Justice, Inequality, and Home Schooling

Charles L. Howell, Ph.D.*
Assistant Professor
College of Education and Human Services
Minnesota State University at Moorhead
Moorhead, Minnesota 56563

Keywords: Homeschooling, home schooling, home education, justice, equality.

A number of critics of home schooling have suggested that the withdrawal of children from schools reflects and reinforces a broader societal trend. In the past half century, the most educated and affluent citizens have withdrawn en masse first from cities to suburbs, then from public into private spaces, and most recently into electronic networks and controlled-access communities. This position will be referred to as the privatization argument. In this article, the implications of the privatization argument for home schooling are explored through philosophical analysis.
Why is it that critics believe that privatization in general and home schooling in particular should be deplored and resisted? Three distinct reasons for concern appear in the literature. The first is that through withdrawal into private pursuits, we are losing our public cohesion, our ability and willingness to work together for common benefit, and that the erosion of that capacity is producing a society that is poorer, meaner, and on balance worse for all its members (Lubienski, 2000). A second is that withdrawal undercuts public authority over the formation of future citizens, which Gutmann (1987), Callan (1997), Curren (2000), and others suggest democratic societies need to sustain themselves. The third is that the trend toward withdrawal exacerbates inequality, allowing the privileged sectors of the society to capitalize on their advantages and to deny similar opportunities to others (Apple, 2000).
In Section II, I examine the basis for each of these concerns. The first two, it turns out, are ineffectual. One depends on an assumption about the effects of home schooling that has not been confirmed by empirical study. The other depends on a definition of democracy that home schoolers probably do not accept. Only the third generates a compelling objection to home schooling, and then only if one accepts as a requirement of justice a version of equal opportunity, which I shall call strong equality. In Section III, I examine the rationale for strong equality and how it would apply to home schooling. In Section IV, I consider two arguments advocates of home schooling might give for not accepting strong equality as a condition of justice.
The aim of this inquiry is to present more clearly than has been done in the past what is at issue in the debate about home schooling and privatization. Philosophical analysis cannot settle factual questions. It cannot determine the effects of home schooling or the proper balance between parental and civic obligations. What it can do is trace the logic that leads people from factual claims to conclusions about how we ought to live and how children ought to be educated. Parties to the debate must then decide whether the factual premises are credible and whether the conclusions conflict with their experience, prior knowledge, or strongly held moral principles. This approach will not resolve the dispute over home schooling, but it is to be hoped that it will cut through some of the hyperbole and circumlocution that have plagued the debate and help parties see why their reasons do not count as reasons for others.


Three Versions of the Argument:

