guardian reported last fall:

Many parents who opt to homeschool their children say they are avoiding bullying, exam pressure and stress. Others have concerns about special educational needs, not getting a place at the school of their choice, or the school environment.

In other words, most of these homeschooling parents are going above and beyond to provide the best education for their children and should not have their decisions questioned and educational approaches monitored.

Supporters of homeschooling regulation, both in the United States and abroad, frequently say that it’s really no big deal. If you’re one of the vigilant homeschooling families then you shouldn’t mind state oversight. But that’s like saying if I have nothing to hide, it’s okay for the government to search my house and read my emails—without a warrant. It presumes guilt over innocence.

Intentions may be good. The Salem Puritans wanted to root out witchcraft and what they saw as the work of the devil. The PATRIOT Act aimed to prevent terrorism through government surveillance. Monitoring homeschooling families is presented as protecting children. But in all cases, innocent people are suspected of guilt and must prove themselves worthy. It’s antithetical to the values of a free society.

I wanted to tell my daughter that we’re so much better now than those Puritans, that “innocent until proven guilty” now prevails. But I’m honestly not so sure.

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How School Districts Weaponize Child Protection Services Against Uncooperative Parents

Schooling is adept at rooting out individuality and enforcing compliance. In his book, Understanding Power, Noam Chomsky writes: “In fact, the whole educational and professional training system is a very elaborate filter, which just weeds out people who are too independent, and who think for themselves, and who don’t know how to be submissive, and so on—because they’re dysfunctional to the institutions.”

This filtering process begins very early in a child’s schooling as conformity is rewarded and divergence is punished.

Public Schooling Breeds Obedience

Most of us played this game as schoolchildren. We know the rules. The kids who raise their hands, color in the lines, and obey succeed; the kids who challenge the rules struggle. The problem now is that the rules are extending beyond the classroom. Parents are increasingly required to obey, to conform to a school’s demands even if they believe such orders may not be appropriate for their child.

In my advocacy work with homeschooling families across the country, I frequently hear stories from parents who decided to homeschool their kids because schools were pressuring them to comply with various special education plans, push medications onto their children, or submit to other restrictive procedures they felt were not in their child’s best interest. Even more heartbreaking is the growing trend of school officials to unleash child protective services (CPS) on parents, homeschooling or not, who refuse to give in to a district’s demands.

Weaponizing Child Protective Services

An investigative report by The Hechinger Report and HuffPost released last month revealed that schools are increasingly using child protective services as a “weapon” against parents. It said:

Fed up with what they see as obstinate parents who don’t agree to special education services for their child, or disruptive kids who make learning difficult, schools sometimes use the threat of a child-protection investigation to strong-arm parents into complying with the school’s wishes or transferring their children to a new school. That approach is not only improper, but it can be devastating for families, even if the allegations are ultimately determined to be unfounded.

More troubling, these threats disproportionately target low-income and minority parents. According to the report:

Such families also have fewer resources to fight back. When a family in a wealthy Brooklyn neighborhood learned roughly two years ago that their child’s school had initiated an ACS [New York’s Administration for Children’s Services] investigation against them, they sued the city education department. Parents from lower-income, majority-black and Latino neighborhoods, few of whom can afford that option, say such investigations can be a regular, even expected, part of parenting.

Bullying Proactive Parents

For parents who are unhappy with their child’s school and decide to withdraw their child for homeschooling, threats of child welfare investigations can sometimes turn to actions. In Massachusetts, a mother is reportedly suing the Worcester Public Schools after school officials called the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (DCF) on her for alleged “educational neglect,” even though the mother contends that she dutifully filed her homeschooling paperwork for her eight-year-old son mid-year.

Brian Huskie, a public high school teacher and homeschooling father in New York, noted a similar case last year with one of his students. Dissatisfied with the school, the parents decided to remove their daughter from the district, filed the necessary homeschooling paperwork, and were soon visited by child protective services investigating “educational neglect.” Huskie detailed the incident on his blog, writing that the school made a “decision to weaponize CPS against a district family.”

Parents who push back against a district’s recommendations or withdraw their child from school for homeschooling are often trying to ensure their child’s well-being. Questioning various educational interventions and examining alternatives is part of a parent’s job. They should be praised for looking out for their child’s best interest, while schools should be sure that they use social services agencies to investigate serious claims of abuse and neglect—not just district snubs or paperwork quarrels.

If, as Chomsky suggests, many of us have grown acquiescent to power due to our successful schooling, it can be hard to challenge authority. It can be even harder when that authority is strengthened by government force and when we may not have the resources to fight it.

Supporting parents, broadening their education choices, and respecting their decisions are crucial steps in liberating families and curbing government coercion.

