Homeschoolers help torpedo disability rights treaty in Senate

International observers may be a little confused about why the U.S. Senate just rejected a treaty that has been ratified by 125 countries and is substantially based on U.S. law. They also might be forgiven for wondering what, exactly, this has to do with homechooling.  In addition to groups like the Heritage Foundation — which ...

By , a former associate editor at Foreign Policy.

International observers may be a little confused about why the U.S. Senate just rejected a treaty that has been ratified by 125 countries and is substantially based on U.S. law. They also might be forgiven for wondering what, exactly, this has to do with homechooling. 

International observers may be a little confused about why the U.S. Senate just rejected a treaty that has been ratified by 125 countries and is substantially based on U.S. law. They also might be forgiven for wondering what, exactly, this has to do with homechooling. 

In addition to groups like the Heritage Foundation — which opposes nearly any U.N. treaty on sovereignty grounds — and anti-abortion politicians like Rick Santorum who argue, inaccurately, that the law could lead to abortion being mandated for disabled children, the politically powerful, but usually under-the-radar U.S. homeschooling movement has been one of the most pivotal lobbies working against U.S. Senate ratification of the treaty. The Homeschool Legal Defense Association claims to have sent anywhere from 8,000 to 20,000 letters and emails to lawmakers urging them to oppose the treaty: 

“I think the homeschool movement was more mobilized on this issue than any issue in the last decade,” Estrada said, noting that a large population of homeschooling families had at least one child with a disability.

“They realized this wasn’t about disabilities issue, this was about who was going to make decisions for children with disabilities,” he said.

Democratic Sen. Christopher Coons, who voted for ratification, claims his office was barraged with calls from homeschoolers in the run-up to the vote. Sen. Mike Lee specifically cited homeschoolers’ concerns in opposing the treaty today: 

“We all want to support the best interest of the the child, every child,” Lee said in a speech on the Senate floor. “But I and many of my constituents, including those who home school their children or send their children to private or religious schools, have justifiable doubts that a foreign U.N. body, a committee operating out of Geneva, Switzerland should decide what is in the best interest of the child at home with his or her parents in Utah or in any other state in our great union.”

Groups like the HLDA argue that the treaty could allow the U.N. to mandate that parents who home school their disabled children to send them to government-run schools. (It says nothing of the sort.)  They may also be worried that adoption of the law could set a precedent for the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which they oppose on equally specious, but perhaps slightly more comprehensible grounds 

It is indeed sad that a perfectly reasonable treaty was just rejected based on a complete misreading of it, but it’s yet more evidence of how influential a small group can be when it gets very organized and very loud. 

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @joshuakeating

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