Thursday, May 28, 2020

Here’s the thing about Elizabeth Bartholet’s attack on homeschooling: It’s not about homeschooling

It’s just another attempt to expand the child welfare surveillance state and take away far more children.

            Fresh from suggesting that thousands of Americans who choose to homeschool their children are, at best, Bible-thumping ignoramuses and at worst might be secret torturers of children, Prof. Elizabeth Bartholet of Harvard Law School and several co-authors have written a column for the Chronicle of Social Change complaining that their feelings have been hurt.
            The only examples they cite are a couple of tweets from prominent conservative public officials.  They do not actually link to them, as I have done above – perhaps because they are considerably less vicious than the authors of the Chronicle column suggest. 

The tweets criticize a law review article Bartholet wrote condemning homeschooling, and a subsequent story in Harvard Magazine.  They were not personal attacks. By the standards of Twitter, they are almost genteel.  Yes, Mike Pompeo, in his personal Twitter account, called Bartholet a “radical leftist scholar.” But the only people who should be offended by that are we real leftists who know Bartholet has not earned such an accolade.

            Contrary to the claim by Bartholet and her coauthors, I can find no call to “shut down” the debate over homeschooling. Rather, they have joined it.          

          Bartholet et. al. claim that this “bullying” is why they’ve had no success pushing an agenda so extreme it includes a near total ban on homeschooling. Their only evidence for this is a link to a Chronicle story in which a then new (and now former) director of the Iowa Department of Human Services respectfully disagrees with the idea that homeschooling was at the root of some horror story cases in that state.  (He singled out a different scapegoat: adoption. That, also, is wrong.)  Presumably, Bartholet and her co-authors deem their approach so pristine in its perfection that it could not possibly be failing on its merits.

In fact the bulk of the criticism Bartholet has received has come from other scholars and from happy, successful graduates of homeschools – including some who went on to Harvard.   Some of them are hurt that their families have been subjected to Bartholet’s broad-brush insults.

            They are right to be offended.  Yes, Bartholet & Co. offer the usual token disclaimers: many homeschoolers do a great job, “none of us advocate [sic] an absolute ban on homeschooling,” etc.  But that is belied by Bartholet’s own recommendation in the law review article.  It comes under the heading: “General Presumption Against Homeschooling with Burden on Parents to Justify Exceptions.” And even when parents are granted an exception, Bartholet writes, their children “should still be required to attend some courses and other programs at school…”

An extreme agenda

            The list of publications on Bartholet’s Harvard website include no previous work I can find on education policy, and she does not claim it as an “area of interest” in her biography. So why the sudden interest in homeschooling?  I think it’s because Bartholet’s critique of homeschooling isn’t really about homeschooling, or education in general. It’s about surveillance.  Because that's how she sincerely, and wrongly, thinks children are best protected.

            That’s not just my word – it’s hers. In her book, Nobody’s Children (pp. 170,171), Bartholet proposes that every family in America with a young child be required to let in a government-approved “home visitor” to inspect their home at regular intervals from the child’s birth until school age. The visitors would be required to report to authorities anything they considered a threat to a child’s safety or “well-being.”  Bartholet is explicit in recommending this for purposes of “surveillance.”

            As for the number of children Bartholet wants torn from their families, in her book she writes that they should be removed in cases of “serious” abuse and neglect.  And she writes that “Estimates indicate that more than three million children a year are subjected to serious forms of abuse and neglect.” (p. 61).

Bartholet’s critique of homeschooling is just the latest target-of-convenience in a long line of attacks on anything that might undermine creation of a massive child welfare surveillance state and the mass confiscation of children from their parents.  She has exploited horror stories to attack Intensive Family Preservation Services, kinship foster care and an alternative to full-scale child abuse investigations known as differential response. She ignores a mass of research showing that, in typical child welfare cases, all of these options (and sometimes even doing far less) are better for children’s well-being – and safer -- than foster care. Bartholet also is a leader of the movement that denies the existence of racial bias in child welfare.

