As remote learning creates more distance between school districts and students, school and state officials are clinging to control however they can. From sending Child Protective Services (CPS) agents to investigate charges of neglect in homes where children missed Zoom classes last spring, to proposing “child wellbeing checks” in homes this fall, government schools and related agencies are panicking over parents having increased influence over their children’s care and education during the pandemic.
A front page article in yesterday’s Boston Sunday Globe describes the experiences of several parents who were interrogated by CPS agents last spring when their children missed remote classes or failed to submit homework assignments amidst pandemic-related school shutdowns. Some parents didn’t have Internet access and were blindsided by the CPS investigations of “virtual truancy.” One Latina mother featured in the Globe story is Em Quiles, who, like many parents last spring, scrambled to care for her children and continue to work during tremendous upheaval and uncertainty. According to the Globe:
Then in June, Quiles was stunned to receive a call from the state’s Department of Children and Families. The school had accused Quiles of neglect, she was told, because the 7-year-old missed class and homework assignments.
“I couldn’t believe it,” she said.
Quiles lived one of the worst nightmares for a parent: A neglect charge, if substantiated, can lead to removing a child from their home.
While most of the parents featured in the Globe story were ultimately exonerated, previous interaction with CPS, even if unfounded, can act as a Scarlet Letter for parents, haunting them for years to come. More troubling, parents singled out for CPS enforcement are disproportionately low-income and minority, often lacking the resources to defend themselves against government overreach. According to the Globe: “Most of the families caught up in remote learning allegations are Latino or Black, groups that are likely to be overrepresented in state foster care at all times.”
School districts across the country have a history of activating CPS against parents who stray from a district’s command and control. An in-depth 2018 investigative report by The Hechinger Report and HuffPost revealed that schools increasingly use child protective services as a “weapon against parents”—especially parents who lack the means to fight back.
Kamala Harris: “We Are Putting Parents On Notice”
Truancy has long been a trigger for CPS investigations, and now virtual truancy seems poised to accelerate these practices during the pandemic. This is particularly concerning because, just as in typical truancy cases, virtual truancy is often prompted by factors other than parental neglect. Special needs students and students with disabilities or health conditions may have more school absences, and they may find virtual learning to be uniquely challenging. A 2019 HuffPost article entitled The Human Costs of Kamala Harris’ War on Truancy, found that strict truancy laws and enforcement terrorized families, with parents being pulled out of their homes in handcuffs and sent to jail.
Cheree Peoples, one of the parents spotlighted in the HuffPot piece, whose daughter missed school frequently due to sickle cell anemia, was awakened in the early hours by police officers who arrested her for truancy. She told the HuffPost: “You would swear I had killed somebody.”
The HuffPost article, revealed that then Democratic presidential candidate and now the presumptive Democratic vice presidential nominee, Kamala Harris, was responsible for much of the heightened aggression toward parents regarding truancy. As California’s attorney general, Harris was a crusader against truancy and was instrumental in toughening criminal prosecution of parents whose children missed too much school. According to HuffPost, Harris “persuaded the state legislature to adopt harsher penalties for truancy. Under the new law, the parent or guardian of a young, truant child could face a fine of $2,500 or more—or one year in jail. Harris pushed hard for the law as she was running for attorney general, and it passed just as she won the election. ‘We are putting parents on notice,’ Harris said at her 2011 inauguration.”
Proposed Child Wellbeing Checks During COVID-19
Criminal investigations of child neglect tied to virtual truancy are set to skyrocket this fall, as school districts across the country adopt remote learning plans. Worried that parents can’t be trusted to care for their own children, some education officials have proposed large scale “child wellbeing checks,” by government agents. Last week, the Tennessee Department of Education announced that it would be performing these wellbeing checks on children across the state. This plan created such an uproar among Tennessee parents and conservative lawmakers that the proposed initiative was withdrawn and its guidelines removed from the education department’s website.
