Liberals who homeschool, special needs, and diversity

The perfect learning environment. (Source)

The ever-present homeschool debate recently landed on my radar thanks to an emerging argument that liberals owe it to society to place their children in public school rather than homeschooling them. These children, Dana Goldstein argued in Slate, will lift everyone up toward the light through the beneficence of their “peer effects” on the less fortunate among them. The idea made me laugh because even though I’m pretty liberal and I homeschool, I know without a doubt that my children aren’t quite what people have in mind when they ask me to return my children to public school. My children, you see, are special needs children, and I’ve never encountered an expectation that their presence would lift up anything in a public school except costs.

I also find the idea of these positive peer effects ironic because we pulled our oldest, autistic son from public school precisely because of his peers--and because of an administration that looked the other way with every instance of bullying and every failure of staff to adhere to the content of our son’s individual education plan, or IEP. We stuck it out from kindergarten to halfway through third grade before a set of bloody fingernail gouges in our son’s face from a long-time playground nemesis led to a final rupture.

We homeschool because we have children with special needs, and many public schools simply don’t have what it takes to teach them and keep them safe. The special needs population among homeschoolers is not negligible--in a 2009 U.S. government survey [PDF], 21% of respondents cited “special needs” as one of their reasons for homeschooling, and 6% cited health problems or special needs as their main reason.

Goldstein writes about having benefited from attending “one of the most diverse and progressive school districts in the United States.” That’s lovely, but the fact is that as of 2009, public schools nationwide were more segregated than they were in the 1950s. And very few schools seem to consider “diversity” to include the special needs community of children.

The core of Goldstein’s argument is that you can’t be truly progressive if you homeschool because that “go-it-alone ideology” doesn’t serve society as a whole. Low-income kids have better test scores when schooling with middle-class children, she writes, a phenomenon known as “peer effects.” But “peer effects” can go both ways. My children attended public school for a few years. It was not a success for them, in part because they have special needs, and in our former district, anything except perceived “perfection” was socially unacceptable. Homeschooling immediately relieved the family-wide daily stressors we experienced because of public school, which ranged from “peer effects” like bullying that included physical attacks to special education services promised but not delivered.

I don’t feel liberal guilt because we have the wherewithal to give our special needs children the stress-free, individualized education they need with a standardized curriculum that many states use for online schools. It would be great for school districts to recognize the gifts of diversity that come when special needs students are included in every facet of school life. But we’re not going to offer up our children as guinea pigs for achieving that lofty goal, watching them be bullied and fall through large economic and academic cracks as their childhoods slip by. Without deep social change beyond the classroom, all aspects of diversity--socioeconomic, ethnic, ability--will remain out of reach for many schools.

And why homeschooling liberals, specifically? Why not appeal for the wealthy to pull their children from the rarefied atmosphere of our nation’s private schools and plunge them into public school for the common good? I don’t understand why only “liberal” homeschooling parents should express their progressivism by catapulting their children into public school--particularly the more common schools on offer where standardized testing takes precedence over a progressive or diverse curriculum. Further, I’d argue that it’s conservative to assume that everyone will benefit from the same experience, i.e., public school, and progressive to understand that choice is important.

Would society be a better place if all children had the option of a public education in one of the most “diverse and progressive school districts” in the country? Sure it would, especially if “diversity” also included--wholly and completely--the special needs population. But that’s not a reality, and current reality is all we have to work with in educating our children right now. There are no do-overs on childhood. Once the time has passed, it is gone. What matters is what you do with it when you have it, and for my children, we are making the most of that time. At home.


  1. I know from preschool to 7th grade (when I dropped out) I did very poorly in school do to undignosed ASD, LD, & SAD, & ADHD, I also had PTSD dignosed at 8 due to trama at home & with "peers" I was just aged out of each grade with flunking scores & in 5th grade was put a Phase II class room made up of BP studendnts so my behavor then went down the tolet as well. I was deemed unteacheble, & incorrigeble at 14 but I could read at a college levil self taught by 4, loved classical liticher, muisic, history, sience, bottny, & desiphering codes from military trasaction in the civil war-vietnam. I am not stupid I am almost completly self taught in theolgy, sociolgy, philosphy, & psycolgy, but I am a product of the public school systum & was told in 6th grade I would never be anything other then either in prision or a mercinary. thank you for not offer your speshil kids up on the alter of public education to be spit out uneducated, tramatised, & demeed worthless.

