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Best & Worst Countries for Homeschooling: An Interview with Mike Donnelly

November 27–December 1, 2017   |   Vol. 132, Week 12

Have you ever wondered what homeschooling looks like in other parts of the world?

This week on Homeschool Heartbeat, HSLDA attorney Mike Donnelly joins host Mike Smith to explore the joys and challenges of home education around the globe.

In this podcast, you’ll learn:

  • The one thing homeschoolers from every country have in common
  • How HSLDA is defending homeschooling families around the globe
  • The best and worst countries for homeschooling
  • How homeschooling fits into the international dialogue on education
  • How to support homeschoolers in other countries

“What I’ve found is that no matter where I go, homeschooling parents aren’t really that different. . . . They all care very deeply about their children and want what’s best for them.” — Mike Donnelly

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Homeschooling as we know it has been around in the United States for over three decades now. But in some countries, the homeschool movement is just getting started. On today’s Homeschool Heartbeat, learn which countries are most friendly to home education—and which ones aren’t.

Mike Smith: I’m joined today by my friend, Mike Donnelly. Mike is a staff attorney here at HSLDA and is also our Director of Global Outreach. Mike, welcome to the program!

Mike Donnelly: It’s a tremendous pleasure to be with you here today, Mike. 

Less different than you might think [0:31]

Smith: Well Mike, you’ve spent a lot of time traveling around the globe and getting to know homeschoolers in many different countries. Now what are the most important lessons that you’ve learned from your experiences?

Donnelly: Mike, I’ve been blessed to travel to well over 20 countries, meeting with thousands of homeschool families from countries like Britain, Brazil, Philippines, Russia, Japan, Canada, Ireland, Bulgaria—all over the world.

And what I’ve found is that no matter where I go, homeschooling parents aren’t really that different. Although some will face more significant challenges from their governments in terms of pressure or regulation, they all care very deeply about their children and want what’s best for them. They want to give their children a unique and tailored educational experience outside of an institutional setting, whether that’s public or private. They want to be personally involved in the education of their children.

These are the same things that we’ve seen here in the United States, and it’s why homeschooling continues to be the fastest-growing form of education in the world.

Smith: Well Mike, thanks for sharing that enlightening discovery. There are lots of things that make homeschoolers different from each other, but something we all have in common is the desire to do what’s truly best for our children.

Defending families internationally [1:38]

Smith: Mike, can you talk about some of the biggest international homeschooling stories and cases from the past few years?

Donnelly: Well Mike, most people will remember the Romeike family, who initially were granted asylum from Germany just because they were homeschooling. Even though that case went to the Supreme Court who refused to overturn previous courts, that family still continues to homeschool here in the United States peacefully and they are very grateful for that.

In Brazil, the supreme court of that country has taken a case that’s going to decide whether homeschooling is protected by the Brazilian constitution, and at the request of Brazilian homeschool leaders I filed a legal opinion in the Brazilian Supreme Court, encouraging them to protect home education as a constitutional right. The Brazilians have told me they expect this legal opinion will be very persuasive.

HSLDA is working with Swedish lawyers to defend the Sandberg family who we believe could be the very last homeschooling family in Sweden, where homeschooling is not tolerated.

Although we’ve been able to effect change in news reporting and encourage favorable interest from a few politicians and influential legal scholars in Germany, that country continues to ban homeschooling and criminally prosecute parents or seize children from families who try to do it.

Mike, we’re representing a family called the Wunderlichs, along with our friends at Alliance Defending Freedom International, at the European Court of Human Rights, which is kind of like a Supreme Court of Europe. Our case was accepted by that court. A few years ago, the Wunderlich family were traumatized as their four children were violently seized just because they were homeschooling. Now the children were returned after three weeks—the authorities tested them and found the children were doing very well academically and socially well adjusted. They were forced to attend public school for a year. But now the family, in defiance of the authorities’ demands, are homeschooling their children and we hope that the European Court of Human Rights will uphold their rights to be free of this kind of over-the-top intrusion by the government that took their children.

Mike, even a small victory in this case would be miraculous and make a huge difference in Germany, Europe and the rest of the world.

In Cuba, we’re working to support the brave Rigal family as they strive to be able to educate their children at home, away from the indoctrination of Cuban communism.

Mike, it’s a privilege, as I’m sure you will agree, and really inspiring to be able to defend homeschooling freedom alongside these and other courageous families whose commitment to their children, convictions, and beliefs sustain them through these challenges.

Without the support of our members, this work would not be possible, Mike. So our members deserve a big thank you.

Smith: Oh yes, they do. So thank you members, we really appreciate your help.

Best and worst countries for homeschooling [3:55]

Smith: Mike, which countries allow the most freedom to homeschool and what do their homeschool laws look like?

Donnelly: Mike, it’s exciting to see how homeschooling is growing so fast internationally and to see many countries respect the God-given and fundamental human right for parents to choose to homeschool. We see a lot of freedom in countries like you would expect: the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom.

To me, it’s amazing to see how homeschooling is growing, even in former communist countries. For example, Russia is a place where homeschooling is becoming a vibrant movement. It’s amazing to think that just 25 years ago this country was in the grip of communism, but now homeschooling is not only possible but poised to flourish—it’s really miraculous. We see it growing in Bulgaria, Romania, the Czech Republic, and Hungary, where it’s tolerated.