Despite this immediate victory, all parents should remain on alert. School and state officials, aided by high-profile academics, will likely seek to increase CPS involvement in family affairs during remote learning and beyond. Elizabeth Bartholet, the Harvard Law School professor who made headlines last spring when she called for a presumptive ban on homeschooling, spoke out last week in favor of increased CPS action this fall. In an interview with Harvard Law Today, Bartholet said: “My overall general recommendation is that educators and CPS agencies need to recognize the level of problems that kids at home are now facing in terms of risk of both education and maltreatment, and come up with some creative new solutions.”
In the interview, Bartholet acknowledged the heightened interest in independent homeschooling, as more parents choose to forgo district learning this fall and consider separating from their school district going forward. According to Bartholet: “Roughly three percent of the population is now homeschooled. Let’s say that increases to six percent post-COVID. Legislators and other policymakers may look at that and say, ‘Wow, now this is a big phenomenon, it may continue to grow. Of course, it shouldn’t be just this lawless world out there with no rules and regulations and oversight. Of course, this should be part of our overall regulated educational system.’”
As I’ve written previously, homeschooling should not be part of the overall regulated education system. It is a form of private education that is separate and distinct from state schooling, and many parents are now finding that they prefer homeschooling over other education options. Parents are pulling their children out of school this fall in record numbers, dissatisfied with school reopening plans and aiming for greater educational freedom and flexibility. So many parents submitted online intent to homeschool forms in North Carolina last month that it crashed the state’s nonpublic education website. Perhaps not surprisingly, a recent report by a law professor at North Carolina’s Duke University called for greater regulation and oversight of the state’s growing ranks of homeschoolers.
As parents pull away from state-controlled education and assume greater responsibility for their children’s learning, the state will hasten efforts to maintain and expand its authority through its monopoly on the use of force. From virtual truancy claims and increased CPS investigations that disproportionately target poor parents and families of color, to calls for child wellbeing checks and more homeschooling regulations, the state will not willingly yield control of children’s education to parents.
Parents should strongly reject these heavy-handed efforts to interfere with family life during and after the pandemic, and be especially vigilant about helping low-income and minority parents to resist as well. Minimizing state power while maximizing individual liberty is the hallmark of a free society. Now more than ever, parents are exercising and securing their freedom to raise and educate their children as they choose. Parents may have been put on notice, but they are pushing back and opting out.
On Monday, I debated the Harvard professor who proposes a “presumptive ban” on homeschooling. Thousands of viewers tuned in to watch the live, online discussion hosted by the Cato Institute. With 1,000 submitted audience questions, the 90-minute webinar only scratched the surface of the issue about who is presumed to know what is best for children: parents or the state. Here is the replay link in case you missed it.
Last week, I outlined much of my argument against Harvard Law School professor Elizabeth Bartholet that I incorporated into our debate, but here are five takeaways from Monday’s discussion:
1. There Are People Who Believe the State Should Be Your Co-Parent
While this event was framed as a discussion about homeschooling, including whether and how to regulate the practice, it is clear that homeschooling is just a strawman. The real issue focuses on the role of government in people’s lives, and in particular in the lives of families and children. In her 80-page Arizona Law Reviewarticle that sparked this controversy, Professor Bartholet makes it clear that she is seeking a reinterpretation of the US Constitution, which she calls “outdated and inadequate,” to move from its existing focus on negative rights, or individuals being free from state intervention, to positive rights where the state takes a much more active role in citizens’ lives.
During Monday’s discussion, Professor Bartholet explained that “some parents can’t be trusted to not abuse and neglect their children,” and that is why “kids are going to be way better off if both parent and state are involved.” She said her argument focuses on “the state having the right to assert the rights of the child to both education and protection.” Finally, Professor Bartholet said that it’s important to “have the state have some say in protecting children and in trying to raise them so that the children have a decent chance at a future and also are likely to participate in some positive, meaningful ways in the larger society.”
It’s true that the state has a role in protecting children from harm, but does it really have a role in “trying to raise them”? And if the state does have a role in raising children to be competent adults, then the fact that two-thirds of US schoolchildren are not reading proficiently, and more than three-quarters are not proficient in civics, should cause us to be skeptical about the state’s ability to ensure competence.