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Why Teen Suicide Is Lower in States That Have More School Choice

Freedom is the precursor to happiness. When we’re free, we feel in control of our lives and able to direct our own path. If we’re unhappy, we can make changes and make different choices. If we are not free, we cannot make these choices. We cannot be our own agents, and so we suffer.

This suffering due to lack of freedom is becoming increasingly apparent throughout our mandatory system of mass schooling. Young people are required to attend their assigned district school under a legal threat of force. If they are fortunate enough to have access to a local charter school or have a parent or guardian who can remove them from school for homeschooling or a private school, they can escape the confines of their government-mandated schoolroom. But the vast majority of children in the US (approximately 85 percent) are locked (literally, these days) in a conventional public school classroom.

It’s no wonder that as mass schooling consumes more of American childhood than ever before, beginning earlier and extending longer than at any other time in our history, young people are growing increasingly depressed.

Add to that a much more standardized and test-driven school curriculum over the last two decades, and you have a generation of young people pushed to the brink of their own emotional adaptability. They are hurting.

The statistics speak for themselves: According to data from the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the suicide rate of boys ages 15-19 increased 31 percent between 2007 and 2015, and the suicide rate of girls in that age range doubled during that same time period. What’s more alarming is that a recent study published in the journal Pediatrics shows that suicidal thoughts and actions among children and adolescents decline during the summer months and spike during the school year—a pattern different from adults who experience higher suicide rates in summertime.

The finding that children are happier during the summertime when they have more freedom and more depressed during the school year when they don’t should be a wake-up call to parents, educators, and policymakers. Freedom is the precursor to happiness. Adding weight to this correlation is new research showing that when children are granted the freedom to leave compulsory mass schooling through school choice mechanisms, their mental health dramatically improves.

Researchers Corey DeAngelis and Angela Dills found that states with generous charter school and voucher policies saw declines in adolescent suicide rates and that children who attend private schools have better long-term mental health outcomes. Their research is the first to link school choice mechanisms with improved childhood mental health.

The findings should come as no surprise. When we have the freedom to leave an unhealthy or unsafe environment, our mental health should improve. When parents are empowered to employ their protective instincts to remove their child from a harmful place, their child should be happier. Freedom is the precursor to happiness.

If we care about children’s emotional well-being and hope to stall the rising teen suicide rate, then we should embrace strategies that grant children more freedom and parents more choice. If we want happier young people, freedom is the best policy.

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D.C. Bureaucrats Are Trying to Make Parents Get a License to Let Children Play Together

Let’s say you and some of your friends decide to gather your young children together a couple of days a week for a few hours of free play. Maybe you switch off who leads the gaggle of kids each week, allowing for some shared free time and flexibility. Sounds like a great arrangement for all, right? Your kids get to play freely with their friends, and you get some occasional free babysitting.

According to government officials in Washington, DC, arrangements like this are violations of the law. They are cracking down on what they call an illegal “child development facility” operating without a license.

The Regulation of the Playdate

Back in the 1970s, a group of parents got together to create an informal playgroup for toddlers in DC in a spare room of a local church. Over the last 40 years, groups of parents and their two-year-olds have enjoyed these three-hour playgroups, which children can attend up to three days a week. The playgroup is staffed by parents of the kids who attend, and they take turns watching the children. There is no paid staff.

According to a recent Washington Post article written by Karin Lips of the Network of Enlightened Women, “Some DC government officials now are trying to regulate the program, which they contend is an illegal child-care facility.” The Office of the State Superintendent of Education investigated the playgroup cooperative in early September and issued a statement saying the group is violating child care facility laws and must get a license to operate.

The parents are rightfully outraged, arguing that this is an informal, parent-led playgroup that should not be regulated as a child care facility. Government officials argue that the playgroup doesn’t qualify for an exemption as an “informal” group because the parents, over the years, have established some simple “rules” for participation, including stating that parents can’t bring contagious children to the playgroup and asking for emergency contact information.

As a homeschooling mom, I host groups of children at my house all the time, sometimes with their parents and sometimes without, and my friends reciprocate. I have the same “rules” as this DC playgroup: Don’t bring sick kids to my house, tell me if they have any food allergies or medical issues, give me your phone number in case of emergency, oh, and take off your shoes.

Gross Overreach by the State

Could the government crack down on these types of playgroups, arguing they are not “informal” because of basic expectations for health and safety? Or are parents so incapable of voluntarily determining health and safety expectations that the government must do it for them?

The state does not need to insert itself into all aspects of private life. Parents are competent enough to create voluntary associations with other parents that benefit their children and themselves. As Lips writes in her article:

Ironically, if the Office of the State Superintendent of Education has its way and is allowed to regulate this playgroup out of existence, it would be creating a disincentive for parents to self-regulate, as a playgroup with no safety rules would presumably be on stronger legal standing.

If the parents in the DC playgroup were wary of its operations or procedures, they wouldn’t join the cooperative. Parents are highly capable of making judgments regarding their children’s well-being without government meddling.