A Preliminary Assessment

Of the three versions of the privatization argument, cohesion depends most directly on an empirical claim, namely that home schoolers withdraw from public life and undercut possibilities for cooperation with fellow citizens. It is not impossible that this claim could turn out to be true. Granted, researchers have found that home schoolers join support groups, engage in political action, and participate in church and other voluntary activities (Stevens, 2001). There may be others, however, who do not do so, and their isolation might offset the engagement of activists and thus vindicate the critique.
The problem is that evidence of isolation effects has not yet been produced, while evidence of engagement abounds. Moreover, even if such isolation effects are found, there is a further complication. Public school attendance does not guarantee social cohesion. As Coleman et al. (1966) showed, communities vary enormously in social capital, or capacity for cooperative social interaction; schools can foster cooperation, but they cannot be expected to eliminate these differences. On the contrary, Annette Lareau’s (2000) study of home-school interaction suggests that schools’ efforts to promote parental involvement have very little effect on the extent and intensity of social interconnections in a community. The cohesion critique requires evidence that rebuts this research as well as the findings on home schoolers’ sociability. In the present state of knowledge on these matters, it is highly speculative.
The second version of the privatization argument—maintenance of democracy—is not so obviously dependent on an empirical claim. Because many factors affect a state’s political character, empirical tests of the sustainability of different types of regimes are extremely difficult to conduct. The argument must therefore be understood as conceptual. From the idea of democracy, we deduce the conditions for sustaining it. Thus, when Gutmann (1987) asks who, in a democratic society, should have authority over the education of future citizens, the answer is understood to be self-evident.
The problem with this approach is that the concept of democracy is malleable, and different versions have different conditions for maintenance. The accounts of Madison, Dahl (1956), and Mansfield (1978) all allow for, and indeed require, considerable dispersal of power, which seems compatible with home schoolers’ efforts to control the education of their children. The accounts of Dewey (1927) and Gutmann and Thompson (1996) are less tolerant of the exercise of private power, and therefore less hospitable to home schooling. Critics of home schooling can thus point to several accounts of democracy that support their position, but so can its defenders. The critics must then go on to show that their version of democracy is to be preferred to others. The grounds of debate shift, and the focus of critique is no longer home schooling, but rather a conception of democracy that critics regard as untenable. Until widespread agreement on these matters is achieved, democratic sustainability will not generate a very compelling objection to home schooling.
The third version of the privatization argument, inequality, is more promising than the others for two reasons. First, proponents of home schooling have long argued that children get a better education at home than in school; the difference in quality is likely to exacerbate inequality. Second, one well-known source of educational inequality is the influence of a student’s home background (Fishkin, 1981; Vallentyne, 1989). To some extent, this influence may be counteracted by school attendance; if so, then withdrawing a child from school would make home influence stronger and thus accentuate inequality.
Again, there are difficulties. Home schoolers do seek to provide educational advantages for their children, but not all of these advantages are of the same kind, nor is it clear by what standard they are to be compared with public schools. How, for example, are the ideals favored by Evangelical Christian denominations, and inculcated by some home-schooling parents, to be measured against the intellectual independence cultivated by unschoolers or the conventional academic skills on which school typically focus?
Suppose we do agree on a standard of comparison¾standardized test scores or some other measure of performance. It must still be shown that (a) home-schooled students do indeed have an advantage, and (b) this advantage exacerbates rather than ameliorates inequality. This is by no means a trivial exercise.
In the case of (a), much recent research suggests that home schooling may indeed increase academic achievement. These studies, however, are by no means conclusive; all are to some degree subject to self-selection effects. Now suppose these effects can be eliminated, and an academic advantage for home schoolers is conclusively demonstrated. This result would not, in itself, show that home schooling increases inequality. A common measure of educational inequality is the degree to which children’s achievement reflects their parents’ income and level of education. If, as recent studies suggest, the home school advantage is relatively insensitive to these characteristics, then the effect of home schooling on inequality depends on who decides to home school. Condition (b) is satisfied only when more affluent families home school, because only then is the achievement gap between rich and poor widened. When poor families home school, inequality is ameliorated. If that is the case, then the equality argument implies that more poor families should home school their children. This is clearly not the result for which critics are aiming.
A more general problem with the inequality argument is that public schools themselves are grossly unequal. Schools in property-rich districts with high proportions of educated and affluent families consistently outperform schools in poorer districts with less advantaged populations. Within schools, families seek advantages for their children by enrolling them in a variety of specialized programs, ranging from International Baccalaureate to second-language immersion programs, and by supporting their participation in extracurricular activities that require investments of money and time beyond the capacity of poor families. Home schoolers, in short, could cause a great deal of inequality without doing worse than schools do.
This difficulty would be eliminated, however, if critics evaluated home schooling not in relation to public schools as they are now, but in relation to schools that have undergone egalitarian reform.
Suppose, for example, public schools were to move in the direction Jonathan Kozol (1991) advocates: all children getting roughly the same education, with supplementary resources directed on the basis of need. William Duncombe (1999) has suggested that such an arrangement could equalize average outcomes on the level of school districts, and consequently also for different social classes and racial groups. If this result were achieved, the influence of home would be eliminated; a child’s future well-being would no longer depend on the family into which she is born. A number of social theorists have argued that only this pattern of outcomes yields real equality of opportunity. Let us refer to this standard as strong equality, to distinguish it from other, weaker interpretations of equal opportunity that merely ban discrimination without equalizing life chances.
As grounds for a critique of home schooling, strong equality is ideal because it can be achieved only in schools. Only through central control can a uniform plan of instruction be administered and adjusted in the right way to produce equal outcomes. Home schooling would disrupt the pattern of outcomes, allowing parents to influence the quality of education their children received and thus preventing society as a whole from ensuring that accidents of birth do not skew life prospects. This line of argument avoids the complications of cohesion and maintenance of democracy. The empirical evidence of family influence and inequality is all in its favor.
Ironically, the present inequality of public schools strengthens rather than weakens this argument. The inequality is caused, in large measure, by the very practices to which critics object. Urban schools declined when affluent and well-educated families moved out to the suburbs. Poor children receive a less challenging education in part because ambitious parents channel their children into specialized programs. Within individual classrooms, activist middle-class parents are able to tailor their children’s school experience to provide what Lareau (2000) calls “home advantage” (p. 176). These are precisely the practices with which Apple and others take issue. To point out that such factors make strong equality difficult to achieve reinforces their argument.
Strong equality, in short, generates a clearer and more consistent critique of home schooling than other versions of the privatization argument. It is indeed true that home schooling would tend to thwart the aims of schools if they were redesigned to eliminate family advantage. But are the premises of strong equality plausible? Can a compelling claim be made that this is indeed a principle of justice?
In Section III, I present the most promising argument in defense of strong equality. This section examines the reasoning that leads egalitarian critics from premises that are accepted widely, even by home schoolers themselves, to conclusions that home schooling advocates are bound to find deeply troubling. In Section IV, I explore lines of resistance to this argument. This section explains how home schoolers, and also parents who seek to promote their children’s future well-being in a variety of other ways, could accept the claim that they are sustaining and possibly increasing inequality, yet at the same time have reason to believe that they are not acting unjustly.