I made the point on Monday that we already have an established government system to protect children from abuse and neglect. The mission of Child Protective Services (CPS) is to investigate suspected child abuse and punish perpetrators. CPS is plagued with problems and must be dramatically reformed, but the key is to improve the current government system meant to protect children rather than singling out homeschoolers for additional regulation and government oversight. This is particularly true when there is no compelling evidence that homeschooling parents are more likely to abuse their children than non-homeschooling parents, and some research to suggest that homeschooling parents are actually less likely to abuse their children.
Additionally, and perhaps most disturbingly, this argument for more state involvement in the lives of homeschoolers ignores the fact that children are routinely abused in government schools by government educators, as well as by school peers. If the government can’t even protect children enrolled in its own heavily regulated and surveilled schools, then how can it possibly argue for the right to regulate and monitor those families who opt out?
2. Random Home Visits Will Be a Weapon of the State
Of all the recommendations included in the Harvard professor’s proposed presumptive ban on homeschooling, the one that caused the most uproar among both homeschoolers and libertarians was the call for regular home visits of homeschooling families, with no evidence of wrongdoing.
In my remarks during Monday’s debate, I included a quote from a Hispanic homeschooling mother in Connecticut who was particularly angry and concerned about imposing home visits on homeschooling families. (According to federal data, Hispanics make up about one-quarter of the overall US homeschooling population, mirroring their representation in the general US K-12 school-age population.) She made the important point that minority families are increasingly choosing homeschooling to escape discrimination and an inadequate academic environment in local schools. She also pointed out that, tragically, it is often minorities who are most seriously impacted by these seemingly well-meaning government regulations. Writing to me about Professor Bartholet’s recommendation, she said:
“To state that they want to have surveillance into our homes by having government officials visit, and have parents show proof of their qualified experience to be a parent to their own child is yet another way for local and federal government to do what they have done to native Americans, blacks, the Japanese, Hispanics, etc in the past. Her proposal would once again interfere and hinder a certain population from progressing forward.”
Anyone who cares about liberty and a restrained government should be deeply troubled by the idea of periodic home visits by government agents on law-abiding citizens.
3. Private Education Is in Danger
Despite the landmark 1925 US Supreme Court decision that ruled it unconstitutional to ban private schools, there remains lingering support for limiting or abolishing private education and forcing all children to attend government schools. Homeschooling is just one form of private education.
In her law review article, Professor Bartholet recommends “private school reform,” suggesting that private schools may have similar issues to homeschooling but saying that this topic is “beyond the scope” of her article. Still, she concludes her article by stating that “to the degree public schools are seriously deficient, our society should work on improving them, rather than simply allowing some parents to escape.”
The government should work to improve its own schools, where academic deficiencies and abuse are pervasive. But it should have no role in deciding whether or not parents are allowed to escape.
4. State Standardized Testing Begs the Question: Whose Standard?
Some advocates of homeschooling regulation suggest that requiring regular standardized testing of homeschoolers would be a reasonable compromise. In her law review article, Professor Bartholet recommends: “Testing of homeschoolers on a regular basis, at least annually, to assess educational progress, with tests selected and administered by public school authorities; permission to continue homeschooling conditioned on adequate performance, with low scores triggering an order to enroll in school.”
During Monday’s debate, I asked the question: By whose standard are we judging homeschoolers’ academic performance? Is it by the standard of the government schools, where so many children are failing to meet the very academic standards the government has created? I pointed out that many parents choose homeschooling because they disapprove of the standards set by government schools. For example, in recent years schools have pushed literacy expectations to younger and younger children, with kindergarteners now being required to read. If they fail to meet this arbitrary standard, many children are labeled with a reading deficiency when it could just be that they are not yet developmentally ready to read.
Indeed, as The New York Timesreported in 2015: “Once mainly concentrated among religious families as well as parents who wanted to release their children from the strictures of traditional classrooms, home schooling is now attracting parents who want to escape the testing and curriculums that have come along with the Common Core, new academic standards that have been adopted by more than 40 states.”
A key benefit of homeschooling is avoiding standardization in learning and allowing for a much more individualized education. And it seems to be working. Most of the research on homeschooling families conducted over the past several decades, including a recent literature review by Dr. Lindsey Burke of the Heritage Foundation, finds positive academic outcomes of homeschooling children.
