The Troubling Push to Deregulate Homeschooling

By Caitlin G. Townsend | February 17, 2015

(Getty/Boston Globe)

(Getty/Boston Globe)

When my mother pulled me out of kindergarten to homeschool, it wasn’t a religious choice. We were an average Christian family, casually attending a non-denominational church. I was a shy child, overwhelmed by the boisterous atmosphere of my school and quickly targeted by bullies. Homeschooling was supposed to be a temporary measure, a chance for me to build up confidence for a return to school. For the first few years, I thrived on a flexible curriculum that built upon my natural love of reading and writing. Homeschooling gave my family ample free time to take field trips and participate in science and craft fairs. A local homeschooling group provided everyday social support as well as extracurricular activities.

But over time, the group became polarized, driving out non-Christian families and focusing more on “character building” than academics. Religious homeschoolers recruited my mother to a strict form of patriarchal Christianity, convincing her that homeschooling was a godly necessity and that the right to homeschool was under immediate threat by the government. As I grew older and academic subjects grew more difficult, it became less acceptable for my mother to seek help outside the homeschool group or consider putting me back into school. Regular evaluation and testing in Pennsylvania kept us on track during elementary and middle school, but my education fell apart when we moved to New Jersey, a state with no homeschooling laws. I spent an entire academic year with my geometry book propped open to the same page, and my only exposure to the theory of evolution was a caricature crafted by my creationist textbooks to make secular science sound absurd.

By the time I graduated high school as a homeschooler, my family and I were deeply involved in a fundamentalist church, where girls were forbidden to attend college. What had begun as an experiment to improve my education had inadvertently derailed my academic life.


WHILE HOMESCHOOL ADVOCATES commonly assert that America’s early leaders were homeschooled, it is impossible to speak of homeschooling as a self-conscious movement before the 1960s. From its inception, the movement included both religious homeschoolers who sought to remove secular influences from their children’s lives, and secular homeschoolers whose motivations were based on beliefs about child development. After the Supreme Court ended state-sponsored prayer in schools in the early 1960s, Calvinist theologian R.J. Rushdoony began to urge parents to consider homeschooling as a means of protecting their children from the secular school environment. Ray Moore, a Seventh-day Adventist who had worked in higher education, began to promote homeschooling for a combination of religious and developmental reasons. Moore argued that homeschooling cultivated children’s natural curiosity and allowed them to learn at an individual pace, an argument that appealed to parents across religious lines. Education theorist John Holt echoed the developmental case for homeschooling in his magazine Growing Without Schooling, founded in 1977. Holt believed that the concept of school was inherently flawed: it created an artificial environment that isolated children from natural learning experiences. By the early 1980s, a growing body of families subscribed to both religious and secular arguments for homeschooling, some using them interchangeably. Moore’s Home Grown Kids, published in 1981, rapidly became a classic among homeschooling families and remains widely read today.

The religious side of the homeschooling movement grew stronger and more rigid in its opposition to other forms of education over the next decade. When evangelical leader James Dobson invited Moore to speak on his radio show, Focus on the Family, in 1979, he helped widen the audience for religious homeschooling to mainstream evangelical families. The endorsement was well-timed. Families who had withdrawn from public schools but remained unsatisfied with the climate of Christian schools increasingly turned to homeschooling as a more effective means of directing their children’s education. Religious homeschoolers developed an ideology based on Deuteronomy 6:7, which urges parents to teach their children the commandments of God from morning to night, to prove that homeschooling was ideal. Homeschooling not only removed children from perceived negative influences in schools, but it also kept Christian parents (usually mothers) in constant contact with their children. In 1983, homeschooling parent Michael Farris founded the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) to advocate for the parental right to homeschool without state supervision. By the 1990s, some evangelical and fundamentalist parents opposed even Christian schools, as they believed parents who did not homeschool were shirking a moral duty.

