Virginia: HB 63 and Sports Access

Virginia homeschoolers are barred from participation in public school sports leagues by the Virginia High School League’s requirement that each student athlete be “a regular bona fide student in good standing of the school which he/she represents.” HB 63, a bill before the 2014 Virginia General Assembly, would change this. As advocates for homeschooled students, we are passionate about expanding homeschool sports access. HB 63, which you can read in full here, has our support.

Currently, 29 states offer homeschooled students full or partial access to public school sports leagues. In the remaining 21 states (Virginia included), high school athletic association eligibility requirements bar homeschooled students from participating in public school sports leagues. Fortunately, homeschool sports access has increased in recent years. 6 states that had previously prohibited or severely limited access revised their laws or policies in 2012 and 2013 alone. Click here for CRHE’s analysis of homeschool sports access laws.

HB 63 would open up opportunities for homeschooled students to participate in healthy athletic and social extracurricular activities. We support homeschool access to public school extracurriculars because options for homeschooled children that include group athletic and social activity encourage healthy child development and wellbeing. Further, we believe that a positive and cooperative relationship between public schools and homeschool families is in the best interests of the child, the parents, and the school; such a relationship can in some cases bring homeschooled children in negative home environments into contact with mandatory reporters or provide role models and positive influences they might not otherwise have had. In states and districts where sports participation is permitted, the response has often been positive.

While elementary aged Virginia homeschool students have access to a variety of community sports leagues, the competitive athletic options available to high school level homeschooled students are often severely limited. We do not believe families should be forced to choose between homeschooling and competitive sports participation. Some children’s best interests may be best served by both homeschooling and participation in public school sports leagues.

Common objections to sports access have to do with academic requirements, funding, and abuse of the law. HB 63 addresses all three of these concerns. First, participation is limited to any student who “has demonstrated evidence of progress [pursuant to the state’s homeschool law] for at least two consecutive academic years immediately preceding the academic year during which the student seeks to participate.” This ensures that public school athletes struggling with academic requirements don’t switch to homeschooling and immediately resume athletic participation, and it also creates an academic standard for homeschooled students. HB 63 also limits sports participation to the homeschooled student’s district of residence and states that homeschool athletes will be “subject to all policies governing such participation that the local school board may establish.” Finally, HB 63 addresses funding, stating that homeschool athletes may be charged “reasonable fees” to “cover the costs of participation in such interscholastic programs.”

CRHE supports efforts to allow homeschooled students to participate in public school curricular and extracurricular activities, including sports, and is hopeful that this legislation, and other legislation like it, will pass. We have only one caveat: HB 63 does not cover students homeschooled under the state’s religious exemption. We believe that all homeschooled students, regardless of which option they are homeschooled under, should have access to extracurricular activities, including sports, at their local public schools.

For more information on HB 63, see The Organization of Virginia Homeschoolers’ Homeschoolers’ Sports Access page, which includes frequently asked questions, an explanation of how HB 63 will work in practice, and a collection of stories from Virginia homeschool families who hope to gain access to public school sports leagues.

CRHE’s Heather Doney on America Tonight

This week CRHE’s executive director, Heather Doney, was featured heavily on an America Tonight spot on oversight of homeschooling. We are pleased with this opportunity for positive exposure, and hope that this segment will introduce viewers to the need for homeschooling reform.

Note: While the videos have been temporarily removed from the site, the news article covering the same content is still available and can be viewed here.

Utah: SB 39 and Senator Osmond

Senator Aaron Osmond of Utah has proposed SB 39, a sweeping bill that would effectively abolish compulsory education through revisions to the state’s homeschool law. As Osmond has previously stated, his goal is to make homeschooling parents fully exempt from “any and all state educational requirements,” including subject requirements. We at CRHE oppose Senator Osmond’s proposals because we believe that subject requirements are an important part of ensuring that children are homeschooled in a legal environment that is supportive and protects their interest in receiving a well-rounded education that will prepare them for adulthood. Eliminating subject requirements, which serve as both guidelines and legal standards, would be detrimental to the interests of Utah’s homeschooled students.

Utah’s current homeschool law requires that students receive instruction “in the subjects the State Board of Education Requires to be taught in public schools” and “for the same length of time as minors are required by law to receive instruction in public schools.” Utah’s subject requirements are thus currently in line with CRHE’s policy recommendations. Finally, while Utah’s law does not require annual assessments it does require homeschool parents to file annual notice of homeschooling with their local school districts. (Click here for a full analysis of Utah’s homeschool law.) SB 39 would require parents to notify their local school districts of homeschooling once only and would remove mandated subject and instructional time requirements.