5. Homeschoolers Will Win
There are very few movements today that bring together such a diverse group of people as homeschooling does. Families of all political persuasions, from all corners of the country, reflecting many different races, ethnicities, classes, cultures, values, and ideologies, and representing a multitude of different learning philosophies and approaches choose homeschooling for the educational freedom and flexibility it provides. Homeschoolers may not agree on much, but preserving the freedom to raise and educate their children as they choose is a unifying priority. In times of division, homeschoolers offer hope and optimism that liberty will prevail.
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 Postarticle 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.
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.
When I was young, I had a paper route. It was actually my big brother’s but he subcontracted to me part of the route closest to our house and gave me the appropriate portion of his earnings. I had about three streets I was responsible for and diligently delivered our regional newspaper to neighbors each afternoon after school. I was about eight.
Today it seems that childhood freedom has gone the way of afternoon paper routes. Both are relics of an earlier time, when kids were allowed—expected even—to be outside, unsupervised, playing with friends around the neighborhood, riding bikes, mowing lawns, walking dogs, and a whole host of other common childhood activities.
We were often out of sight from our parents and, without cell phones, out of reach, too. Some of us were “latch-key kids” who walked home from school in the afternoons, unlocked our doors, made a sandwich, and entertained ourselves until our parents returned home from work that evening. We survived—thrived, even—with this freedom and autonomy.
Child Alone Outside? Better Call the Police!
It is now so shocking to see a child outside without an adult that passersby are calling the police and parents are being investigated by social services agencies. The stories abound. The ChicagoTribune reported this week on a suburban mother who was investigated by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) for, get this, letting her eight-year-old walk the dog around the block—while she watched from her window.
Fortunately, the department’s investigation turned up nothing and was dismissed, but not after causing a great deal of unnecessary stress and interrogation for a family just trying to give a child a little fresh air with her dog.
Social services agencies maintain they need to investigate every call concerning a child because, as a spokesperson for Illinois’s DCFS told The Chicago Tribune: “We want to investigate … because you just don’t know.” Yet, the police seemed to know. They responded to the emergency call, found nothing amiss, and left. In other words, they used their judgment. Common sense should lead all of us to conclude that an eight-year-old walking her dog is not a case of parental neglect. This mom should be commended, not criminalized.
How Did It Come to This?
How is it that in one generation a child spotted outside, without an adult, walking her dog is now so alarming as to prompt a police call? And how have we granted government agencies such immense power to “protect us” that we tolerate serious invasions of privacy—even when first responders find nothing wrong?
In her new book, Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear, author Kim Brooks seeks answers to this disturbing cultural trend. She writes: “Why, I wanted to find out, have our notions of what it means to both be a good parent and to keep a child safe changed so radically in the course of a generation?”
Parents today are less afraid that their child will be kidnapped or hit by a car if they let them play outside and much more afraid that an onlooker will call the cops on them. We are now so afraid for children’s safety that we have enacted a surveillance state for childhood unlike anything we have ever seen before.
Kids Need Freedom. Let Them Have It.
The result of this trend goes beyond “Big Brother” to the continuous infantilizing of children and adolescents, confining them to enclosed spaces and constant adult scrutiny for most of their formative years. We may complain about “helicopter parents” always hovering over their children, but we call the cops on the parents who aren’t hovering. If we want children to develop independence and resilience, grit and self-reliance, then we need to let them walk their dog around the block alone sometimes.
While enacting laws for what should be common sense is not ideal, more states may want to consider following in Utah’s footsteps. Legislators there recently passed the “Free-Range Parenting Bill,” ensuring that parents will not be investigated for actions like letting their kids walk around the neighborhood unsupervised. Laws like this, when thoughtfully written, can help rein in government agencies and re-empower parents to make judgments about their child’s well-being without worry.
It is up to those of us who remember the value of afternoon paper routes and appreciate unaccompanied dog-walking to take a stand against the increasing criminalization of parenthood.
Our kids’ future, and our society’s, depends on it.
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