  2. "Without deep social change beyond the classroom, all aspects of diversity--socioeconomic, ethnic, ability--will remain out of reach for many schools."

    I tend to view diversity inside the classroom as being a mechanism for wider change. (I've always felt like going to a homogenous school was a bad thing. I get INCREDIBLY self-conscious around minorities and I hate it). That said, kids can be cruel and I sure as hell ain't gonna judge you for doing what was necessary to get your kid out of that environment.

    To me, homeschooling and private schools are stop-gap measures, band-aids that may alleviate the symptoms but don't address the core issues with our public school system and in some ways may make things worse. For individuals, they certainly can be good options, but some people talk about them as if they are The Answer, which kind of bothers me. Especially as neither may be an option for many families.

  3. Thanks for writing this, Emily. Before I had kids I may have subscribed to Goldstein's view. Now, though I do not have a special needs child, and though she'd probably be fine in a public school when old enough for kindergarten, our daughter is going to a private preschool and we are pretty sure we're going to keep her there for as many grades as they have (right now 3rd grade, but it may go up to 5th over the next few years). It's probably more diverse than some public school classrooms, it does a great job accommodating special needs kids (there is a lovely autistic boy in the classroom and he gets at least one teacher just for him, lots of tools to help him communicate and engage and learn, and his parents are rockin'), and it has a progressive, project-based approach designed to help kids become internally motivated about learning.

    I continue to happily pay taxes and always vote for tax increases and support measures to increase funding to public schools -- heck, I work at a public university. But like you said, they are only kids once. I am so privileged and lucky that I have access to this school and can afford it (though it's not actually that expensive since it's run through my university). But we have decided that we want to give our kid the best possible learning environment, and in our case it's not at home and it's not in public school, and I don't feel even a little bad about our choice.

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  5. Thank you for posting this. As someone who had to homeschool his special needs kid for a while because we weren't getting the services we needed (and are mandated by law) from the school district, I get really tired of all homeschoolers being portrayed as right wing religious zealots. Yup, there are some, but not all.

  6. Regarding the core idea in the Slate piece: kids of liberals lifting up the population around them. That is simplistic at best, and sacrificial at worst. It assumes some sort of saturation of "good" into the "bad" environment.

    I'm a progressive (on the spectrum) that made the long hard climb out of home state of Arkansas to current residence in Seattle. At some point in Arkansas I grew tired of the small cult of progressivism, and wanted the comfort and expansiveness of a progressive majority in Seattle. I'm getting far from the topic of kids and K12 education, but the analogies and social dynamics are pertinent. Basically, if the kid is a progressive shining their light in backwardness darkness, you can bet on some pain for the kid. I would bet on, ahem, a lot of pain. Maybe life changing, huge pain such as bullying.

    History does not show the "Enlightenment" espousing its values and the world responded with a "oh wow, we never thought of that, what great ideas to live by, we will now cooperate fully". Rather, it is still a pitched battle even today. Progressive ideals are worth fighting for, and more especially, living. But the choice to enter into the fight is that of a mature person, and sending a small child into the battle, especially some of the zones of hot war in some schools, is purely sacrificial and I contend a case of abuse by the parent perpetrated on the child.

  7. My response to this article exceeds the maximum length for comments. It is posted here:

    In summary, the primary argument against homeschooling is that kids need more social interaction than homeschooling provides. This argument is invalid, because socialization with a very limited age group is almost worthless, given that most social interaction beyond highschool is with a large range of age groups (there is plenty of evidence to this effect, including the widening "generation gap"). Public school age segregation may actually be responsible for the generation gap.

    Additionally, the romantic idea that putting the "bad" kids with the "good" kids will make the bad kids better ignores the needs of the individual children, in favor of an idea with little supporting evidence (how often have you heard parents complain that their "good" kid's friends got him or her into something bad? compare that with how many times a bad kid's parents have told you how happy they are that their bad kid is hanging out with a crowd that is improving their behavior). In my opinion, parents have a responsibility to do what is best for their own children, even if it means potentially reducing a perceived benefit to other children.


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