Strong Equality:

Rationale and Educational Implications

Strong equality is advanced as a principle of distributive justice¾ a rule for distributing resources fairly. Theories of distributive justice nearly always require equality within some domain. Even libertarian theories, which allow extensive inequality, usually emphasize that everyone has the same right to enjoy the property she owns and everyone is entitled to police protection and the administration of justice (Nozick, 1974). As one leading egalitarian points out, the question for social theorists is not whether justice requires equality, but rather within what domain it is required (Dworkin, 1985). Outside the domain of equality, inequality in various forms is allowed.
Strong equality holds that inequality is permissible only if it is caused by acts or circumstances for which a person can be held responsible. The underlying idea is that a just social policy would not allow people’s well-being to depend on factors beyond their control. Kymlicka (1990) characterizes this approach as “ambition sensitive” and “endowment insensitive.” A person’s ambition (choices and effort) may legitimately affect her well-being, but her endowment (effects of chance and of other people’s effort and choices) should not do so. Rawls (1971) makes a similar point by suggesting that outcomes should be affected by morally relevant factors (i.e., a person’s character, choices, willingness to make an effort), but not by factors that are not morally relevant (such as skin color, national origin, or socioeconomic background). He called this principle “fair equality of opportunity,” distinguishing it from “formal equality of opportunity,” which focuses solely on non-discrimination, ignoring other factors that might unfairly affect a person’s chance of success (Rawls, 1971, pp. 73-74). Dworkin (1981), Bernard Williams (1972), Arneson (1989), Cohen (1989), and Roemer (1995) all propose variations on this basic theme that a just social order ought to rectify inequalities that arise from factors beyond a person’s control. For convenience, let us refer to this principle as the responsibility thesis.
In egalitarian hands, the responsibility thesis is a powerful tool. It provides a succinct argument for redistributing resources, and it exploits the reasoning of those who defend inequality on the grounds that economic outcomes reflect people’s life choices. According to market theory, the rich become rich because they prepare themselves to offer what society most values; the poor remain poor because they decline to do so. To transfer resources from rich to poor is wrong, since the poor could have gotten resources for themselves if they had been willing to do useful work. People deserve the outcomes that are due to their choices and effort.
But, as egalitarians point out, the corollary of that argument is just as compelling. People whose choices and effort are similar deserve equal outcomes, and thus the effects of other factors should be equalized. So, if two people are equally willing to contribute and expend equal effort, and through luck, opportunity, education, or family background one ends up on the street and the other in an executive suite, then the life choices argument seems to imply that their circumstances ought to be equalized. So, at any rate, argue the proponents of strong equality.
Education, by Kymlicka’s (1990) definition, is an endowment, an item outside the agent’s control that affects her well-being and should therefore be equalized. How good an education a child gets is determined not by her but by adults¾ parents, political leaders, school officials. True, as students grow older, ambition and effort do make a difference, opening up opportunities for some and foreclosing them for others. But as Rawls (1971) observes, families strongly influence children’s “willingness to make an effort” (p. 74). Children’s choices reflect adult expectations and guidance, and thus they cannot be held fully responsible for the consequences. As Kozol (1991) maintains, no child ever chooses a second-rate education, even though in certain circumstances some may act as if that is all they want or expect.
Education, then, is an endowment. The responsibility thesis will therefore require that its effects¾ educational outcomes¾ be equalized. The principle of strong equality thus demands what Underwood (1995) calls “vertical equity”(p. 493) — not just simple equality, with everyone treated the same, but resources allocated on the basis of need, as Kozol (1991) has advocated. But how do we determine what count as needs and resources? To avoid terminological disputes, let us designate whatever diminishes educational outcomes as a need and whatever enhances them as a resource. In some cases this may generate counterintuitive classifications, but the resulting formula accurately represents what the responsibility thesis requires.
Would home schooling necessarily disrupt the resource/need system of allocation? If we adopt the traditional view of resources as public expenditure, probably not. Nearly all home school families spend much less per child than even poorly equipped public schools. But, as educational research since the 1970s has demonstrated, monetary resources are not the only input that matters. Educational outcomes are also affected by adult expectations, parents’ educational level, the climate of school and home life, and a host of other factors that don’t show up on a balance sheet. Shirley Brice Heath (1996) has shown that even the speech patterns of families and communities affect educational outcomes, by either teaching or not teaching children the discursive patterns valued by schools and the larger society.
