Freedom of Religion

Anecdotes About Horrible, Sexist "Quiverfull" Families Probably Proof That Homeschooling Needs More Government Oversight

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Tedious critiques of homeschooling, like bad poetry, seem to be an infinite resource in the world. So, if you enjoyed Dana Goldstein's recent Slate tribute to the progressive greater good of not homeschooling, Kristin Rawls, writing at Alternet, has an article which doubles as anecdotal sob story about homeschooling as vehicle for sexist, uneducated, overly-religious familial tyranny.

Where to begin?

First of all, Rawls focuses almost entirely on former "Quiverfull" families in her article. Quiverfulls are Christians (about 10,000-strong according to various nervous, left-leaning sources, compared to more than 1.5 million homeschoolers in the U.S.) who feel like God should be the one to plan how many children they have. (Psalm 127, baby: "Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are sons born in one's youth. Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them.")  

A few years ago Quiverfull became a hot topic for a minute. This was particularly thanks to TLC's 19 Kids and Counting Duggar clan, but also due to Kathryn Joyce (who has some dubious things to say about homeschooling in Rawls' article) and her book about the practice; it was highlighted in places like in Bitch, Mother Jones, and Feministing because, not for nothing, it's a tailor-made nightmare for certain folks. 

And some of these folks eventually became disenchanted with the God as birth control lifestyle! They have stories! Stories of being either the mother of, or the actual barely-literate ex-homeschooler who grew up clueless about socialization, stupid about science and math, and with heads full of sexism and fear about the big, bad secular world. 

Here's one of Rawl's horror stories for ya:

Take Vyckie Garrison, an ex-Quiverfull mother of seven who, in 2008, enrolled her six school-age children in public school after 18 years of teaching them at home. Garrison, who started the No Longer Quivering blog, says her near-constant pregnancies – which tended to result either in miscarriages or life-threatening deliveries – took a toll on her body and depleted her energy. She wasn't able to devote enough time and energy to homeschooling to ensure a quality education for each child. And she says the lack of regulation in Nebraska, where the family lived, "allowed us to get away with some really shoddy homeschooling for a lot of years."  

"I'll admit it," she confesses. "Because I was so overwhelmed with my life… It was a real struggle to do the basics, so it didn't take long for my kids to fall far behind. One of my daughters could not read at 11 years old." 

At the time, Garrison was taking parenting advice from Quiverfull leaders who deemphasized academic achievement in favor of family values. She remembers one Quiverfull leader saying, "If they can do mathematics perfectly but they have no morals, you have failed them." 

I, former homeschooled lass, also have more morals than math skills, but this is still a woman blaming a lack of regulation for her own mistakes. Garrison goes on to to critique her previous views about public schools:

"We became so isolated because the Quiverfull lifestyle was so overwhelming we didn't have time or energy for socialization. So the only people we knew were exactly like us. We were told that the whole point of public school was to dumb down the children and turn them into compliant workers – to brainwash them and indoctrinate them into this godless way of thinking." 

Garrison believes that homeschooling has become so popular with fundamentalist Christians because, "there is an atmosphere of real terror among some evangelicals. They are horrified by the fact that Obama is president, and they see the New Atheist movement as a vocal, in-your-face threat….

But is this just an anomaly? Rawls wonders and writes:

Unfortunately, it's hard to know. The federal government only maintains very broad demographic statisticsabout homeschoolers in this country; federal data only keeps track of what kinds of people are homeschooling and why. You can find plenty of information about homeschoolers according to race, family income or highest education obtained by the parents. But as regards neglect related to homeschooling? The government cannot tell you—and there is no systematic state-by-state record of the percentage of truancy convictions (possibly the best measure of educational neglect at present) that involve homeschooling families versus those involving enrolled students and/or their parents. 

Capturing that kind of data is essential to understanding the scope of this problem, but getting real numbers will always be complicated by the fact that many homeschooling families choose not to comply with the law by submitting to state homeschool regulations, or even report their homeschool activity to the state. While it's possible that some forget, others intentionally fail to report because they fear too much government intervention in their lives.

"Fear too much government intervention in their lives" — Rawls doesn't outright say that to fear such a thing is a sign of Christian wackiness, but she most assuredly ties them together; to distrust public school is to be extreme.

See one reason she's not entirely sure about homeschooling is this lack of regulation thing necessitates lots of anecdotal evidence. The article gives a token nod towards not all homeschoolers are this way, but it's very half-hearted. Her only interview with a pro-homeschooling person seems to be a cranky unschooling mother who can't discus this issue without being offended. Rawls also damns one homeschooling mom with faint praise:

Maria Hoffman Goeller is one of those. A lifelong family friend, Goeller is a homeschool graduate raised in a conservative Christian home, where she never lagged behind in academics. Now she has a son with special needs in the California public school system but educates two other school-age children at home. "Part of the reason we homeschool is because I'm choosing what worldview or what subjects I want to introduce my child to," she says. But she understand the limits of her own skill, which is why she placed her special-needs son in public school. "While I can teach my children reading, writing and arithmetic, I am not trained in special education," she says. "I want my child to have the best education he can get, which at this time is public school."

