Harvard Magazine Got Us—and You—Wrong

A Harvard Magazine article by Erin O’Donnell called “The Risks of Homeschooling” has fittingly received a lot of attention in the past week, as O’Donnell expounds on the elitist notion of Harvard Professor Elizabeth Bartholet that there should be “a presumptive ban on the practice [of homeschooling].”

Bartholet, the Wasserstein public interest professor of law and faculty director of the Law School’s Child Advocacy Program, understands perfectly well that she is not merely attacking a schooling option but also the authority and fundamental right of parents to choose that option.

In her views as quoted by O’Donnell, Bartholet makes clear her disdain for parental authority and for those who would stand for your fundamental right to decide what is best for your child.

In two instances, Bartholet, intentionally or otherwise, confuses the character of her opponents—including ParentalRights.org—who stand against educational elitism and in favor of family privacy and autonomy.

Total Authority?

In the first instance, she suggests we would give parents “total authority” over their children.

O’Donnell quotes Bartholet saying “the issue is, do we think that parents should have 24/7, essentially authoritarian control over their children from ages zero to 18? I think that’s dangerous.” The quote continues, “I think it’s always dangerous to put powerful people in charge of the powerless, and to give the powerful ones total authority.”

(The irony of that statement is apparently lost on the professor, who proposes setting academic elites in charge of parents and children, giving scholars total authority in the parents’ place, placing “the powerful in charge of the powerless.”)

Parents are not given “total authority” over their children. The Supreme Court has consistently upheld laws that protect children from abuse or neglect at the hands of their parents—or anyone else.

It should be noted, however, that when it is necessary that someone powerful exercise authority over—and on behalf of—one who is powerless, it is helpful if the powerful know and love the powerless they protect. “Natural bonds of affection lead parents to act in the best interests of their children,” the Supreme Court has observed. (Parham v. J.R., 442 U.S. 584 (1978), at 602.)

Government overlords and academic elitists have no such compulsion.

Absolute Rights?

In the second instance of misrepresenting us and our allies, Bartholet claims “a central tenet of this [pro-family] lobby is that parents have absolute rights that prevent the state from intervening to try to safeguard the child’s right to education and protection” (emphasis added). Based on its immediate context in the article, this charge is being leveled at Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) and its allies, which again include ParentalRights.org.

At no point have we put forth the view that parental rights are absolute. In fact, we have often repeated, “No one has a right to abuse a child.”

For the reasons explained earlier, parental rights are not absolute; they do not preclude the state from intervening to rescue children from abuse or neglect.

Parental rights are fundamental, however, and that requires a high legal standard the state must meet before interference can take place.

The distinction is an important one. If parental rights were absolute, parents could do literally anything they want to their children. Starve them? Beat them? Sell them as slaves? There would be nothing anyone could do to stop them.

Fundamental Rights

Rather, fundamental rights—such as parental rights, our freedom of religion, and our freedom of speech—can be limited. . . but only when absolutely necessary to protect the rights of someone else. The Supreme Court has held that a fundamental right can be infringed only by a law that is narrowly tailored to fulfill a compelling governmental interest by the least restrictive means.

Harvard elitists simply don’t like having to meet that standard (called “strict scrutiny”) before they can impose their own ideology on your family. Strict scrutiny doesn’t give the state any authority to demand a specific kind or content of education that all children must learn.

Going back nearly 100 years, the United States Supreme Court held in Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 268 U.S. 510 (1925), that “[t]he fundamental theory of liberty upon which all governments in this Union repose excludes any general power of the State to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only. The child is not the mere creature of the State; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations” (at 535).

This is exactly the principle of liberty that Bartholet and her ilk seek to overthrow.

No, we do not hold that parents have “total authority,” nor that their rights are “absolute.”

We just know that someone is going to have to represent, protect, and make the best decisions for children, who, by nature of their immaturity, are exceptionally vulnerable. And unlike Bartholet, we recognize that parents, who know their children best and are driven by love for them, are in the best position to fulfill that vital role.

Just the Beginning

This article, as unsettling as it is, is but the opening salvo. In June, Harvard is hosting an invitation-only conference against a parent’s right to choose how to educate their own children. And we expect papers, policy proposals, and other assaults on your rights to come out of that conference in the months ahead.

We must prepare to meet the onslaught and stand up for the right of loving parents to guide their children to full maturity. Can we count on you to support our efforts? Could you make a donation today to ParentalRights.org so we can be ready to meet this challenge?

Thank you for standing with us today, for the truth that parents, not government elites, know and love their children best.

Together we will protect children by empowering parents, not by robbing them of their natural role.


Michael Ramey
Executive Director