John Oliver has joined the ranks of media pundits attacking the homeschool movement, arguing the government should add more regulations to home education, which would violate parents’ constitutional rights.
“The ceiling of how good homeschooling can be is admittedly very high,” he said, “but the floor of how bad it can get is basically nonexistent.”
As we shall see, the evidence supporting his claims is basically nonexistent, too.
Oliver on “Last Week Tonight” made four main arguments – against curriculum he finds objectionable, “lax” rules and oversight and a homeschool nonprofit he likens to the NRA, and in favor of adding “basic reforms” for so-called “child welfare.”
Let’s look at each of them in turn.
From the program’s onset, Oliver mocks Christian curriculum companies that make statements he doesn’t agree with – such as books criticizing liberalism, praising Confederate general Robert E. Lee, and suggesting dinosaurs and humanity existed at the same time.
In another example, he cites the widely publicized “dissident-homeschooling” group by neo-Nazis, which even he admits began because a mom couldn’t find enough “Nazi-approved material” for her children.
But mentioning such a fringe group in a segment on homeschooling is like mentioning mass shootings in a segment on public schools. Just because outliers occur doesn’t mean the system created or caused them.
Yes, tragic abuses occur even in the best systems. But if Oliver thinks neo-Nazi groups are a natural cause-and-effect of homeschool, he’s pitifully mistaken.
In all these examples, the issue isn’t homeschooling per se, but exercising discretion over which materials to use in homeschooling.
As always, homeschool parents have the right to choose which curriculum they use, not Oliver. They can just as easily choose secular curriculum options such as Blossom & Root, Outschool, or Khan Academy.
If the government were to force parents to choose only curriculum it has pre-approved, that would set a dangerous precedent that violates fundamental U.S. principles such as freedom of speech.
Instead of assuming parents are innocent until proven guilty, Oliver wants to assume they’re guilty unless they can prove their “innocence” by selecting only government-sanctioned materials.
Book banning and censorship, much?
‘Lax’ rules, oversight
Oliver also sounds the alarm over homeschooling regulations in general, saying several states don’t require notification when students are homeschooled or evaluate their academic programs and progress.
“In many states, the rules and oversight can be so lax parents ultimately don’t have to teach their kids anything at all,” he laments.
Well, let’s see. Even when rules and oversight are so exacting as to satisfy the most stringent TV comedians, does this provide any measurable difference in effectiveness?
For example, New York boasts some of the most draconian homeschool regulations nationwide. Parents must submit a notice of intent; submit an Individualized Home Instruction Plan (IHIP) each year; assess each child annually; comply with day, hour, and subject requirements; and file quarterly reports.
As can be expected, the bureaucratic red tape and failure of the government to process homeschool paperwork on a timely basis has reached epic proportions.
But the quality of homeschooling in New York doesn’t measure any higher than the quality in New Jersey or Connecticut – comparatively “lax” by Oliver’s standards.
New Jersey law only requires homeschoolers to give an education academically “equivalent” to what their children would receive in school.
In Connecticut, beyond a list of required subjects (e.g., grammar, math, geography and history), parents have the statutory right to educate their children however they choose at home. They don’t even need to notify government officials before beginning homeschool (gasp!).
Considering perhaps the most regulated system of all, U.S. public schools: do more regulations produce better academic results?
In the fascinating Donohue and Hoffman v. Board of Education case, a student sued his school district in 1979 after he graduated high school but was still unable to read. He called it educational malpractice.
“Notwithstanding his receipt of a certificate of graduation he lacks even the rudimentary ability to comprehend written English on a level sufficient to enable him to complete applications for employment,” concluded one case summary.
The court did not dispute this failure of schools to educate, but simply concluded it should not entertain such claims as a matter of public policy.
In other words, the school system with all its rules and regulations cannot legally guarantee even a minimum level of competency, such as the ability to read or write, for its graduates.
Oliver, for all his virtue-signaling about oversight, misses this crucial distinction. Most parents, even “lax” ones, have an intrinsic self-interest in ensuring their child’s ability to read, write and do basic math. But public schools have no such motivation or even obligation.
‘Homeschooling equivalent of the NRA’
Oliver also takes aim at the nonprofit Home School Legal Defense Association, or HSLDA.
“The HSLDA is basically the homeschooling equivalent of the NRA, an extremely powerful organization that, while it represents a large number of people, pursues an outermost fringe version of their agenda,” he said.