If children’s life chances are to be equalized, then factors of this kind must be taken into account and the inequalities they generate removed by compensatory programs. Clearly, home schooling would obstruct such an effort, first because the effects of differences in home environment and parental influence are magnified, and second because the equalizing effects of school are eliminated. In effect, home schooling directs massive resources (parental attention and care and the cultural opportunities of the home and community) to precisely those children with the fewest needs (because of family solidarity, parents’ educational background, and parents’ involvement in their education).
From the premise of strong equality, it clearly follows that home schooling is wrong, and the critics’ position is vindicated. But what action is to be taken on the basis of that conclusion? Would egalitarian critics forbid home schooling?
Clearly not Apple (2000). His criticism of home schoolers is circumspect. He does not doubt the sincerity of their concern for their children. What worries him is not so much the direct effect of home schooling on the gap between the educational haves and have-nots, as its ideological impact. He anticipates that arguments for home schooling will indirectly support other forms of privatization and ultimately help to justify deepening inequality. Apple’s underlying message, in short, takes the form of political criticism, not policy proposals designed to make things difficult for home schoolers.
Kozol (1991), too, shrinks from the broader implications of the responsibility thesis, and seems unwilling to try to block the unearned advantages enjoyed by children of ambitious and successful families. His version of the needs-resources formula applies only to public funding. What families spend on their own children¾summer camps, music lessons, home computers, and the like¾is their own business. Their attempts to advance their children’s life prospects may be regrettable, callous, and myopic, but so long as they do not impinge on the allocation of public resources, they are not properly a target for state action.
This cautious stance, however, is more likely an expression of prudence than of principle. The state could redistribute educational advantages, even those generated by the private actions of families, and if strong equality is true then it ought to do so. If, for example, wealthy parents improve their children’s educational outcomes by providing home computers, music lessons, or summer camp, then the state could do the same for less fortunate children.
No doubt this would be expensive. Replicating all of the advantages that wealthy parents provide for their children could exhaust public resources at their current levels. There are, however, ways to avoid this result. A more steeply progressive tax system would curb discretionary spending in upper income brackets, reducing the need for compensatory programs. Or, in a more focused strategy, excise taxes could be imposed on specific items used by the wealthy to provide educational advantages for their children: for example, musical instruments, instructional services, home Internet connections, and computers for non-business use. The taxes would both discourage purchase of these items and generate funds to support public provision for families that can’t afford them. Home schooling itself could also be taxed; or it could be discouraged through regulation, book-keeping requirements, and expansion of amenities offered only to students in public schools.
It might be argued that these measures violate constitutional protections. A number of state and federal courts have held that families have a constitutional right to provide for the education of their children; such a right may only be limited in furtherance of a compelling state interest. This constitutional principle, however, is not properly speaking an argument against the egalitarian position. Strong equality is advanced not as a recommendation for public policy within a pre-existing constitutional framework, but rather as a prescription for a just society and a just constitutional order. If strong equality really is a principle of justice and the United States Constitution prevents its realization, so much the worse for the Constitution. Justice would require that it be amended or abrogated.
Strong equality, then, is a straightforward principle with a clear rationale, and could easily be applied to an educational system. If it is indeed a principle of justice, then parental efforts on behalf of their children, including home schooling, are a source of injustice and should be blocked or discouraged by state action. This is not the only possible formulation of the privatization argument: As we have already seen, critics also view privatization as a threat to public cohesion and the democratic political order. Strong equality, however, appears to be the most cogent interpretation of the privatization argument as it applies to home schooling.
No doubt advocates of home schooling will resist this conclusion. If so, they must reject the principle of strong equality on which it is based. But can they offer principled reasons for doing so? Like many others in this society, most defenders of home schooling probably subscribe to some version of the responsibility thesis: that a person deserves what she works for and is responsible for the consequences of her choices. Can anyone who believes this consistently reject the rest of the egalitarian argument? This is the issue explored in the next section.