Though she considers herself conservative, Goeller does not demonize public schools as some families do. And contrary to stereotypes about Christian homeschoolers, Goeller is adamant that she will not sacrifice academic rigor, or shield her children from views different from her own. In fact, she says she would welcome more opportunities for them to interact with public school students, for example, in sports and even in certain classes now and then. 

She wouldn't mind them interacting with public school students! Imagine! 

Rawls goes on:

Luckily, more than a few adult homeschool graduates are eager to talk. And as I talk to more and more people who recount first-person stories of homeschool-related neglect, it becomes hard to write off what homeschool advocates would call "exceptions" simply as fringe outliers.

Erika Diegel Martin's story is particularly haunting. A homeschooling graduate of the mid-1990s, and an ex-Quiverfull daughter I have known for many years, Diegel Martin was pulled out of public school at 14. Because she was old enough to remember several years of public schooling, she says she never really believed her parents' dire warnings about it. Her younger brothers were another story. "When the school bus would come by, my youngest brother would go, 'There goes the prison bus.' Our parents had them believing that public schools were these horrible places, just dens of iniquity." 

The narrative about public schools, she says, went something like this: "How would you like to get stuck in a building with no light – and secular, godless, atheist teachers for seven hours of the day without even being able to see your parents or go out to play?" As a result, she says, "My brothers were terrified of the public schools." 

If Martin's parents piled the rhetoric on that little thick and sheltered to the extent described, that's maybe not so good. But Rawls (and Martin here, if she is being quoted honestly) completely destroy their own premise — their maybe not totally bullshit premise that there are truly neglected children out there who are going totally unnoticed by authorities— by incessantly implying that to distrust government-run schools and to describe them as places of restriction is abusive or at least suspicious brainwashing. 

And does it need to be said, since the spelling bee champ nerdy homeschooler is a cliche, that yes, their test scores tend to be in the 70th and above percentile? That one is easy. It's the lingering questions about socialization and abuse that bother people like Rawls and Slate's Goldstein.

Never mind Goldstein's abstract progressivisms for now, maybe these families Rawls describes got screwed over by weird parents. But so do lots of people in public school. And lots of other people generally resent their parents, their education, and their upbringing. This is how society works when we have religious choice, reproductive choice, and (some) education choice.

Really, what would be the solution to fathers who teach their little girls to be "stay-at-home-daughters" until marriage?

 Beyond a socially-free libertopia where these girls might notice quicker that they do have other options, there just isn't a fix for parental brainwashing. And I am curious whether Rawls (and Goldstein) thinks that there is. 

Rawls does not clarify where her recommended official line between parenting choice and education neglect lies. But after lightly touching on how truly awful homeschooling laws are in Sweden and other parts of Europe, Rawls ends her article with:

No one I speak to who is homeschooling today mentions that this sort of oppressive regulation is a reality for current homeschooling families. Instead, they say that today's regulation consists mostly of bureaucratic paper-pushing – hardly the kind of homeschool persecution some fear. It may be annoying, but so far as I can tell, it's not trampling on anyone's rights – though that doesn't keep homeschoolers from worrying. 

The fights that homeschool groups have won in the United States are not mentioned. Nor is the fact that it wasn't until 1993 that it was legal to homeschool in all 50 states; and never mind the few months in 2008 where 50,000 California homeschoolers had to wait and wonder if they were suddenly breaking the law. There is only, from Rawls the worry about the children, the shrug and the "what's the big deal about regulation?" attitude.

In 2007, 83 percent of responders to a survey said "moral or religious instruction" was why they homeschooled their children. Moral or religious; I might argue that my homeschooling libertarian agnostic parents qualify under the former definition. (They certainly imparted their morals to me and I noticed after a while that much of the world seemed to disagree with their bold government-ain't-so-hot message.) And my dad, knowing the rhetorical heaviness, but more or less meaning it, more than once in my childhood described schools as "minimum security prisons." (Is that alarming rhetoric to Rawls? She also frustratingly uses lazy cues like "anti-government extremist" to describe Erika Diegel Martin's parents without clarifying what that means beyond the aforementioned anti-school talk.)

Every parent, from the biggest, most public-sphere-friendly communitarian atheist, to the most bunker-dwelling religious fanatic, imparts their morals to their children in some fashion. All else, good and bad, follows. What's the alternative?

Read Rawls' whole thing here. And check out Reason on homeschooling.