Today, the number of homeschooled children in the United States is likely close to 2 million. In 2011, the National Center for Education Statistics reported 1.77 million homeschooled children in the U.S., up from 850,000 in 1999. But there is no federal standard for how these students should be taught. Homeschooling statutes, which govern program assessments and subject areas, vary widely across the United States. And in recent years, there has been a push for more deregulation. Eleven states do not require notification of a parent’s intent to homeschool, and 25 states require no academic assessment of homeschooled students. States that do oversee homeschooling—such as New York, Massachusetts, and Vermont—use a combination of testing and portfolio evaluation to measure progress. In Pennsylvania, where I completed grades 1-8, homeschooling families had to file notices of intent to homeschool, cover a range of required subjects, take biennial standardized tests, and submit a portfolio to a licensed evaluator and the local school superintendent every year. These requirements remain in place for the 2015-16 academic year, but the state legislature eliminated the superintendent review component last October, as a result of lobbying by HSLDA and a subset of homeschool parents who favor a hands-off approach. There are dangers in forgoing this last round of oversight, as it severs the connection between homeschoolers and their district, leaving the evaluation process subject to corruption. It also prevents the district from identifying educationally neglected children and referring them for assistance.

Homeschooling parents often support reasonable oversight like the subject and assessment laws in Pennsylvania. Former homeschooling mother LaDonna Sasscer writes that accountability laws in her state made her a more effective educator to her children. “I appreciated the professionalism involved in keeping meticulous records,” she writes on a homeschooling advocacy website. “It kept me on my toes.” My own mother saw our evaluator as a partner in my education. Subject requirements and standardized tests served as benchmarks: strong test results validated my mother’s choice to homeschool, proving that we could exceed public school standards. But the longer we stayed in our homeschool group, the more we learned to fear state supervision. We perceived the superintendent as a threatening figure intent on discrediting homeschoolers, despite the fact that no one we knew had ever been investigated for educational neglect. We absorbed these fears from HSLDA bulletins, which warned us periodically that the right to homeschool was under threat. We believed them, despite the growing acceptance we saw in our own community.

The deregulation lobby is troubling, as absences of oversight provide opportunities for abusive parents to use homeschooling as a cover for deliberate isolation and educational neglect. The case of Hana Williams, an adopted and homeschooled child who died in 2011 of abuse and neglect at the age of 13, underscores how proper oversight could prevent tragedy. Between 2009 and 2011, Hana did not see a doctor. At the time of her death, she weighed less than 80 pounds. Her body was marked from beatings with plumbing supply line, a punishment drawn from the book To Train Up a Child by Michael and Debi Pearl. That these warning signs went undetected for two years underscores how complete the isolation of homeschooled children can be if their parents have less than honorable intentions. Proper oversight, including annual evaluations and regular medical exams, would have brought Hana into contact with doctors or educators who would be required by law to report suspected abuse. It is likely that regular contact with mandatory reporters would have lessened Hana’s abuse and saved her life.

Homeschooling can be a powerful educational tool, but in the absence of oversight, it can also leave children vulnerable to educational neglect, abuse, and anti-education ideologies. Recently, some homeschooling alumni have been advocating for keeping needed regulations in place. The nonprofit Coalition for Responsible Home Education (CRHE), which was founded in 2013 by homeschool alumni Rachel Coleman and Heather Doney, brings together a small team of alumni, researchers, and educators to promote reasonable oversight for homeschooling at the state level. (Full disclosure: I am involved in the organization as a volunteer.) Homeschooling’s Invisible Children (HIC), a volunteer-led organization operating under CRHE, tells the stories of children whose abusive parents used homeschooling as a cover to avoid detection. The vision of CRHE, broadly shared by its affiliates, is “for homeschooling to be a child-centered educational option, used only to lovingly prepare young people for an open future.” Homeschool alumni who support CRHE differ in their religious and political convictions, but agree that oversight is necessary to ensure that homeschooled children’s best interests are respected.

Homeschool graduates now in their 20s and 30s constitute a first generation cohort for the homeschooling movement. Among alumni there appears to be a generally positive or moderate attitude toward homeschooling, though more research is needed to create a complete picture of homeschooling experiences across the U.S. An informal survey conducted in 2014 by the homeschool alumni group Homeschoolers Anonymous found that a majority of alumni agreed that homeschooling had prepared them for the future, and 47 percent preferred homeschooling over other educational choices for their own children. But the survey also raised red flags: 30 percent and 16.2 percent of respondents reported they had experienced emotional or physical abuse, respectively. Seventeen percent reported educational neglect. Survey respondents also reported being less likely to have access to, and more likely to skip, courses in higher-level mathematics and the natural sciences compared to other subjects. Academic research supports the existence of a “math gap” in home education: in a 2013 study, Robert Kunzman and Milton Gaither observed that homeschooling “tends to improve students’ verbal and weaken their math capacities.” As homeschooling alumni age, they bring insights into the effects of the homeschooling movement on children’s academic and personal wellbeing, and are able to identify areas where children might fall through the cracks. Those of us who have gone on to advocate for better oversight are interested in plugging such gaps, ensuring that the next generations of homeschooled children have access to strong academic preparation and adequate protection from abuse.

