It’s hard to figure out where to start when discussing homeschool regulations and children’s rights because it is both a personal and professional issue for me. I am trained as a policy analyst and am also a former homeschooler, so I could write something long and technical, but I won’t, not today anyway. I’ll just tell the general story of what I know about homeschooling regulations.
I will begin by simply saying we desperately need them—formal registration, requirements for some form of standardized testing at some point (or points) during childhood on core subjects, for girls to be mandated the same level and quality education as boys, for homeschool teachers to have at least graduated 12th grade or the equivalent, and for convicted abusers to be legally banned from homeschooling. Obvious stuff, right? Happening already, right?
Well, no. In Missouri if you want to homeschool you don’t have to notify anyone and if your neighbors turn you in for educational neglect, the social worker closes the case. If you are being homeschooled in Missouri, by definition you cannot be educationally neglected.
In Oklahoma if you want to teach your daughter lower level math than your son because you figure she won’t realistically need anything higher to be a wife and mother in an arranged marriage, you legally can and it is in the state constitution that as long as you homeschool as you choose for 180 days of the year, nobody can do anything about it.
In Louisiana if you want to circumvent annual testing requirements, just register as a private school, turn in some paperwork once, and no one will ever check on you again.
If you are a disturbed or violent person who is also a parent in any state, you can pretend to be a fine, upstanding member of the community yet keep your mistreated kid at home so no one will see the bruises or tell of the ways this young person’s body and mind has been invaded. There are no mandatory reporters in a homeschool. Just don’t buy your teenage daughter a video camera.
If you are a convicted sex offender you might be banned from being within 1,000 feet of a public school but you can generally still homeschool your own offspring, whether because its legal in your state or because nobody’s checking. Your spouse and kids may be barred from belonging to a homeschoolers group due to your offense though, as obviously no other homeschoolers want an abuser around their own children.
I remember as a little child when my parents first decided to homeschool, watching them enthusiastically fill out the paperwork to register as a private school in New Orleans, naming it “Cornerstone Academy.” It sounded official back then but soon I realized it wasn’t. We hid in the house during the day because my parents were scared of the truancy police. I was the only one of my siblings to learn how to read. Nobody checked on us, ever, and it took a brief discussion with a neighbor boy who’d found out I couldn’t do multiplication and who I now wasn’t supposed to talk to anymore, who’d said “ha ha, you’re gonna spend your life flipping burgers!” to wake me up to the stark reality of my life trajectory at age 12.
Every day I am thankful that it turned out differently. I have no words for how nice it is that I am not forced to constantly raise babies that just “arrive” whether you desire more offspring or not (I have 9 younger siblings, no children of my own yet), or try to sound like an adult while answering the phone for my Dad’s home business, and that nobody beats me if I break a dish while hand washing them. I am an adult now and not only can I tell time on a clock with hands and know which months come before others, but I even got my Master’s degree in public policy from Brandeis University last year. In one way it might seem odd that I made such a jump, and in another it makes sense. The only way I got out is that I decided I would rather die than live like my Mom, and I was lucky that I had loving grandparents who “interfered.” I worked quite hard to obtain the education that had been denied me. I saw how valuable it was.
My academic interests finally brought me back around to studying where I came from, using research skills to pick up patterns, find stories, collect and interpret data, and the situation I saw was awfully upsetting. It wasn’t just me or those few kids I knew in my local homeschool group who had situations like this (and some of theirs were worse than mine). It was apparently more, a lot more, and there were so many places where the environment was outright conducive to this, where bad things could so easily happen. Where was the push for people’s better natures to prevail?
I have since realized that some people, a small but very powerful group of people actually, are pushing for the opposite. The Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) has given workshops on how to stonewall social workers and used inflammatory scare tactics to work their member families into a tizzy, calling and badgering any politician, civil servant, or researcher who sees the need for change. They have helped create an environment where more kids will grow up like I did and they have held up “parental rights” as some golden calf, the be-all end-all. They apparently believe this so heavily and have had so little real opposition (I mean how much can children themselves fight this?), and they have been so litigious and nasty to the little bit of opposition that they have had, that for now they have won. They have successfully had more and more legislation to this effect passed and they are still doing so right now.