Arguments Against Strong Equality

Home schoolers and their allies have many different reasons for rejecting the policies outlined in the last section. Some believe home schooling is justified by Biblical precepts, some see parental control over the education of children as a natural right, and still others believe that the structure of school inhibits learning.
However important these beliefs are to home schoolers, though, they do not answer the present objection, because critics do not generally share them. What is needed is a response that shows why the critics’ conclusion is wrong without relying on premises they are unlikely to accept. In this section I introduce and evaluate two arguments of this type. Both address the policy implications of strong equality, and both rely on premises that are widely accepted both by home schoolers and by public school advocates. Only one, however, turns out to offer a secure defense of home schooling.
The first argument depends on a widely-held view about agency and paternalism. Nearly every person is or is in the process of becoming a moral agent, capable of deciding what she values and what will enhance her well-being. Recognizing this capacity requires that we honor each person’s autonomy–her right to act on her own behalf and in accordance with her own beliefs and desires. Only in special cases is that right abridged: notably, when the subject lacks the capacity to act for her own good. In such cases, a person or institution may act paternalistically on behalf of the subject, temporarily limiting her scope of action to further her long-term well being.
The standard example of paternalism is the treatment of children. Because they cannot anticipate the demands of adult life, we must guide their actions and often override their choices. The family and school both play this role. Their justification for doing so is that control is necessary to secure the child’s future well being.
Public schools typically acknowledge this requirement, though they may not always satisfy it. The slogans of educational reform in the past decade¾“inclusive education,” “success for all,” “equity and excellence”¾ all speak to the need to advance every child’s interests. But, advocates of home schooling will ask, would egalitarian schools behave in this way?
Strong equality dictates that differences in family background are to be evened out, and schools are the primary means for doing so. To this end, resources (allocable items that improve outcomes) are distributed in proportion to need (any condition that diminishes outcomes). What would this mean for advanced students? By definition they have no unmet needs, no condition that causes substandard achievement. Thus they should be allocated no resources beyond those that are provided to every student. They should receive no differentiated instruction, no special attention from teachers, and no programs adapted to their capacities and interests. Even if these accommodations cost nothing and consumed none of the teacher’s time, they would be undesirable because they make equal outcomes more difficult to achieve.
Thus far, the advanced students do not appear to suffer any harm. They are treated the same as everyone else. There is, however, one crucial difference. For much of the school day, they aren’t learning. Teaching, curriculum, and learning materials are all geared to the level of the students who make less effort and do not enjoy family advantage. Under this regime, if it is skillfully managed, slower students will progress steadily, but advantaged students, who start off knowing more, will learn less, and will spend much of their time not learning at all. In fact, home schoolers argue, they would make more progress working independently outside school. Egalitarians typically do not dispute this claim. Thus they must concede that the school regime they favor violates the duty of paternalism: It overrides some students’ choices in ways that do not further their interests.
For critics of home schooling, this is a highly unfavorable conclusion. The duty of paternalism is widely accepted as an absolute requirement of just social institutions and a bedrock principle governing the treatment of children. If, as it appears, strong equality requires systematic violation of this norm, then it cannot be a principle of justice.
That is not to say moral principles never conflict. Moral abhorrence of torture, for example, often conflicts with soldiers’ sense of obligation to comrades in wartime. But conflicts between valid moral principles are incidental; the conflict between strong equality and paternalism is not incidental, but deeply rooted in the structure of the two principles. In such cases, one of the principles must be wrong. Either strong equality is not a principle of justice, or it is acceptable to control children in ways that do not further their long-term interests. Some would regard this as a decisive refutation of the egalitarian position.
What could Apple (2000), and others of like belief, say to this argument? One response would be to point out that if justice demands strong equality, then subjecting intellectually advanced children to an unchallenging routine does serve their interests, because it is in everyone’s interest to live in a just society. Parents and students who complain about this routine simply fail to understand justice. This rebuttal, however, will convince only those who already accept strong equality. It is ill-suited to the defense of a controversial social ideal in a pluralistic society.