A news article reported that: “When asked if this policy meant that it was possible that a parent could choose to ignore the so called “three-R’s” in education or even choose not to educate a child at all, Osmond says that nothing prevents that now and parents, even under his new system, would be held to educational neglect laws.” It is reprehensible that Osmond would use the current deficiencies in the state’s homeschooling law (i.e. the lack of an assessment requirement) as an excuse to remove the requirements of the homeschooling law entirely. Further, Senator Osmond’s claims about the state’s current educational neglect law displays a lack of understanding of that very law.

In current practice, Utah’s Child & Family Services does not generally investigate educational neglect unless called in by the school district, which acts first in cases of educational deficiency in homeschooling situations. SB 39 would remove the school district from the equation altogether, but that is not all. The state’s educational neglect statute states that “a child may not be considered to be educationally neglected . . . if the child’s parent or guardian establishes by a preponderance of evidence that . . . the child is being instructed at home in compliance with Section 53A-11-102.” Section 53A-11-102 is, of course, the state’s homeschooling law, the very law SB 39 would dismantle. If Senator Osmond is successful in removing any requirement that homeschool parents educate their children, he will also remove homeschooled students from the purview of the educational neglect statute entirely.

Osmond stated in a news article that “if Homeschool and Private school parents decide to return their child to Public Education, their child will be assessed with an age-appropriate assessment, and the student will be placed in the appropriate academic level based on that assessment. In addition if remediation is necessary, the local school district may charge all or part of that cost to remediate back to the parent.” Osmond called this “true accountability,” apparently unaware that such a provision would dissuade floundering homeschooling parents from placing their children in public school for a better education, and that the consequences of this would fall not on the parents but on the children. It is unclear what role this proposal may play in Osmond’s legislation.

Senator Osmond also displayed a significant lack of care for students’ educational well-being when he stated that “it is possible that some students will have lower quality education than others [under his proposal, but] that happens today.” The fact that some students today do not receive a quality of education is no reason to give up on efforts to offer a quality education to every student. We should be making an effort to provide every student with an education rather than looking at current deficiencies and throwing up our hands in defeat, which is the essence of Senator Osmond’s proposals.

If enacted, Senator Osmond’s proposals would remove any remaining shreds of accountability from Utah’s homeschool provisions, effectively making it legal for homeschool parents to choose not to educate their children. While many homeschooling parents will provide their children with an excellent education regardless of what the law does or does not require, this is not true for all homeschooling parents. Utah, of all states, should be aware of this: After FLDS leader Warren Jeffs endorsed homeschooling in 2000, all FLDS parents started homeschooling their children. Parents in this cult frequently cease educating their children once they reach age 12 or 14, thus severely curtailing these children’s options. It is already difficult to prosecute such cases under the current law, but removing the law entirely would make such educational neglect not only more difficult to prosecute but actually legal.

You may contact Senator Osmond at (801) 897-8127 or avosmond@gmail.com.

Virginia: House Joint Resolution No. 92

Delegate Thomas Rust of Virginia (R, 86th District) has proposed House Joint Resolution No. 92, which would request the Virginia Department of Education to conduct a study on Virginia’s religious homeschooling exemption and make recommendations to the legislature.

CRHE is in full support of further research on the effectiveness and impact of current homeschooling law. We maintain that every homeschooled child deserves safeguards to protect his or her interest in obtaining a basic education and reaching adulthood with an open future. We oppose religious homeschool exemptions such as the one currently available in Virginia, which remove homeschool parents from accountability and leave homeschooled children vulnerable to educational neglect and other forms of child maltreatment.

Virginia is the only state in the U.S. that allows parents to claim a religious exemption from compulsory education laws. While parents who homeschool under Virginia’s homeschool statute must have their children assessed by standardized test or portfolio review annually, parents who claim religious exemptions are not legally required to educate their children or provide any proof of educational instruction or advancement. Va. Code Ann. § 22.1-254(B)(1) excuses from school attendance “any pupil who, together with his parents, by reason of bona fide religious training or belief is conscientiously opposed to attendance at school.” Click here for our full summary of Virginia’s homeschool law.

