Commentary

Learning Intolerance

A version of this article originally appeared in the Akron Beacon Journal on December 3, 2004.

Tolerance has never thrived in America’s schools. It can’t, because in our public school-dominated system, only one group can control a single district or state. The result: an endless struggle for control.

Look at Georgia, where a court will soon determine if creationists can force students to use biology textbooks outfitted with stickers declaring evolution a theory, not a fact. Or recall the wars over how math and reading were taught in the 1990s.

And the fighting hasn’t always just been political. In 1844, 13 people were killed in rioting over a decision to allow Catholic children in Philadelphia schools to replace the Protestant version of the Bible with their own.

While most people continue to fight, one group has decided to lay down its arms. They are home schoolers, and although they still pay taxes that support public schools, they generally ask nothing of them. They desire only to be left alone.

Unfortunately, their enemies are determined not to let them escape our educational wars.

Why? Because, as a recent series in the Akron Beacon Journal skewering home schooling made clear, home schoolers often have convictions their enemies refuse to tolerate.

In the Beacon Journal’s “Home Schooling: Whose Business Is It?” series, which ran between November 14 and November 20, reporters Doug Oplinger and Dennis J. Willard began their case against home schooling mildly, suggesting that home schoolers likely perform no better academically than other students, and might actually do worse.

Two days later, in articles laden with grizzly anecdotes, they upped the stakes, pressing the argument that home-schooled children might not only be in academic danger, but physical danger, as well. Home schooling, you see, “provides a convenient escape to abusive families.”

From there, the series struck an even more ominous note: Home schooling threatens not just home-schooled children, but all Americans, because many home schoolers believe that their religion holds the truth, and they condemn those they deem immoral. Headlines such as “Racists can use home schools to train youths,” and “Some fringe groups use home schooling” gave readers a taste of things to come.

Finally, the authors placed home schooling in the context of a Christian revolution: “Revolutionary” is the operative word, the authors wrote of the Home School Legal Defense Association and Patrick Henry College, which caters to home schoolers.

Explaining that many home schoolers are politically active, they identified Patrick Henry College as “the training camp of the home-schooled fundamentalist Christian movement,” and HSLDA as possessing a “battalion of college students and thousands of volunteers across the country who share a conservative vision of saving America from its sinful ways.”

The implications were obvious. The series portrayed home schooling almost as a sinister plot. The authors made masterful use of fear, insinuation — and a total absence of proof.

Take the charge that home schooling endangers children. While the writers catalogued numerous stories about victimized home-schooled children, they glossed over their own analysis of school-age child homicides, which yielded a disproportionately low murder rate among home-schooled children.

They also ignored sources critical of the alternative to home schooling — traditional schools — such as “Educator Sexual Misconduct: A Synthesis of Existing Literature.” The recent U.S. Department of Education report found that nearly one in ten children will likely be victims of school employee sexual misconduct sometime between kindergarten and high school graduation.

Even more despicable were efforts to smear home schoolers as racists. Despite suggestive headlines such as “Racists can use home schools to train youths,” no proof was given that home schooling is more attractive to racists than other types of schooling.

Indeed, Oplinger and Willard wrote that “[t]here are no studies or numbers to put racism and home schooling in perspective,” although they added suggestively, “but home-schooling laws that ensure parents have the freedom to make socialization choices for their children also allow some families to completely withdraw from society.”

The series’ overall conclusion — that home schoolers are intolerant Christians bent on imposing their will on all Americans — was captured by University of Wisconsin researcher Michael Apple: “ ‘These are people who believe that God is on their side and they will stop at very little to make certain that God is brought not just to the home but to the school and government.’ The nation should be ‘very, very concerned.’”

Yes, we should be concerned about home schoolers. We should watch them, control them. Why? With no proof of any home-school threat, there is likely only one answer: Because they are different.

Home schoolers believe that some things are right and others are wrong. They dare to have a say in how they are governed. Apparently, allowing them to exercise these basic rights is the one thing that society should not tolerate.

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