The nonprofit’s “astonishingly successful” efforts to remove homeschool regulations nationwide brings it under Oliver’s suspicions.
“The argument they will always make against any regulation is you’re just punishing all the parents doing things right to address a handful who are doing it wrong,” he said. “In theory, sure. But when you have some parents running the Homeschool Institute of Dishwashing and others running Lil Nazis-R-Us, it seems maybe the reins have gotten a little too loose.”
Again, Oliver misunderstands fundamental principles of the U.S. Constitution by assuming government should curtail individual rights to prevent abuses.
Instead, the Founders focused on limiting governmental power to ensure individual rights – even if a few outliers abused those rights.
“I consider the foundation of the Constitution as laid on this ground that ‘all powers not delegated to the United States, by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states or to the people,’” wrote Thomas Jefferson. “To take a single step beyond the boundaries thus specially drawn around the powers of Congress, is to take possession of a boundless field of power, no longer susceptible of any definition.”
Part of the reason for HSLDA’s success lies in its Constitutional knowledge. Its attorneys use the Fourth Amendment to protest mandatory in-home visits to homeschool families and uphold the First Amendment freedom of speech.
Finally, Oliver never bothers to research why so many regulations disappeared over time – simply because states found them to be unnecessary.
For example, many states used to require homeschool graduates to take tests and submit their scores using tests for public-school students.
However, the homeschoolers kept outperforming public-school students so consistently that state legislatures nationwide quietly removed these requirements.
Child abuse and ‘going postal’
Perhaps the biggest argument Oliver throws at homeschooling is the specter of child abuse.
“The HSLDA can say all that it wants that it doesn’t support Nazis or child abusers,” he said. “But the fact is, the policies that it relentlessly pushes for allow them to thrive.”
Of course, such an argument immediately grabs everyone’s attention because nobody wants more child abuse. But what about the facts?
Despite Oliver’s pontifications, no scientific study has ever concluded homeschooled children are abused or neglected at a higher rate than others.
Furthermore, homeschool regulations do nothing to prevent or reduce child abuse from happening.
For example, a 2018 study by Dr. Brian Ray shows no relationship between the level of state control over homeschooling and child abuse.
Child abuse rates didn’t increase as states legalized homeschooling, according to a 2021 study by Dr. Angela Dills.
Yet despite this overwhelming lack of evidence, Oliver blithely pushes for background checks and screenings for parents who want to homeschool, calling it “basic common sense.”
“Giving parents a ‘get out of all scrutiny free, no questions asked’ card just isn’t the answer here,” he argues. “Because being a parent doesn’t automatically make someone moral.”
Well, being a teacher doesn’t automatically make someone moral either. Despite all the background checks, screenings, and other regulations within public schools, child abuse by educators still occurs at alarmingly high rates.
In fact, the U.S. Department of Education estimated in 2004 about 10% of students are targets of educator sexual misconduct.
What makes Oliver think such regulations will magically improve their effectiveness when imposed upon a much smaller population – homeschool parents?
‘Going postal’ over homeschooling
Remember the phrase “going postal?”
In 1986, a postman killed or wounded 20 co-workers in Edmund, Oklahoma. Four more cases of current or former postal workers killing coworkers took place over the next seven years, receiving widespread media attention.
After a book and movie used the phrase, we’ve now coined this term for angry, frustrated workers who go on sudden killing rampages.
However, a U.S. Postal Service Commission study in 2000 found postal workers were less than half as likely as other working people to be victims of work-related homicide.
Unfortunately, the stereotype lives on despite reality. Oliver and his ilk are trying to create a different stereotype associating homeschooling with child abuse.
Again, what does the available evidence say?
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, World Health Organization, and Mayo Clinic record multiple risk factors for child abuse, such as:
- Caregivers with drug or alcohol issues;
- Communities with high crime and violence rates;
- Caregivers in the home who are not biological parents;
- Communities with high unemployment rates;
- Caregivers with mental health issues, including depression.
Guess what? Homeschooling doesn’t make any of these lists.
Instead of criminalizing homeschool families, let’s focus available resources and policies on these well-known risk factors.
Let’s indeed put child welfare first, as Oliver suggests.
A first step would be for him and other media icons to quit parroting the same tired brand of bad logic – “homeschool = unregulated = unsafe!” – and then hope enough people believe it to be true.