Roughly two million American children are homeschooled. Well, that’s the National Center for Education Statistics estimate, but it’s definitely wrong. Voters have ensured that it will always be wrong.
Parents in eleven states across the country don’t have to report when they pull their kids out of school and parents in the remaining 39 don’t have to report very much. For example, only 24 states require homeschool parents to have annual or biennial assessments of their child’s performance; some states just have to inform their state when they’re withdrawing their kids to homeschool. Plenty have no medical appointment requirements for kids who aren’t in public school.
This lack of real oversight worries child advocates, who don’t object to homeschooling, but worry that the state is abdicating its responsibilities in regards to millions of children.
According to Rachel Coleman, Executive Director and Director of Research at the Coalition for a Responsible Home Education, the conversation about the state’s responsibilities toward home-schooled children is halting because it is had primarily in the wake of some horrifying revelation of abuse. The latest example? David and Louise Turpin of Perris, California, who allegedly held their 13 children in shackles and starved and abused them for years. These kids were not abused because of the homeschool system, but part of why the Turpins were able to go unnoticed was because of the lack of requirements placed on homeschool parents. To Coleman, a proud product of homeschooling, that’s the problem.
“These requirements would not inconvenience parents who are homeschooling responsibly. They would inconvenience families like the Turpins,” she said. “And that is the goal. To catch those cases where homeschooling is being used to shield abuse, while ensuring that homeschooling that is done for the betterment of the children can go on unimpeded.”
Fatherly spoke to Coleman about what the CFRHE is doing to protect children and why homeschool policy across the nation is so scattered.
The Turpin case is horrific. Were there any federal or state laws put in place to prevent this, and other types of abuse like this, from happening to homeschooled children?
There is no federal oversight of homeschooling. That is all handled at the state level. You just fill out a form and that’s it. No one checks in. You don’t have to show proof that you’re educating your children. There is nothing else. Twenty-four states do have some form of assessment requirements.
A number of states require parents to assess their children at the end of each year or every other year, but they don’t require parents to submit those assessments to anyone. There are a number of states that offer different homeschool options: You can either use the regular homeschool law and turn in assessments each year, you can enroll your child in a private umbrella school, or register as a private school, so that you don’t have to homeschool through your school district and meet their assessment requirements. And there’s no follow up.
So when I say that 24 states have assessment requirements, that really is kind of overly optimistic. There’s only a handful of states that enforce their assessment requirements well.
What state laws are the easiest to abuse? Is there are a prime example of a homeschool law that essentially requires nothing of parents?
Homeschooling law grew organically in every state, so it ends up being very different. Alaska has a homeschool law that states that parents may educate their children in their own home, and that’s it. In states like Texas and California, home schools are treated like private schools. Other states did pass formal homeschool laws, so homeschools are not considered a private school.
In Texas, there are no requirements for private schools. There’s a list of four subjects: reading, math, grammar, and good citizenship. That’s it. The compulsory attendance law in a state like Texas says that students need to attend a private or public school in general. Let’s just say a truancy officer came to the door and said, ‘Hey, I heard that you have kids in here that you’re not sending to school.’ All the parent would have to do is say, ‘Oh, we’re homeschooling. Our home is under Texas law as an individual private school.’ And then that would be it. It is kind of mind-boggling, when you think about it.
As an organization, do you have policy priorities that you try to push in every state you work in?
We’ve found that legislation on protection for at-risk children is more attractive to lawmakers than legislation to protect against educational neglect. We tend to approach the two separately.
What do the politics look like on this issue? Is this a red and blue issue or more of a community-by-community one?
There is no opposition talking to representatives about homeschool legislation because it’s not relevant to people who don’t homeschool. The result is that the only active parties are homeschooling parents who, in many cases, oppose oversight.
My sense is that your organization fills that gap to a degree.
We were concerned that there weren’t any protections out there for homeschooled children and that most organizations doing advocacy work in homeschooling tended to be run by homeschooling parents. While the interests of parents and children can and do align in many areas, they don’t always. An individual parent may know that their child is fine, but they don’t know that other children being homeschooled are fine.
Are there patterns that inform whether or not homeschooling parents are abusive?
There was a little girl named Emani Moss in Georgia. She was ten years old. A teacher reported concerns, social workers looked at that report and determined that it was within the legal realm of discipline. Her stepmother pulled her to homeschool, at that point, presumably, to prevent future reports. She had previously lost custody of the child and was on probation after pleading guilty to child cruelty charges. 18 months later, Emani’s burned and emaciated body was found in a trash can outside of her family’s home. We should not be allowing people convicted of child cruelty to homeschool.
One of the biggest risk factors for future abuse is past involvement with social services and past reports of abuse. It should be a priority to keep those children in schools where they have access to trusted adults and where mandatory reporters can see them and hopefully notice if there’s a problem.
That’s absolutely horrifying and I’d like to believe that tragedy was a total outlier. I get the sense, however, that would be naive.
Barbara Knox is a child abuse researcher and a pediatrician at the University of Wisconsin. She looked at cases of child abuse so severe that they matched child torture. She found that of the school-aged cases she looked at, 47 percent of the children abused were removed from schools to be homeschooled. The removal typically followed the closure of a previous social services case that was followed by intense isolation and an escalation of the abuse.
And your organization seems particularly poised to tackle that problem, given your leadership and makeup.
A lot of times in these parent groups, parents end up thinking in terms of their own experience: I don’t want to have to XYZ. But the problem is that it doesn’t center the needs of homeschooled children writ large. Those needs are erased. So we felt that as individuals who had been homeschooled ourselves, we were in a unique position to advocate for current and homeschooled children by cutting through the pro- and anti-homeschooling conversation.
We’re just saying: How do we make sure that homeschooling is used in a productive way and not to abuse or to neglect child education?