John Oliver goes after homeschooling

Homeschooling has been a resounding success in recent decades. The homeschool model, which was once highly stigmatized and even banned in some states, is now legal and practiced nationwide, giving parents wide latitude in shaping their children’s education. And it’s only getting more popular. Since 2019, the number of U.S. homeschoolers has jumped from 2.5 million to over 3 million. Those numbers are holding steady well past the pandemic, suggesting this may be a long-term trend.

Parents have a whole host of reasons for choosing to homeschool. Factors include everything from the quality of education to family flexibility, curriculum, and the transmission of values to children. Whatever their reasons, parents are taking greater ownership of their children’s education—and that is great news for kids, since their parents know them best.

But not everyone is thrilled. In a recent episode of his HBO show Last Week Tonight, comedian John Oliver spent 25 minutes critiquing the homeschool movement, paying lip service to its virtues but ultimately placing it in a negative light—and at times outright misleading his audience. At root, his critique revealed a flawed vision of who children belong to and who should control their education. Indeed, his suspicion toward parents actually highlights why the homeschooling option is so necessary today.

Oliver frames his “report” as highly researched and fact-based, yet it is laden with progressive value judgments and neglect of parental concerns. For instance, at the beginning, he quickly dismisses the idea that public schools are teaching anything inappropriate and suggests that any parents who object to what’s taught about sex today are just “right-wing.”

Oliver may have his head in the sand, but as my friend and former colleague Mike Farris recently pointed out, parents from multiple faiths have been coming out in droves against graphic materials and pornographic books in school libraries. Some of the books are so graphic that parents have even had their microphones cut off when reading them aloud at school board meetings. Such extreme content is a huge factor pushing many parents toward Christian schools and homeschooling, and Oliver’s failure to admit this is telling.

The reality facing parents today is that many public schools are actively teaching and enforcing values at odds with their beliefs.

Throughout his segment, Oliver spotlights the worst examples of homeschooling while ignoring the movement’s vast achievements. His audience would have no idea, for instance, that homeschoolers tend to outscore public school students on standardized tests by 15 to 25 percentile points; that they tend to have higher college GPAs and equal college graduation rates to public school graduates; and that they are generally “healthier, happier and more virtuous,” according to one major study. Choosing to omit these facts, he instead leaves his viewers with the false impression that homeschoolers are woefully undereducated, underprepared, and uniquely susceptible to child abuse.

Given this highly skewed picture, one can’t help but wonder if Oliver’s frustration with homeschooling really boils down to a core philosophical conviction—that parents do not have a right to educate their kids. This comes out explicitly when Oliver suggests that parents should have to earn the right to homeschool, since “having a child does not automatically make you virtuous.” But who, in Oliver’s view, should have the right to determine a parent’s “virtue”? And according to what standard? If he wants to assign this role to the state, keep in mind that some states like Oregon have already discriminated against parents who object to LGBTQ orthodoxy. Would those parents pass Oliver’s “virtue” test?

The reality facing parents today is that many public schools are actively teaching and enforcing values at odds with their beliefs. Some schools have opened up bathrooms to the opposite sex. Others have refused to let parents opt their kids out of classes in which radical gender ideology is taught. Some have even encouraged students to secretly “transition” to identify as the opposite sex behind their parents’ backs. Parents who pull their children out of such environments are exercising their God-given rights to direct their children’s upbringing.

Fortunately, America’s legal system has long recognized the importance of parental rights. Even before homeschooling became a major movement, the Supreme Court in 1972 affirmed that “[the] primary role of the parents in the upbringing of their children is now established beyond debate as an enduring American tradition” (Wisconsin v. Yoder). For this very reason, America has long been a refuge for those seeking to raise their families according to their faith. We’ve seen this even recently with the Romeike family, which was forced to flee Germany in 2008 because of their decision to homeschool, which is a crime in that country. Until recently, the Romeikes faced the threat of deportation from the United States.

The basic truth at hand is that God has given parents, not government, the duty to direct their children’s upbringing—and that includes their education. As a result, any law that interferes with this obligation conflicts with God’s design and will ultimately undermine human flourishing. Whether parents choose public school, private school, or homeschool for their kids, it is their decision to make. And government has no legitimate interest in overriding that choice.

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