In 2000, Christopher Klicka, the late longtime HSLDA director and homeschooling father of 7 even said “if children have rights, they could refuse to be home-schooled, plus it takes away parents’ rights to physically discipline their children.” Hmm, I wonder why any kid might not want the brand of homeschooling that they are selling?
While plenty homeschoolers refuse to have anything to do with the HSLDA, lots of conservative Christian homeschoolers still pay dues to them for their legal services and the HSLDA uses that money to further deregulate and expand into some even more suspect causes, like ensuring that the United States is the only other nation besides Somalia and South Sudan to have not ratified the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. HSLDA’s founder, Michael Farris, is even trying to get a “parental rights amendment” put into the U.S. constitution instead.
The thing is, when you don’t have checks and balances you don’t have balance, and when you don’t have standards you have the bad lumped in with the good. Parents’ rights are obviously important and need to be respected, but children’s rights deserve the same level of respect and consideration, and right now that is simply not happening. Total deregulation makes it easy for people to be lazy and not take their responsibilities seriously. It enables people who are more interested in a power trip or a lifestyle than actually doing right by their offspring to jump on the bandwagon. It allows people who simply aren’t prepared or inclined to be dedicated homeschoolers to include themselves in the same group as parents who are hands-on with their children’s education, every day.
In order to assuage such concerns, HSLDA funnels homeschool survey participants to a “research institute” called NHERI run by a man named Brian Ray. Ray’s glowing reports are passed off as quality data and as “proof” that homeschooling is much better than other education methods and not having set standards is not a problem. Many journalists have bought this narrative and used it for headlines, but the truth is if I’d done that kind of research work, ignored such big caveats, and made such sweeping assumptions in a college paper, I’d have gotten a bad grade.
A voluntary survey where the response rate is only 28%, gathered from a select and likely rather elite population of homeschool students, is simply not generalizable to the general American student population, but NHERI and HSLDA certainly hope you believe it is.
What about kids who grew up like me? Well, they will never have to deal with them if they can just ignore our reality exists in the first place.
Such a deregulated stance has worked out well for this fringe group, but their story of some “natural” family hierarchy in a glorified yet unrealistic back-to-basics lifestyle papers over an ugly reality that they have ignored—the fact that absolute power corrupts absolutely.
HSLDA does a lot of fear mongering about a supposed future anti-Christian backlash, a coming persecution of dedicated homeschoolers, and fanning this fear keeps them in business. The fact is, no matter how many press releases they send out, this just isn’t happening. We also aren’t in the 70’s anymore, when pioneering homeschoolers sometimes got threatened with truancy prosecutions. The worry that we need this total deregulation to prevent social workers from snatching up homeschooled kids is not only unfounded, it is elevating a far-fetched dystopian threat while ignoring the dystopian reality that I and far too many other homeschooled children have actually lived.
I know responsible people want kids to have a fair shot and responsible homeschoolers don’t want functionally illiterate kids tainting homeschooling’s good reputation. So we need to do something. For years I’d never told anyone about my past and had hoped to just have a “normal” life, but things happened to remind me of a promise I made as a little kid. At age 8 I had sat underneath the kitchen table with one of my sisters and said “someday when I grow up, I want to help people like us.”
That’s why I did my master’s capstone paper on homeschooling deregulation and it’s why I started blogging and speaking out. I figured if people knew how it really was they’d want to stop it from happening to others.
Our nation is now a place where the right to be a homeschooling parent is protected by law. We must make sure that the right of all homeschooled children to get an education is protected as well.
Heatherjanes recently completed a graduate degree in public policy and she is interested in children’s rights, poverty alleviation, and blogging about being raised in the Quiverfull lifestyle. She is from New Orleans and currently lives in New England. Heatherjanes blogs at Becoming Worldly.