The looming fight over homeschool regulation

When I started homeschooling in the early 1990’s, someone handed me a pamphlet titled “Homeschooling Freedoms at Risk.” It focused on the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), whose practices have included going into states and controlling outcomes of legislation and legal cases, scaring homeschoolers into thinking the state might take their kids away, claiming to represent all homeschoolers, and embracing a political agenda that reaches far beyond homeschooling.

Twenty five years later, HSLDA is still at it, and the backlash is here. This week Slate published an article titled The Frightening Power of the Home-Schooling Lobby. They’re talking about HSLDA.

Despite the fact that HSLDA represents only a small minority of America’s homeschoolers (just 15%), they are politically powerful, and groups like the Coalition for Responsible Home Education (CRHE) are taking them on. As one of the 85 percent of homeschoolers who hasn’t joined HSLDA (and never will), I’ve been watching this conflict play out for a few years now.

CRHE was formed by grown homeschoolers (many from religious families) who take issue with the way they were brought up and educated. They believe that tighter regulation is necessary to prevent parents from using homeschooling as a front for child abuse, or educationally neglecting their children.

When I read the Slate article I had many reactions. First of all, I couldn’t believe how biased it was. They hit you over the head again and again with one slant—homeschooling is under-regulated (the article actually uses the word “shockingly”). Many of the photos depict sad, lonely, frightened, and perhaps even abused children. While every article I encounter about the positive aspects of homeschooling makes a point to portray the “other side” by interviewing experts who take issue with the merits of homeschooling, this interviewer made no effort to seek out anyone with substantive or thoughtful comments or information about the potential costs, risk/benefit analysis, or effectiveness of increased regulation of homeschooling. Instead, we hear from HSLDA, which is depicted as crazy, fanatical, and dangerous. While I’m not a fan of HSLDA, the portrayal in the article is a little over the top. “I’ve never seen a lobby more powerful and scary,” said one legislative aide. I have—it’s called the gun lobby.

The Slate article starts with a horror story about an abused child that was already known to social services, but the idea that homeschooling is used as a front to abuse children is one of the primary reasons given for regulating it more strenuously. No evidence about how many people actually do use homeschooling to hide child abuse is offered, except for the mention of a 2014 study by a Wisconsin pediatrician who found that in an examination of 38 cases of severe child abuse, almost half of the kids were not enrolled in school. There is no link to the study, no information about its methods, how it was funded, or any other details that would allow us to evaluate its value.

The child abuse issue is a difficult and emotional one, but there’s no evidence to indicate that people who choose to homeschool are more likely to abuse their children, and encouraging the idea that homeschooling and child abuse are connected risks stigmatizing homeschoolers, who already face criticism for their choice from many sources. If child abuse is more prevalent in particular cultural pockets, then addressing the cultural issues that lead to it within those communities is appropriate, and absolutely necessary to solve the problem at its root, which increased homeschool regulation will never do.

Another argument CRHE makes for increased regulation is educational neglect, the idea that even if kids aren’t being abused, they might not be getting a proper education. A former superintendent from Arkansas is quoted in the Slate article as saying that during his tenure he saw people who claimed to be homeschooling but really weren’t, whatever that means. Homeschooling is opting out of the system, and there’s no requirement that homeschoolers replicate a school environment. This superintendent might have been talking about me if he’d spent any time around my house and saw that my kids were mostly hanging out and playing rather than doing structured schoolwork.

The concept of educational neglect, and the threat of regulation to prevent it, presents particular problems for unschoolers, who don’t follow a conventional curriculum and who allow their children to take the lead in their learning. Still, some might say, they ought to be able to achieve minimum standards. Yes and no. Just because a child isn’t reading at age eight, for example, doesn’t mean they won’t be fluent by age ten.

All through the Slate article, the underlying implication is that schools would automatically serve children as well or even better than homeschooling. That illiterate children would automatically become literate in school. That abused children would automatically be identified, embraced, and rescued. That the state would undoubtedly fix whatever problems a homeschooled child might be facing.

Homeschooling doesn’t have a one hundred percent success rate, but neither do schools. Every day, there are young adults graduating from our schools who can’t adequately read, write, or do basic math; who’ve lost their ability to think critically; who don’t know anything about civics or history or science. This is inevitably seen as the failure of the student (or parents who didn’t support the student enough), not the school, when the truth of the matter is that schools regularly fail children. Child abuse happens in schools, too, at the hands of bullies, and sometimes even by teachers and administrators.

Improving social services agencies and aiming to change the particular culture that gave rise to the problems the adult homeschoolers of CRHE experienced would undoubtedly be a better approach to solving the problem of child abuse than increased homeschooling regulation.  Or how about working to abolish corporal punishment, which according to a recent NBC report, is technically legal in all 50 states and legal in schools in 19.  Instead, CRHE has chosen to take HSLDA on in the legal and political arena, and in the process they expect the rest of us to accept increased regulation, because why would anyone who cares about children disagree with it?

One reason is that so far, I’ve seen no evidence that increased regulation would be an effective solution. In fact, when one considers the much-publicized failures of social services agencies to protect children, and the failure of public schools to adequately educate so many students, there’s every reason to believe that it wouldn’t. What it would most certainly do is cost money and resources, and potentially make it more difficult for families to choose their own homeschooling methods.

Another reason might be that many school officials are not sympathetic to homeschooling. Most homeschoolers who’ve had to report to a school district have experienced at least one official who’d love to be able to make demands about how they homeschool, visit their homes to pass judgment on the homeschooling they’re already biased against, or withdraw their right to homeschool at all. The Slate article uses the word “mainstream” to describe homeschooling, but I hardly think that under three percent is mainstream. Can school officials who don’t accept homeschooling as a legitimate educational option fairly evaluate whether a family should or should not be able to homeschool?

In my state I reported to the school district annually, submitting an education plan and evaluation for my children. I didn’t find it onerous, but if I’d been forced to submit to standardized testing, or be initially evaluated by school officials or social workers, all under the threat that if my kids didn’t perform adequately the school would intervene, I might have. That kind of increased regulation could have substantially changed the way I homeschooled, which might be just what school officials (and CRHE) want.

If homeschooling were culturally accepted as just another way to educate kids, we might be able to start a fruitful discussion about the appropriate role of the state in the process. Until then, I’m afraid we’re going to have to live with the power struggle between CRHE and HSLDA, however it plays out.


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