The DC Council is currently deliberating on what to do with this long-time parent cooperative and similar playgroups. The fact that the Council is involved at all should concern everyone. This is a private, parent-organized group that has operated just fine for over four decades without the Council’s help. The government should leave parents alone and focus on more pressing responsibilities.

Lips warns,

This regulatory encroachment could be the District’s first step toward broader government overreach in this area and the crowding-out of voluntary associations. From nanny-shares to babysitting co-ops to regularly scheduled times to play at public parks, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education investigators could find new opportunities to crack down on the voluntary ways that D.C. families approach playtime and child care for their children.

In DC and elsewhere, government officials should stay clear of telling parents what to do or how to organize. We don’t need a license to let our children play.

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Unschooling: Reclaiming the Term

John Holt, the well-known author and homeschooling pioneer, coined the term “unschooling” in November 1977 in the second issue of his fledgling newsletter for homeschoolers, Growing Without Schooling (GWS).

In this issue, Holt writes:

GWS will say ‘unschooling’ when we mean taking children out of school, and ‘deschooling’ when we mean changing the laws to make schools non-compulsory and to take away from them their power to grade, rank, and label people i.e. to make lasting, official, public judgments about them.”

It’s fascinating to consider how these terms have evolved since Holt’s definitions emerged. While initially meant to describe removing children from school, unschooling today is often more narrowly defined as a specific homeschooling approach that is self-directed rather than curriculum-driven. The term deschooling has also evolved from Holt’s initial definition advocating for eliminating compulsory schooling laws that was largely influenced by his interactions with Ivan Illich, the author of the 1970 book, Deschooling Society.

Today, “deschooling” is often thought of as the period of time it takes a child who has been schooled to overcome a schooled mindset and reignite her natural learning instincts. As most of us adults were also schooled, the modern use of the “deschooling” term applies to us as well, as we try to shed the idea that one needs to be schooled in order to learn.

Language changes, and it is no wonder that as the homeschooling population has soared over the last four decades its terms would also be stretched and shaped. This is a sign of success. Holt never imagined that more than two percent of the U.S. school-age population would be homeschooled; today, the percent is nearly double that.

I appreciate what the term “unschooling” now means for many families, particularly for the homeschooling families who navigate the many educational philosophies and approaches available to them in search of the best fit. I also think it is worthwhile to reclaim the term’s origins and dig deeper into Holt’s initial message–not because we should change how we currently use the language of unschooling, but so that we can expand it.

In the first pages of Holt’s inaugural issue of GWS, he writes about his disinterest in alternative schools except to the degree that they allow more families to take or keep their children out of conventional schools. Holt writes:

GWS will not be much concerned with schools, even alternative or free schools, except as they may enable people to keep their children out of school by 1) calling their own home a school, or 2) enrolling their children, as some have already, in schools near or far which then approve a home study program.”

In other words, Holt wasn’t supporting alternative schools but alternatives to school that would enable more parents to remove children from conventional schooling for unschooling–often using homeschooling as a legal designation where necessary. At the time, before homeschooling was fully legally recognized in all U.S. states by 1993, these alternatives may have been the only option for some families. I would argue that today, for many families, these alternatives to school are also the only option they have for abandoning forced schooling for unschooling. While there are plenty of single parents and two working parents who make family-centered unschooling work beautifully, for many parents this is not possible.

There are also many families who are deeply committed to unschooling but find as their children grow that their kids crave new and different opportunities, often surrounded by a gaggle of other kids. Some of these children end up going to school after years of homeschooling. With more alternatives to school, Holt’s vision of enabling “people to keep their children out of school” would be more widely successful.

By reclaiming Holt’s initial definition of the word “unschooling” to mean “taking children out of school,” and appreciating his tolerance for alternatives to school that make unschooling more possible for more families, we can help to make unschooling a more expansive, comprehensive term. We can affirm the homeschooling families who allow their children to learn at home and throughout their community in a self-directed way, while also embracing alternatives to school that empower parents to take charge of their child’s education and remove them from forced schooling.

And while homeschooling is now legal in the U.S., (but sadly not elsewhere) thanks to the efforts of Holt and others, compulsory schooling laws continue to define education as schooling and trap young people in coercive schooling environments for most of their childhood. I wrote recently about the Four Things That Would Happen If We Eliminate Compulsory Schooling Laws, including a disentangling of education from schooling.

So while the modern use of the term “deschooling” is helpful and important in allowing children (and ourselves!) ample time and space for detaching from a schooled mindset of learning, we would be wise to also expand its definition to include Holt’s vision for challenging compulsory schooling laws as a whole. In fact, in his 1981 book, Teach Your Own, Holt writes:

“At first I did not question the compulsory nature of schooling. But by 1968 or so I had come to feel strongly that the kinds of changes I wanted to see in schools, above all in the ways teachers related to students, could not happen as long as schools were compulsory.”