The current empirical research on the topic, including outcome measures under the religious homeschooling exemption, is woefully incomplete.  While supporters of the status quo have used research conducted by Dr. Brian Ray’s National Home Education Research Institute (NHERI) to claim that students homeschooled under religious exemptions score 33 percentage points higher on standardized tests than the national average, we are doubtful of these claims.  Dr. Ray’s cited paper is twenty years old, does not control for background factors, and uses a sample of 213 students, with only 18 high school students—hardly recent enough or containing enough variety to represent Virginia’s 6,429 students currently homeschooled under the religious exemption. CRHE’s assessment of Ray’s research in general is that it does not conform with best practices in the social sciences or utilize standard peer review (for more, see our page on academic achievement or our review of one of Ray’s more prominent studies).  More research is needed to provide an accurate picture of homeschooling under Virginia’s religious exemption. CRHE strongly recommends against basing such important public policy decisions impacting children’s futures on one small study with clear methodological flaws and sampling limitations.

CRHE maintains that it is a desirable and reasonable interpretation of parental rights and responsibilities to legally allow parents the ability to choose an education for their children that conforms to their religious beliefs.  However, any law that also allows parents the ability to deny their children an education due to their religious beliefs is not in the best interests of homeschooled children, faith-based groups, the state of Virginia, or society and should not be permitted or tolerated.

Concern about the lack of oversight for children homeschooled under the religious exemption clause has also been expressed by the University of Virginia School of Law’s Child Advocacy Clinic.  In September 2012, they published a report titled, “7,000 Children and Counting: An Analysis of Religious Exemptions from Compulsory School Attendance in Virginia,” noting that Virginia is the only state in the United States that provides this kind of exemption for religious homeschoolers.  They found that state and local officials were inconsistent in their application of the exemption and that no recent research had been done on the academic outcomes of religiously-exempt homeschoolers despite considerable growth in the homeschooling population in Virginia over the past two decades.

In July 2013, former homeschooled student Josh Powell made headlines when the Washington Post published an article about him titled “Student’s Home-Schooling Highlights Debate over Va. Religious Exemption Law.” Powell was educationally neglected by parents who claimed a religious exemption for him and refused to allow him or any of his siblings attend public school, despite Powell’s formal complaint to his local school board that his home education under the religious exemption was substandard and his openly stated view that he personally desired to attend public school. Virginia’s current legal standard is that, in families employing the religious exemption, parents and children are both required to be conscientious objectors who oppose school attendance because of their religious convictions. Powell’s desire to be educated at a public school was ignored because of the murkiness of the current law.

CRHE views Thomas Rust’s resolution as a logical response to the conversation started by coverage of Powell’s story. We believe that formal dialogue on the issue is itself not a threat to homeschool freedoms but rather a responsible reaction by lawmakers who recently had the unintended consequence of the homeschooling religious exemption law brought to their attention.

As such, CRHE supports House Joint Resolution 92 as a step in the right direction towards laws that are homeschooling friendly, respect religious freedom, and also consider the educational and human rights of homeschooled children.

Interested parties may contact Delegate Thomas Rust at 804-698-1086 or DelTRust@house.virginia.gov. Contact information for other Virginia delegates may be found here.

Feel free to contact us at info@responsiblehomeschooling.org.

Click here to read this document as a PDF.

Ohio: Senate Bill 248, “Teddy’s Law”

Theodore “Teddy” Foltz Tedesco was murdered by his mother’s boyfriend, Zaryl G. Bush, in January of 2013. Teddy’s mother, Shain Widdersheim, had withdrawn him from public school to homeschool him months before after teachers reported signs of abuse, specifically so that she could remove him from contact with mandatory reporters. The family denied relatives access to Teddy, and isolated him even from friends and neighbors. According to Teddy’s father, Shawn Tedesco, social workers tried to investigate but were not allowed to see Teddy. When social workers investigate allegations involving children who attend public school, they may visit the child’s school to observe and speak with the child there if necessary. This was not possible for Teddy. Lawmakers working with Shawn Tedesco have proposed Senate Bill 248 in an effort to protect children like Teddy. We appreciate and affirm Shawn Tedesco’s efforts and absolutely concur that reform is needed, but we regretfully cannot support S.B. 248 as currently written and it is our hope that the bill will be amended.

There are numerous documented cases in our Homeschooling’s Invisible Children database where homeschooling has been successfully used to hide horrific levels of abuse. Not infrequently, children are pulled from school after their abuse is reported in order to prevent future reports. This is what happened to Calista Springer, Jeannette Maples, and Emani Moss, all of whom, like Teddy, died at the hands of their parents. In an effort to address this problem, Pennsylvania state senator Andrew Dinniman proposed S.B. 32, a law with a similar intent but much narrower scope. Similarly, a state child fatality review in Florida, the Nubia Report, recenlty suggested developing a system for flagging at-risk children withdrawn to be homeschooled. For more on this topic, see Homeschooling & Concealing Abuse.

