Checks and Balances: The Conservative Case for Homeschool Oversight

“Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Growing up in the conservative Christian homeschooling world, I heard this quotation more times than I can count. It was always wielded against the specter of “big government,” whether that meant government intervention or government programs. Presented in contrast to the so-called “liberal” ideals of big government was the conservative ideal of checks and balances. Conservatives pointed to the U.S. Constitution as the prime manifestation of the conservative ideal. The Founding Fathers created checks and balances in power between different branches of government: the executive, the judicial, and the legislative.

It’s been years since I was a homeschool kid, reading “Whatever Happened to Penny Candy?” and absorbing political arguments from the Heritage Foundation. I don’t know today whether I’m a “conservative” or a “liberal.” The difficulty there, of course, is that it depends on how you define those words. I’m not a fan of sloppy, mismanaged government. But I’m also not a fan of scarce government. I believe in human rights for all people, and I believe government serves a vitally important role in protecting those rights.

What I do know is that I am mystified by the anarchy (and consequent parental dictatorship) that reigns supreme among most homeschooling communities—whether those communities are conservative or liberal, Christian or non-Christian. In fact, while many homeschooling communities are sharply in disagreement over issues like religion and educational method, most of them appear unified in a stance against any and every government oversight of homeschooling. The atheist unschooler will stand side by side with the right-wing Christian in lobbying against protections for homeschooled children. Pluralistic homeschool organizations will join HSLDA even against minimal research of homeschooling methods, as VA Homeschoolers did when they lobbied arm-in-arm with HSLDA against Virginia’s HJ 92.

This mystifies me. For one thing, liberal homeschoolers contradict liberal principles with this sentiment. Liberal principles would say children—with their marginalized position and limited rights—need people to advocate for them. Their rights ought to be protected, and the liberal position is that government should be a tool in securing those rights.

But honestly, conservative homeschoolers contradict conservative principles with this sentiment, too. I know this because I was once a conservative Christian homeschool kid myself. I was raised a good conservative, which directly primed me for supporting homeschool oversight.

Conservatives believe in checks and balances. They believe that power should never be focused entirely within one group: whether that group is the executive branch of government or the legislative or judicial branch. Consistency with this conservative ideal would dictate that power over a child’s education should never be focused entirely within one group, whether that group is the federal government, the local school board, or a child’s parents.

The “parental rights” agenda popular among conservative homeschoolers attempts to give parents absolute power over their children. But this very idea is a betrayal of the conservative ideal, which would demand that neither parents nor the government should have absolute power. After all, absolute power corrupts absolutely. A common sense attitude toward government oversight of homeschooling would provide useful checks and balances between a parent’s right to educational choice, a child’s right to a quality education, and the government’s duty to both sets of rights.

Advocacy for homeschool oversight shouldn’t be a radical position. This should be the common sense position for both liberals and conservatives. Unfortunately, the homeschooling world has stubbornly staked out the actually radical position so consistently that they—not us advocates of responsible homeschooling—have moved the Overton Window to the point that basic checks and balances are “tyranny.”

But remember: tyranny begins in the absence of checks and balances. It begins when power is invested absolutely and with no responsibility. That includes parental power. I therefore challenge conservative homeschoolers to rethink their opposition to basic oversight, because that opposition isn’t as conservative as they think.

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