An even more extreme agenda

            One of her Chronicle co-authors, James Dwyer, is even more extreme, so extreme that at times it blinds him to the real dangers facing children – even COVID-19.

            In 2011, he called for the massive forced relocation of poor families. The penalty for not uprooting themselves and their children from “terrible” inner city neighborhoods and exiling themselves – if necessary to small towns and rural areas: government confiscation of the children.

Dwyer blithely declares that most poor parents who live in “terrible place[s]” so do by choice, not because it’s all they can afford.  Most of the rest, he says, made the irresponsible choice to have children – “or to risk creating a child by having sex, despite knowing the child would live in a terrible place…” And besides, he writes, “a relatively high percentage of adults who live in the worst neighborhoods are marginal to begin with…”

            More recently, Dwyer suggested that child abuse in the home is so rampant that schools should not have closed to avoid the spread of coronavirus.  He says “the shutdown decision arguably amounted to a prioritizing of the welfare of certain adults over the welfare of children."  By this he means that children appear less likely to get coronavirus or, he claims, to transmit it.

            What is unclear is which adults he means.  We do know that the research on the extent to which children transmit coronavirus is mixed.  We also know that in New York City alone 63 public school employees died of coronavirus before schools there were shut down.  Presumably some of them left children behind – some of them might even have been good parents.  And Dwyer makes no reference to a COVID-related disease that does, indeed, attack children – and might have attacked many more had schools not been closed.

A failed model

            The problem with the surveillance state model is that it devastates the psychological well-being of millions of children subjected to traumatic child abuse investigations (more than half of African-American children will endure such an investigation), it increases the risk that children will be consigned needlessly to the chaos of foster care – and it doesn’t curb child abuse.  That’s because the horror stories in which Bartholet revels are a tiny fraction of the millions of reports alleging child abuse or neglect.

            As I’ve noted before, 91 percent of calls to state child abuse hotlines are either so absurd they’re screened out or they turn out to be false. Another six percent involve neglect, which often means poverty.  And that’s why the surveillance state model doesn’t work.

            Bartholet et. al. want all children under the constant gaze of “mandated reporters” of child abuse. But the mandatory reporting regime was put in place with no studies beforehand to see if it would work.  Recent research confirms that, in fact, it backfires, driving families away from seeking help and overloading child protective services agencies so they have less time to find children in real danger.

            Still another problem with the child welfare surveillance state was highlighted by Bartholet herself – well, sort of.

From the moment a child protective services investigator shows up at the door, families are almost entirely at their mercy.  In most of the country, there is no meaningful due process. There is no federally guaranteed right to counsel, and in most places no effective counsel.  The standard of proof is almost non-existent, judges are under enormous pressure to rubber-stamp CPS agencies and most court hearings and records are secret. 

            Why is that a problem?  As Elizabeth Bartholet so aptly put it: “I think it’s always dangerous to put powerful people in charge of the powerless, and to give the powerful ones total authority.” 

Oh, wait, never mind. Bartholet was speaking of parents, not the government.

Toward a real dialogue

          Dwyer and Bartholet have something else in common: convening gatherings that are limited almost exclusively to the like-minded.  When Bartholet planned her latest, an invitation-only "summit" on homeschooling (now postponed), the speakers were a who's-who of homeschooling opponents. It was less a summit than a “safe space” where they could all get together and bemoan their shared belief that homeschoolers are closed-minded.

            But perhaps she’s changed her mind. I was happy to read that what Bartholet and her coauthors really want is “a civil, data-driven discussion about the advantages and pitfalls of homeschooling and how best to ensure the safe education of all children.” 

            I assume this means Bartholet will use the pandemic-induced pause to change her plans and convene a conference with equal representation and equal time for all sides, and neutral moderators to guide a constructive dialogue.  And I assume she wants all sides to share equally in the planning process.

            Perhaps she can even get the Home School Legal Defense Association to co-chair it.