Shawn Tedesco and other family members are currently pressing for legal reform in an effort to protect other children from Teddy’s fate. They are pushing for both changes in the state’s homeschool law and reforms to social services. Teddy’s family’s reaction—their desire to find ways to protect other children from suffering Teddy’s fate—is a natural and healthy response. Many parents in similar situations have fought for and effected positive legal change in their grief. This is how the Amber Alert system developed, for example. We strongly appreciate and confirm the efforts and concerns of Shawn Tedesco and other family members. For more, see the family’s website, teddyslaw.org.

This week Ohio state senator Capri Cafaro, who is working closely with Shawn Tedesco and other family members, unveiled S.B. 248, the family’s proposed reform to the state’s homeschool law. This bill would do the following:

  • Sec. 3321.042: When a parent submits the already required annual notice of homeschooling, or provides the notice when withdrawing a child to homeschool during the school year, school districts would provide the names of the parent and child to social services.
  • Section. 2151.4210: Upon receiving the names, social services would (a) conduct in person interviews with both the parent and the child and (b) run the information through an already in existence statewide automated child welfare information system to determine whether the parent, child, or other person in the household has been subject to a documented investigation.
  • Sec. 2151.4211: If there was a previous investigation, or if the interviews indicated that homeschooling was not in the best interests of the child, social services will recommend against allowing the family to homeschool.
  • Sec. 3321.043: The school district may then decide whether to delay or deny the family’s request to homeschool.
  • Sec. 2151.4213: Should the district decide to delay homeschooling but ultimately permit it, the family must first go through an intervention program developed by social services that includes both counseling and classes on various subjects. Once the family has successfully completed an intervention program, homeschooling may commence.
  • Sec. 2151.4212: For families who were required to go through the intervention program but allowed to homeschool, social services will conduct two in-person meetings with both the parent and the child during the course of the year.
  • Sec. 2151.4214: This entire process would be annual, but when a recommendation against a family homeschooling has not been made for four consecutive years it would no longer be required.
  • Sec. 3314.063: This process is also required for students enrolling in an internet or computer based school.

CRHE supports a system of additional protections for at-risk children who are homeschooled. However, S.B. 248 as currently written is not an effective solution. The bill creates too much extra work for already overworked social services—there are an estimated 60,000 to 80,000 homeschool students in Ohio, each of whom would need to be interviewed annually, along with their parents and any members of their households—and puts every homeschooling family through the process rather than only flagging those who are at risk.

We would would like to see S.B. 248 amended to flag only those children who are at-risk. We support running the name of each child, parent, and household member through the statewide automated child welfare information system and flagging each family that was involved in a past investigation for some form of carefully designed additional protections or oversight. We appreciate that lawmakers in Ohio have been thinking about various forms these additional protections or oversight might take, and are receptive to the idea of requiring at-risk families to go through a carefully developed intervention program.

It is our hope that lawmakers will continue to introduce provisions designed to protect at-risk children, and that these provisions will respect the needs of homeschooled students, homeschool parents, and the child welfare system. As our organization grows, we plan to conduct further research on effective and fair protections for at-risk homeschooled children.

Note: Senator Cafaro has now released a facebook statement saying that she is committed to revising her bill to meet the concerns of all involved. Her recommendations are in line with ours—flagging only families already in the statewide automated child welfare information database for additional protections or oversight. This is a welcome development.

Feel free to contact us at info@responsiblehomeschooling.org.

Homeschool Graduates Launch Nonpartisan Organization to Advocate for the Legal Interests of Homeschooled Children

December 18, 2013

Canton, Massachusetts — Homeschool graduates are launching the Coalition for Responsible Home Education (CRHE), the first-ever non-profit public policy organization to advocate on behalf of the interests of homeschooled children. With an estimated 1.8 million children home educated in the United States, this is the first time since the home education movement began in the 1980’s that a lobbying force will seek to defend and advocate specifically on behalf of homeschooled children.

CRHE’s Executive Director, Heather Doney, was inspired to create the organization after being homeschooled in what she describes as “an educationally neglectful setting until the age of 12.” She was then tutored intensively by her grandfather, later being placed in a public school from which she graduated. She went on to earn an MPP from Brandeis University’s Heller School for Social Policy and Management, writing a capstone paper entitled “The Wild West of Homeschooling: Bringing Adequate Oversight to Parent-Educated Children and Youth.”

