SÃO PAULO – Facing opposition from both the Brazilian bishops and the National Association of Catholic Education, conservative Christian groups are pressuring President Jair Bolsonaro and lawmakers to legalize homeschooling.

Brazil’s Supreme Court ruled in 2018 that although homeschooling was possible, specific legislation was necessary to allow it.

Seeking a second term in elections scheduled for next month, Bolsonaro has met with advocates of homeschooling on two different occasions since the end of August.

It is estimated that around 30,000 families in Brazil educate their children at home, despite the legal ambiguity surrounding the practice.

Without specific legal protection, they risk being charged by the authorities with the intellectual neglect of their children.

In May, a homeschooling bill endorsed by Bolsonaro passed in the Chamber of Deputies, but still must be approved in the Senate.

Although the Catholic Church in other countries has been supportive of homeschooling – or at least neutral on the subject – the church in Brazil has been firmly opposed to the legislation.

According to Ascânio Sedrez, an experienced principal of Catholic schools in São Paulo and a member of the National Association of Catholic Education (ANEC), homeschooling “is a bad idea on several levels and seems especially inappropriate in the current Brazilian situation.”

“We have just witnessed firsthand how most families clearly were not able to handle the learning process of their children at home during the pandemic. Now those people want to take education to families again,” Sedrez told Crux.

Indeed, educational assessment data released by the government on Sept. 16 showed that the COVID-19 pandemic had a brutal impact on the literacy development of elementary school students. Experts fear the possible consequences of such deficiencies for future learning.

Sedrez argued that the Bolsonaro administration has been continually dismantling previously consolidated educational policies with the aim of “reducing costs with schools and opening the way for their privatization.”

Homeschooling in that sense is, at the same time, an excuse for Bolsonaro’s free market agenda and a way of “showing to his constituents that he is a pro-family president, given that he supports the rights of families to educate their children at home,” he said.

Although homeschooling is mostly supported by Evangelicals and Pentecostals, many conservative and traditionalist Catholics also prefer educating their children at home.

In the politically charged scenario in Brazil since Bolsonaro’s election in 2018, many conservative Catholics have been increasingly suspicious of schools, frequently perceived as places of ideological indoctrination by left-wing groups. That has been a top reason for the new interest in homeschooling.

“Schools combat mostly the Catholic Church and its 2,000-year thought. It is sad to see that the episcopate is aligned against the possibility of a truly Catholic education for our children,” said Ricardo Silva, father of a one-year-old son.

For two years, he and his wife have been members of the Society of Saint Pius X, a traditionalist fraternity founded by Archbishop Michel Lefebvre in 1970 that is in irregular communion with the Vatican. Silva is worried about secular education, “which attacks the church and struggles against its doctrine, at the same time relativizing the knowledge in several areas,” he said.

“The most important thing about homeschooling is that I will be able to teach my son about the church doctrine the way it used to be taught till 60 or 70 years ago. Besides, learning at home is faster and more efficient than learning at school,” Silva said.

He said that he does not fear his son will lose anything by not going to school because his family is able to provide a good environment for socialization.

“I believe families should have the right to teach their children at home,” he said.

Sedrez said homeschooling “appears for some people as a way of preserving a Catholic identity that has been perverted by the world.”

“But it is part of an ideology that opposes public schools and universities. It opposes everything that can lead to emancipation,” he added.

Many private companies have been giving signs that they are ready to get into the market of educational systems to help families in homeschooling.

“They know there is money in it. Many of those families have financial conditions of hiring a tutor. It is really an elitist project,” Sedrez said.

Auxiliary Bishop Joaquim Mol Guimarães of Belo Horizonte, one of the members of the episcopate who has been following the debate on homeschooling over the past few years, argued that it is never a good solution, given that it disregards relevant economic disparities in society.

“That is a rather excluding and elitist project that may have terrible consequences if the poor end up being put aside – like they are in other aspects,” he told Crux.

Guimarães, who is the president of the Pontifical Catholic University of Minas Gerais, stressed that both families and schools have fundamental roles in the learning process, but “schools can at times supplant the families that lack the conditions to adequately offer the basic elements of education.”

“Schools have an indispensable relevance because they put children side by side, something that is primordial for human development in learning projects guided by well-prepared teachers,” he said.

Sedrez emphasized that a truly Christian educational perspective has to consider that “ours is a gregarious species, so education must be a collective experience.”

“Besides, Catholics need to be educated for common life – in community and in society as a whole,” he said.

The parents’ ability to properly teach their children is another concern among education experts in Brazil.

According to Guimarães, good teachers are trained to help students think about reality and its meaning.

“We cannot be sure that family members, even though they have studied to have a career in this or that field, have the conditions and the pedagogical resources necessary to teach all subjects,” he said.