Now, there are some challenges from some governments, but generally, as we see homeschooling growing we see its being tolerated by most governments.

Smith: Mike, that leads us to our next question: What countries are most hostile to homeschool freedom?

Donnelly: Mike, you’d expect countries with totalitarian regimes like Cuba or China to oppress homeschooling as a challenge to their state schools which they use to indoctrinate their children. But it’s very disappointing to find western democracies like German or Sweden to be so hostile.

In Sweden, families are not allowed to homeschool; they are driven out of the country. There are many homeschoolers who live in exile from Sweden in Finland, where it’s allowed. And Germany is another country where it’s very disappointing to see how they have continued to persist in prosecuting families criminally, imposing excessive fines and seeking to even take their children away, such as the Wunderlich case.

When governments harass families that want to homeschool it’s just very disappointing and that’s why it’s important for us to continue to support these families.

Championing freedom and parental rights [5:34]

Smith: Mike, you’ve been part of the international dialogue on home education for quite some time now. In your experience, what are the main legal issues and concepts that are being discussed out there?

Donnelly: Mike, for almost 150 years or more compulsory public school attendance has become almost a universal standard. But this idea does not find support in the modern human rights framework. The realization that pluralism in education—and by that I mean that private education and home education are legitimate alternatives to public education—is becoming stronger in the discussion. We find voices here in the U.S. that condemn private education as anti-democratic, arguing as Horace Mann and John Dewey have, that only public education should be permitted to teach what they call “democratic values”—but what they really mean by that is progressivism and secular humanism.

As we see this movement growing, parents all over the world are reacting to this, and we see that more and more non-governmental organization are championing parental rights. We even see some human rights scholars and UN institutions acknowledging the important contribution that private education makes to the overall fabric of education in society.

I want to see homeschooling included in this discussion, Mike. That’s why what we do is important. I’d encourage listeners to Google such documents as the Berlin Declaration and the Rio Principles for more important information about these important rights and concepts.

Smith: Okay, so this is encouraging because you’re seeing progress. But where does this dialogue go in the future?

Donnelly: Well Mike, as homeschooling grows, I expect to see more positive reactions to it. As countries explore how to respond to this new demand, based on what we would consider and old and obvious natural and God-given right, I’m excited to see the interest in openness to home education in many countries. Even though they’re unfamiliar with home education and often have some of the same stereotypes and objections that pioneers like you and your wife Elizabeth had to overcome here in the United States—issues like legality, competency, and socialization—but even in places like Germany, I’m encouraged to see interest in media and society that is generally positive.

That’s why it’s important for us here at HSLDA to continue to support that positive interest and to provoke more discussion about home education. Our experience here in the United States is powerful, if we can get out the truth about home education, homeschooling will win.

They’re not alone [7:43]

Smith: Mike, what are the biggest challenges facing homeschooling families around the world today?

Donnelly: Mike, like in the early days [of homeschooling] in the United States, a lot of homeschoolers thoughts they were the only ones. So being disconnected from other homeschoolers is one big challenge, because they’re just small movements right now. That’s why it’s so important for what we do, providing a global contact point for people.

In countries where homeschooling is a new idea, access to curriculum is a challenge. Being free to be able to choose homeschooling is a challenge as we talked about in countries like Sweden and Germany.

But really, I think receiving encouragement from other places is probably the biggest contributor to homeschooling success and one of the biggest challenges that people face is knowing they’re not alone.

Smith: What can our listeners do to help homeschoolers in other countries?

Donnelly: Of course Mike, we would encourage people to pray. For those who are homeschooling in countries where they can afford it, they should consider joining HSLDA, because it’s our member support that allows us to do this important outreach to encourage these nascent homeschooling movements. Those who aren’t homeschooling and just want to support freedom can, of course, go to hslda.org and donate to the Homeschool Freedom Fund.

Smith: Mike, it’s been a blessing having you on the show this week and thanks for all you’re doing all across the world and until next time. I’m Mike Smith.

Mike DonnellyPhoto of Mike Donnelly

Mike serves HSLDA as Director of Global Outreach and as Staff Attorney for members in the states of Colorado, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Ohio, Tennessee, and West Virginia. As Director of Global Outreach, he coordinates HSLDA’s support of homeschooling freedom around the world.

Mike is also an adjunct professor of government at Patrick Henry College, where he teaches constitutional law. He holds a juris doctorate with honors from the Boston University School of Law as a Paul J. Liacos Scholar and an LLM with merit in Constitutional and Human Rights Law from the London School of Economics. He is a member of the bars of New Hampshire, Massachusetts, West Virginia, the District of Columbia, and the United States Supreme Court.

Mike’s previous experience includes combat service during the first Persian Gulf War as a United States Army cavalry officer, private legal practice, and founding a nationally ranked internet marketing firm.

Mike is an internationally published writer and a frequent conference and media spokesperson on homeschooling, educational freedom, parental rights, and human rights. His most recent publications appear in the International Journal of School Choice and Reform and Homeschooling in New View. Mike’s other publications include the first-ever chapter on homeschooling in the four-volume global education policy series Balancing Freedom, Autonomy, and Accountability in EducationReligious Freedom in Education. Mike’s work has appeared in the International Journal of Religious Freedom, Creature of the State, and Homeschooling in America and Europe: A Litmus Test of Democracy.

Mike and his wife homeschool their seven children.

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