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with Steven Parker, MD

This blog is now retired. Dr. P passed away on Monday, April 13, 2009. The WebMD Community will dearly miss his kind, caring, and often humorous manner.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Should Homeschooling be Illegal?

The California Court of Appeals recently decided a case which could have a major impact on the legality of homeschooling in California, and perhaps all over the U.S. The ruling involved the statutes that mandate – quite reasonably – that all children in California be taught only by persons with the state teaching credentials to do so.

The problem is that most homeschoolers are parents with no real training or credentials. Then that’s illegal!, the court ruled, thus jeopardizing the status of most of the 166,000 homeschooled children in that state.

“California courts have held that…parents do not have a constitutional right to homeschool their children,” said the ruling. “Parents have a legal duty to see to their children’s schooling under the provisions of these laws.” If adopted nationally, it could signal the end of homeschooling in this country

I think we all can agree that teaching is so important it shouldn’t be left to amateurs and that children deserve the finest quality instruction we as a society can provide them. Additionally, this is a very important issue because it touches on an essential conflict: the proper role of the government in children’s education and upbringing versus parents’ rights to raise their children as they see fit.

Let’s delve into this fascinating dispute a little deeper.


I have cared for about 10 families who homeschooled their kids (at least for a while). Here are two that exemplify why this is such a difficult issue for me to reconcile.

The Morgans were a wonderful, loving, and talented family. Both parents were accomplished professionals, but the mom decided to drop out and homeschool their three kids until college. She seemed to be gifted at it. They would tell me of field trips, of studying at their own pace, of how interesting and fun she made everything. After school hours, they had rich social lives and, they told me, didn’t miss being around their pals during the day (which was my big concern). All three kids went on to excellent colleges and, to my eye, seemed like well-adjusted, accomplished kids.

The Beckers were a very close knit, very religious family. They were quite suspicious of the outside world (myself included), full of sin and temptation and false prophets as it was. They worried mightily at the corrupting influence of the school environment on their kids. So they chose to homeschool their four children. As far as I could tell, much of their curriculum was focused on religious teachings and values. “Really,” the mother once confided in me, “I have no use for science and they only really need as much arithmetic as it takes to know how to pay their bills.” One of the kids did eventually go to a junior college; the others joined the family business, but all remained socially isolated and, as far as I could tell, had little interest in the world outside their parents’ domain.


Those two families explain why I’m so ambivalent about homeschooling. On one hand, if parents are themselves talented and choose to homeschool for the “right” reasons (e.g., to instill a love of learning, to share the family experience, to promote emotional closeness. because they feel they can do a better job of it), I’ve seen homeschooling succeed magnificently.

On the other hand, if it’s done for the “wrong” (at least in my biased opinion) reasons (e.g., because of paranoia about exposure to the real world, to limit the child’s knowledge to a few narrow precepts, to avoid outside social interactions), then I’ve seen homeschooling stunt the socioemotional, academic, and intellectual growth of children who, in my opinion, desperately could have used a “parentectomy” during the day to allow them to transcend their parents’ narrow views and ambitions.


In 2003, there were approximately 1.1 million homeschooled kids in the U.S. The reasons parent gave for homeschooling included concern about the school environment (31%), to provide religious and moral instruction (30%), dissatisfaction with the academic instruction of schools (16%), and the child has special needs (14%). What (I hope you are asking) do studies tell us about the functioning of these kids?

Surprisingly, there has been very little research but that which has been done tends to look more like the Morgans than the Beckers. For example, their average math and reading scores were in the top quarter. (These data, however, are questioned because the test was voluntary, meaning that perhaps only high functioning homeschooled kids agreed to be tested.) Those that apply to college tend to have higher SAT and ACT scores than the traditionally schooled.


Excuse me, so where’s the problem here? Aside from the legal question of instruction by a licensed professional (no small matter), here are the arguments of homeschooling detractors:

  • The children are being denied important socialization experiences.
  • The academic quality is often incomplete, excluding important subjects (like the Beckers and science).
  • The parents often advocate an extreme religious or social agenda.
  • It diverts much-needed money from the public schools.
  • The “parallel society” of the homeschool is incompatible with the state interest in social cohesion and harmony (as the judge in the California case wrote: . “A primary purpose of the educational system is to train school children in good citizenship, patriotism and loyalty to the state and the nation as a means of protecting the public welfare.”).


So, was the court correct? Shouldn’t all kids be taught by credentialed teachers? If we open the door for just anybody to teach our children, how can we ensure they are not exploited by incompetents and zealots, as some have surely been?

I’ve tried, as best I can, to lay out the complexity of this issue and my own mixed feelings, based on my history with the Morgans and the Beckers. Still – and with some misgivings – I’ve decided that homeschooling should not be illegal, that it is more often than not a good experience for children, and that parents should have the right to responsibly take on the education of their kids if they so choose.

I want to emphasize the word “responsibly.” Each state has its own standards (some are tight, others abysmally lax) on what that must be taught. Parents need to be held accountable if their homeschooled kids can’t cut it educationally.

Yes, the state has a compelling interest in its citizens’ educations, but so too do parents have the right to raise their children without interference if that state interest is not in some way significantly violated. Until I see data to prove otherwise, I don’t think homeschooling meets that threshold.

Tight regulations on home schooling – yes. Courses on how to teach for homeschooling parents – better still. An outright ban of homeschooling – not justified.


View the ruling by the Second District Court of Appeal.
Read the statistics on homeschooling.
Review the homeschooling regulations in each state.

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Posted by: Steven Parker MD at 12:33 pm


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