But egalitarians could also argue that a child’s interests are heterogeneous, and schools can satisfy the paternalism requirement by advancing some of these interests even if it does not advance others. An egalitarian school that fails to promote academic progress for advantaged children can still confer other benefits such as group skills, interracial understanding, and democratic dispositions. The problem here is that academic skills are measurable and their benefits clearly established, while benefits in other areas are difficult to define and evaluate. If egalitarians could clearly define and measure the value of the attitudinal changes they favor, and if it could be shown that schools do bring about changes of this type, they could overcome the paternalism objection.
Paternalism, then, provides only a relatively weak defense of home schooling against the egalitarian critique. Let us now turn to a more ambitious argument, one that challenges core assumptions of the responsibility thesis.
As Kymlicka’s (1990) characterization implies, strong equality depends on a clean distinction between two kinds of factors, those that reflect an agent’s choice and effort and those that lie beyond her control. The logical structure of the responsibility thesis requires that these two sets of items be clearly distinguishable. The economist Marc Fleurbaey (1995) refers to this requirement as the separability constraint. If the two kinds of factors are not cleanly separable, then either social policy will deny individual responsibility, erasing the results of people’s initiative, or it will allow unearned advantage.
Thus far, the line between the two domains has appeared clear enough. The debate about home schooling focuses on childhood, and we have assumed that all the conditions of childhood are unearned and must be equalized. But are they?
Granted, the family advantages some children enjoy do not reflect their own effort or choices. But they do reflect initiative on the part of their parents. Why, then, should social policy try to even them out? Egalitarians could argue that their policies would deny benefits of parental initiative to children, not to parents, and thus neither parents nor children would be deprived of what they deserve. But that is true only if children’s well-being does not affect the well-being of parents. Any parent who has ever worried over a child’s health or rejoiced in her safety knows that is false. When the state tries to undercut family advantage, parents are deprived of pleasures and satisfactions they have planned and worked for¾ precisely the opposite of what the responsibility thesis prescribed.
The difficulty for the critics is compounded when we recognize that strong equality would rule out not only benefit to a child from a parent’s initiative, but more generally benefit to any person from anyone else’s choices and effort. The responsibility thesis holds that I am entitled only to the benefits to me of my choices, not those of others. If you and I cooperate, the benefit to me of your choice and effort and to you of mine must be distributed equally over the whole society; you and I get only as much benefit as we would have obtained by acting alone, which defeats the whole aim of cooperation. If, on the other hand, the responsibility thesis is slightly relaxed, joint responsibility is allowed, and individuals are entitled to benefits of cooperation, then strong equality turns out not to conflict with home schooling after all.
Egalitarians could try to avoid this predicament by drawing the line in a different place: not between benefits to oneself and another, but between opportunities and outcomes. Helping your own child would be acceptable if opportunities remained equal. Promoting her well-being, or your own or anyone else’s, would be permitted just so long as the beneficiary didn’t obtain opportunities that others lack. But this distinction, too, quickly blurs when we look at real-life examples. The benefits that matter most in our lives¾ education, health, skills and knowledge of various kinds¾ are valuable precisely because of what they allow us to do in the future. Their value lies in the opportunities that they generate. To deny parents the opportunity to provide these benefits would be to forbid them to enhance their children’s well-being, or for that matter anyone else’s or even their own, in any but the most trivial ways.
The separability argument is unlikely to convince egalitarian critics that home schooling is not wrong, unjust, and immoral. It does, however, defeat the responsibility thesis, by showing that it fails in its central aim of holding people responsible for their choices while immunizing them against factors beyond their control. It does so without introducing any new premise that is not widely accepted both by critics and by advocates of public education. Unlike the paternalism argument, it does not depend on empirical assumptions that new evidence might show to be false. Instead, it capitalizes on a basic internal flaw of the egalitarian argument: the assumption that choice, effort, and well-being can be defined in purely individual terms. Unfortunately for egalitarians, it cannot, and so the responsibility thesis collapses under its own weight, and the defense of home schooling against the most plausible version of the privatization argument is secure.



