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The Dark Side of Homeschooling Explains Why Government Oversight is Needed

March 5, 2017

An article by Washington Post writer Lisa Grace Lednicer describes the work to two Washington DC activists whose personal stories led them to push for increased government oversight of homeschooling, an advocacy that pits them against a lobbying behemoth seeking complete deregulation for homeschooling even if it means children may suffer at the hands of their well-intentioned parents.

Lednicer’s article describes the work of Sarah Hunt and Carmen Green, two DC attorneys who were both homeschooled by fundamentalist parents who tried fruitlessly to break their will to leave the de facto cult that their families had established for them. Some cases of the need for homeschooling oversight are relatively easy to describe and regulate. If parents are physically or sexually abusive their misconduct is indefensible. But these kinds of behaviors could go on for years if there was no regulatory mechanism for the “homeschooling” these parents offer. Other forms of abuse, what Ms Lednicer describes as  “debilitating social alienation” are more subtle but very bit as harmful to the well-being of children…. and the article offers several examples of how complicated it is to draw the fine line between parental oversight that is stifling to a point where it is abusive and “only” overly cautious. Lednicer describes the battle lines between the pro- and anti- regulation forces as follows:

The regulation advocates want stronger oversight, methods to monitor the quality of the education and ways to protect children from the dangers that can unfold behind a family’s closed doors.

The oversight advocates are up against a lobbying Goliath, the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA). For decades the organization, co-founded by longtime culture warrior Michael Farris, has preached the virtues of home schooling and parental autonomy, and Farris sees the call for greater oversight as “preposterous.”

To push back against this potent “lobbying Goliath”, Mss. Hunt and Green created their own lobbying group, the Center for Home Education Policy, whose mission is to emphasize “…the right of home-schooled children to have a greater say in their destiny, even when it contradicts their parents’ wishes.” And the two advocates soon found themselves swamped with young adults thing to escape stifling households. When the advocates used social media to reach out to homeschoolers, they learned of cases of “… child abuse, of parents who refused to obtain birth certificates and Social Security cards for their children, and about girls who had received less of an education than their brothers.” The lengthy article describes several case studies of individuals who “escaped” from homes where fundamentalist parents drastically restricted their children’s contacts with the outside world. It also offers case studies that show how difficult it is for legislators to develop regulations that are arguably too intrusive on the rights of parents who want to define their own disciplinary parameters.

The laws about home schooling are a patchwork across the United States. Some states require students to be assessed academically but don’t obligate parents to submit the results. Others don’t require parents to notify local officials that they intend to home-school. Still others allow any parent to home-school, regardless of their educational or criminal background.

Regulation advocates say that at a minimum, children should be seen annually by an outside authority figure and be academically assessed, with a record kept of what they learned. They also want a system to flag at-risk children. And many say that parents with a history of serious felonies shouldn’t be allowed to home-school.

Without oversight, advocates say, home-schooled children can be invisible and at risk. Hunt keeps a tally of reports of home-schooled children — 84 at last count — who have died after being abused or medically neglected. They include Hana Williams, a 13-year-old from Washington state who died in 2011 after years of beatings and confinement. She was adopted from Ethiopia and raised by fundamentalist Christian parents who had little contact with outsiders. Her death galvanized home-school reform activists.

But the deregulation advocates view any form of regulation is an intrusion on families. Ms. Lednicer quotes, Michael Farris, president and chief executive of the Alliance Defending Freedom, which litigates religious-freedom cases around the world on the issue:

“If every child in America must be monitored, then every preschooler must be monitored,” he says. “It’s a preposterous idea. A free society can’t be built on a distrust of families.”

Besides, Farris notes, public schools are highly regulated but not every child enrolled in them gets a good education.

When homeschooling started in Maine in the early 1980s I was working as Superintendent in a rural school district. The law required that homeschooling families present us with a curriculum and confer with us twice annually. It provided no funding for us and no regulatory guidelines beyond the mandatory “conferences” which did not have to be face-to-face. I decided to oversee the program at the district level, which meant I would be in direct contact with the parents.

Our district had two families who participated: one was a goat farmer and his wife who lived off the grid and wanted their child to have a purely experiential education. She was a voracious reader and, based on the worksheets the family willingly shared, was sufficiently skilled at mathematics. She got socialization skills at various farmers markets and community dances where she was able to interact with peers. While her Dad and I discussed goat farming and her overall “program”, his daughter drew pictures on scrap paper we had and flipped through magazines. I never laid eyes on the other child who was homeschooled. The parents sent us the curriculum they intended to use, which included a book titled “Mathematics for Christians”, after repeated phone calls. Before the end of the year the family evidently moved away. I never met them and they left no forwarding address. After making some inquiries at the State level, I was advised to keep a written record of all of this. But in the end, I have no idea what became of that child or his family.

So… would a requirement that a child “…be seen annually by an outside authority figure and be academically assessed, with a record kept of what they learned” constitute a “…society built on distrust of families” or would it constitute a society built on the indifference to the well-being of children?


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