Opponents of oversight believe parents’ rights supersede any relationship a child has with society. They argue that no one cares about children as much as their parents, and therefore parents are the only ones qualified to evaluate their own educational choices. HSLDA’s director Michael Farris heads, a 501(c)(4) lobbying group that would like to add a Parental Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Their arguments favor total parental sovereignty, operating on the assumption that parents always act in their children’s best interests. The case of Hana Williams, and more recently transgender teen Leelah Alcorn, demonstrate that this is not always true. Alcorn’s parents, who allegedly used homeschooling to isolate her from her friends and prevent her from expressing her gender identity, believed they acted out of love. When Leelah committed suicide on December 28, 2014, she left a note citing her parents’ controlling behavior as the reason she could not go on. These stories are in the minority in homeschooling families, but all children nonetheless deserve safety, support, and a solid educational foundation. The parental rights lobby is ideological rather than pragmatic: its Old Testament basis and vision for a conservative Christian America led by homeschool graduates would dismantle protections for the vulnerable few in order to relieve all homeschooling parents of accountability.


MY EXPERIENCE MIRRORED the shift among religious homeschoolers from a vision of homeschooling as a simple, positive educational choice toward an ideology in which homeschooling is mandatory, regardless of academic progress. Initially, homeschooling was an unusual but pragmatic choice that my mother believed would encourage my creativity. But by fifth grade, my family had entered a homeschooling world that was no longer about customized curriculum or the pursuit of natural curiosity. We were now part of a countercultural movement. I was fed a steady stream of stereotypes about public school kids: they were foul-mouthed, disobedient, and slovenly; they abused drugs, joined gangs, and had sex too young. Public schools, I was taught, were indoctrination camps where the government bred docile consumers. I was afraid to set foot on a public school campus, much less make friends with any public schooled kids in my neighborhood. Homeschooling was no longer an educational choice; it was an act of cultural warfare.

Lax homeschooling laws provide cover for fundamentalist parents who neglect girls’ education in service of patriarchal ideals. Religious homeschooling has been fertile ground for a range of ideologies aimed at keeping young women out of the workforce. These include the Quiverfull movement, which rejects the use of birth control, and the stay-at-home daughter movement. In 2005, a group of young women from my church, all homeschool graduates, banded together to request permission to attend Bob Jones University. Their fathers denied the request; adult women had no business moving away from home before marriage. While young men regularly earned degrees, their sisters were told that education was a distraction from their calling as homemakers. Parents in my church sometimes spoke of educating their daughters through high school as “rendering unto Caesar,” a duty performed so as not to break the law. These parents used their freedom to homeschool in order to limit their daughters’ education, locking them into permanent economic dependence on fathers and husbands.

How did I escape? I was lucky. The religious messages of my church were counterbalanced by my working-class parents’ determination that I would have a better education than they did. In my final year of high school, my mother sent me to community college to earn credit toward my homeschool diploma. Community college was my earthly salvation. A literature professor opened the doors of the world to me, encouraging me to see myself as intelligent and capable for the first time in years. This intervention helped me persevere through remedial classes, catch up, and ultimately acquire a master’s degree. I had to leave my church—indeed, my whole world—behind to do this. Had I not fallen off the grid in high school, I might have entered college prepared to choose any major. As it was, my inadequate preparation in math and science pushed me into the humanities. I could not have become an engineer or a scientist without undertaking years of remedial training in subjects we’d simply skipped, like chemistry and calculus. I succeeded in college, but my options were curtailed from the start. Young adults need adequate preparation in basic subjects in order to have a full range of choices about the careers and lives they want to pursue. I was lucky, but American children deserve better than luck; they deserve a level playing field. Homeschooled children cannot have that without reasonable oversight.

Caitlin G. Townsend is a writer in Ann Arbor. She holds a master’s degree from the University of Cambridge.

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