Most people think that it is not wrong to keep children out of school if they can be decently educated at home. Since research clearly shows that most home-schooled children are indeed educated decently, and many better than decently, the critics face an uphill battle. They must start from uncontroversial premises and build up an argument, in small steps no one can object to, leading to a controversial conclusion. This strategy is not a peculiarity of egalitarians or educational critics; it is the standard mode of moral argument, and often the only practicable way to convince people with words that something is right or wrong when they do not see it that way based on their experience.
As the different versions of the privatization argument demonstrate, the strategy is not always successful. If key factual premises are unsupported by research or experience, then the argument can be set aside pending new evidence, as in the case of cohesion. If an argument depends on moral premises not shared by those it aims to persuade, it can be dismissed summarily, as democratic maintenance was dismissed. But if, as in the case of strong equality, a valid argument starts from plausible premises and leads to a conclusion that is deeply disturbing, then it deserves scrutiny. Parties to the home schooling debate ignore such a challenge at their peril. If the argument is valid, one can reject its conclusion only if one is prepared to renounce the premises.
Those sympathetic to home schooling are not likely to accept the critics’ conclusion that home schooling is wrong. Nor, as evidence of the benefits of home schooling accumulates, are they likely to argue that children who are home schooled do not thereby receive an advantage. What are they to say, then, to those who assert that this advantage, like other advantages parents bestow on their children, is unearned? Must they give up the belief that people deserve what they work for, and do not deserve that for which they do not work? Must the responsibility thesis be abandoned?
The analysis presented here suggests that what must be sacrificed is not the notion of desert based on choice and effort, but rather the assumption that “choice” means individual choice and “effort” must be unilateral, not coordinated with efforts by others. Our most beneficial projects are cooperative projects, undertaken in voluntary association with others who share our aims and values. Families’ efforts to promote their children’s well-being are a conspicuous example of such a cooperative project, not least because they would be fruitless if the child didn’t cooperate. Home-schooled children deserve the benefits of this enterprise in the same way anyone else deserves the benefits of cooperative effort. That these benefits are enjoyed unequally throughout the population reflects the heterogeneity of families and children, not injustice.
Small-scale cooperation and voluntary action are by definition not public. It is easy to see how any increase in activity of this type could be viewed as privatization. This article has explored several reasons for criticism of privatization, of which the one most relevant to home schooling is that it supports and maintains inequality. Home schooling, like other forms of voluntary cooperation, cannot avoid generating and maintaining inequality. Anyone who supports home schooling should be prepared to explain why the forms of inequality that it generates are not wrong, even though children ordinarily are not fully capable of choosing how they are educated. Anyone who opposes home schooling for egalitarian reasons should be prepared to explain why individual choice and effort are morally superior to coordinated choice and effort, as they must be if we are to conclude that people deserve the benefits of one but not the other.

*Author’s note: Thanks are due to the anonymous Home School Researcher reviewer whose suggestions significantly improved the clarity and coherence of the manuscript.


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