Commentary

CBS: Stumbling Through the Dark Side in Home-schooling Report

In mid-October, on the CBS Evening News, reporter Vince Gonzales introduced viewers to a horrible tragedy: In the bedroom of a squalid North Carolina trailer three children lay dead — the brother and sister of 14-year-old Brandon Warren and Brandon himself, who took his own life after shooting his siblings. What drove Brandon to commit such an unimaginable act? Answer: Constant, unbearable abuse at the hands of his parents, enabled by … home schooling.

Yes, that was the premise of CBS’s recent two-part series “A Dark Side to Home Schooling” which, in addition to the Warren case, examined several other well-known, tragic stories of home-schooled children who were abused — sometimes fatally — by their parents.

The report’s thesis — home schooling keeps children away from school teachers and administrators and is thus responsible for parents battering their children — is certainly unfair and illogical. It makes no more sense than blaming the Warren’s trailer for having walls too thick for passers-by to see through. Worse, though, is the journalistic failure CBS’s report betrays.

People are often driven by their hearts, especially when their emotions are aroused. In such a state they will tend to assign blame before objectively analyzing facts. Having heard about the tragic death of three innocent children, most people’s initial reactions are bound to be emotional.

We expect a more considered reaction, though, from journalists, who are supposed to make objectivity paramount and put facts ahead of feelings. It is a standard that the CBS reporter failed to uphold; he chose instead to exploit the emotions of the story, seizing on the first sign that inadequate government controls might be to blame for the abuse of home-schooled children. It is not a conclusion based on readily accessible facts — facts that should at least have received some mention in CBS’s report. Consider just a few, both anecdotal and national:

  • A few days before CBS’s report, a Miami-Dade public school teacher and her volunteer aide were charged with five counts of child abuse and false imprisonment for binding and gagging 6-year-old students with tape to punish them for misbehavior.
  • The husband of a Bay County, Mich., public elementary school teacher was sentenced on Oct. 6, 2003, to six years in prison for molesting two first graders while in his wife’s classroom.
  • According to the latest figures from the federal National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) for July 1, 1998 to September 30, 1999 — just one school year — there were 47 “school-associated violent deaths,” 38 of which were homicides.

Does any of this suggest that government intervention can protect children?

Ironically, violence in public schools is what has led many parents to home school their children. And it’s not as though the government didn’t have a chance to help Brandon Warren. Gonzales reported that Warren’s parents had been convicted of child abuse in Arizona before they moved to North Carolina. If the government is really able to protect children wouldn’t Brandon and his siblings have been saved before they moved to North Carolina?

In addition to failing to acknowledge that government oversight hardly guarantees children’s safety, CBS ignored the great success of home schooling. According to the National Home Education Resource Institute (NHERI), home-schooled students typically outperform their public school peers in subjects ranging from math to social studies by an average 30 to 37 percentile points. More impressive, comparisons of white and minority home schooled children show none of the achievement gaps that afflict America’s public school students. Finally, NHERI reports that the average home-schooled child participates in an average of 5.2 activities outside the home, allowing plenty of eyes to monitor his or her well-being.

The reality of life is that no one can ever be fully protected from harm. However, as Hal Young, president of North Carolinians for Home Education and the lone defender of home schooling in CBS’s series made clear, instances of abuse among home-schooled children are very rare. Had CBS News given Young’s statement more than a brief, obligatory airing, and had Gonzales done a more thorough reporting job, the story might have been much stronger, and its conclusions about home schooling and government quite different.

Neal McCluskey is an education policy analyst at the Cato Institute.