However we use the terms “unschooling” and “deschooling” the goal is clear: Help more parents to remove their children from coercive schools and create a world in which education is separate and distinct from schooling.

Originally published at Whole Family Learning.

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Compulsory Schooling Laws: What if We Didn’t Have Them?

We should always be leery of laws passed “for our own good,” as if the state knows better. The history of compulsory schooling statutes is rife with paternalism, triggered by anti-immigrant sentiments in the mid-nineteenth century and fueled by a desire to shape people into a standard mold.

History books detailing the “common school movement” and the push for universal, compulsory schooling perpetuate the myths that Americans were illiterate prior to mass schooling, that there were limited education options available, and that mandating school attendance under a legal threat of force was the surest way toward equality.

In truth, literacy rates were quite high, particularly in Massachusetts, where the first compulsory schooling statute was passed in 1852. Historians Boles and Gintis report that approximately three-quarters of the total U.S. population, including slaves, was literate¹. There was a panoply of education options prior to mass compulsory schooling, including an array of public and private schooling options, charity schools for the poor, robust apprenticeship models, and homeschooling—this latter approach being the preferred method of Massachusetts education reformer Horace Mann, who homeschooled his own three children while mandating common school attendance for others.

The primary catalyst for compulsory schooling was a wave of massive immigration in the early to mid-1800s that made lawmakers fearful. Many of these immigrants were Irish Catholics escaping the deadly potato famine, and they threatened the predominantly Anglo-Saxon Protestant social order of the time. In 1851, the editor of The Massachusetts Teacher, William Swan, wrote:

“In too many instances the parents are unfit guardians of their own children. If left to their direction the young will be brought up in idle, dissolute, vagrant habits, which will make them worse members of society than their parents are; instead of filling our public schools, they will find their way into our prisons, houses of correction and almshouses. Nothing can operate effectually here but stringent legislation, thoroughly carried out by an efficient police; the children must be gathered up and forced into school, and those who resist or impede this plan, whether parents or priests, must be held accountable and punished.”

This is the true history of compulsory schooling that rarely emerges behind the veil of social magnanimity.

So what would happen if these inherently flawed compulsory schooling laws were eliminated?

A Power Shift

First, power would tilt away from the state and toward the family. Without legal force compelling school attendance, parents would have the freedom and flexibility to assume full responsibility for their child’s education. They would not need government permission to homeschool, as is currently required in the majority of U.S. states. Private schools would not need to submit their attendance records to the state to show compliance. Public schools could still be available to those who wanted them, as they were prior to the 1852 law; but government schooling would no longer be the default education option.

More Choices

Because the state would no longer need to bless the creation of various private schools and ratify their curriculum and attendance protocols, an assortment of education options would emerge. Entrepreneurial educators would seize the opportunity to create new and varied products and services, and parents would be the ones responsible for determining quality and effectiveness—not the state. With less government red tape, current trends in education would gain more momentum. Virtual schooling, part-time school options, hybrid homeschooling models, and an array of private schools with diverse education approaches would emerge. As more education choices sprouted, competition would lower prices, making access to these new choices more widespread.

More Pathways to Adulthood

Without the state mandating school attendance for most of childhood, in some states up to age 18, there would be new pathways to adulthood that wouldn’t rely so heavily on state-issued high school diplomas. Innovative apprenticeship models would be created, community colleges would cater more toward independent teenage learners, and career preparation programs would expand. As the social reformer Paul Goodman wrote in his book New Reformation: “Our aim should be to multiply the paths of growing up, instead of narrowing the one existing school path.”

A Broader Definition of Education

In his biography of Horace Mann, historian Jonathan Messerli explains how compulsory schooling contracted a once expansive definition of education into the singular definition of schooling. Indeed, today education is almost universally associated with schooling. Messerli writes: “That in enlarging the European concept of schooling, [Mann] might narrow the real parameters of education by enclosing it within the four walls of the public school classroom.”² Eliminating compulsory schooling laws would break the century-and-a-half stranglehold of schooling on education. It would help to disentangle education from schooling and reveal many other ways to be educated, such as through non-coercive, self-directed education, or “unschooling.”

Even the most adamant education reformers often stop short of advocating for abolishing compulsory schooling statutes, arguing that it wouldn’t make much difference. But stripping the state of its power to define, control, and monitor something as beautifully broad as education would have a large and lasting impact on re-empowering families, encouraging educational entrepreneurs, and creating more choice and opportunity for all learners.


¹ Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis, “The origins of mass public education,” History of Education: Major Themes, Volume II: Education in its Social Context, ed. Roy Lowe (London: Routledge Falmer, 2000), 78.

² Jonathan Messerli, Horace Mann: A Biography (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1972), 429.

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