“I was inspired to create CRHE,” Doney says, “through a combination of my academic research and personal experience.” She came up with the idea in 2011. Through “a supportive environment made up of young public policy professionals and the former homeschool student community,” her desire has now turned into a tangible goal.

CRHE’s Director of Research, Rachel Coleman, who has worked closely with Doney in founding the organization, was homeschooled from kindergarten through high school. She attended Ball State University for her undergraduate and master’s degrees and is now at Indiana University working on a Ph.D. in history. Coleman is not new to homeschool research. She wrote her 2010 master’s thesis, “Ideologues, Pedagogues, Pragmatics: A Case Study of the Homeschool Community in Delaware County, Indiana,” on homeschooling. Coleman says that while she had “a very good homeschool educational experience,” she also knew peers who did not. This balance of experiences has made her “very passionate about working to help as many homeschooled students as possible have a similarly positive educational experience.”

Doney and Coleman are not the only board member of CRHE to be homeschooled. Each member of the founding board has significant homeschooling experience.

CRHE’s mission is to raise awareness of the need for homeschooling reform, provide public policy guidance, and advocate for responsible home education practices. As Coleman points out, “There is currently no homeschool organization that focuses solely on safeguarding the interests of homeschooled children. We plan to fill that gap.”

Current U.S. public policy on homeschooling is sparse and inconsistent. Most states have some combination of (1) notification, (2) parent qualification, (3) days of instruction, (4) subject, (5) bookkeeping, and (6) assessment requirements. Yet few have all six. In 11 states parents need have no contact at all with state or local education officials. 39 states have no parent qualification requirements at all. Only a limited number of states require parents to maintain attendance records, immunization records, test results, or portfolios of children’s work.

Those leading CRHE believe that better public policy is necessary to safeguard homeschooled children. Coleman says, “Legal oversight of homeschooling should provide accountability to ensure that homeschooled children receive a basic education. There should also be background checks ensuring that adults who have been convicted of past sexual crimes or child abuse cannot homeschool without a judge’s approval.”

While advocating for legal oversight of homeschooling is often seen in homeschooling circles as anti-homeschooling, the former homeschool students that lead CRHE do not see it that way. “We are not anti-homeschooling,” Doney emphasizes, “but rather want more protections for homeschooled children in order to make homeschooling better for everyone.”

Through a combination of both personal homeschooling experiences and a passion for better public policy, Doney, Coleman, and their team are accomplishing something unique. Doney says, “CRHE is the first and only policy advocacy organization founded by homeschool students to help ensure the wellbeing and safety of homeschool students, and our efforts are based on a desire for quality research, best practices, and a holistic child-centered approach to homeschooling policy.”

The Coalition for Responsible Home Education is a nonpartisan organization committed to ensuring that the interests of the homeschooled child are respected alongside the interests of the homeschooling parent. Founded in December of 2013, CRHE advocates for policy changes and oversight in order to raise awareness of the needs of homeschooling families, promote adequate protections for homeschooled children, assist current and former homeschoolers in accessing the resources they need, collect data, and report on potentially underserved homeschool populations. For media inquiries, contact CRHE’s News and Social Media Director, R.L. Stollar, at media@responsiblehomeschooling.org.

Alisa Harris: “Even growing up, I knew I was one of the lucky homeschoolers”

“Even growing up, I knew I was one of the lucky homeschoolers. My family knew homeschooled children who worked in the family businesses instead of doing school, kids who could barely read and who had learning disabilities that their families were not equipped to even identify, let alone address.”

alisa_harris_headshot_360.pngMy homeschooling experience was a rich and wonderful one. History came alive through the diaries of pioneer women, epics like The Iliad and The Odyssey captured my imagination, I had free rein of the public library to check out everything from Tolstoy to Thoreau, I wrote as much as I wanted to, and gave speeches on all of the things I was passionate about. My education was beautifully tailored to develop my talents and imagination, and my parents encouraged me to get out of my comfort zone and do activities that challenged me.

My mother was a certified elementary school teacher who was able to help children love learning, which wasn’t a problem because I loved it anyway. I dutifully did all of my lessons, cried when I got less than perfect scores, devoured 19th century literature, and read Jane Eyre before I could properly pronounce lunatic. My father was actively involved in our intellectual development, kept track of the books I read, and encouraged me to read deeper.

There were downsides, however. My science education was often scientifically inaccurate and haphazard. I was convinced I was bad at math, in part because my conservative homeschool circle did not encourage girls to get a STEM education, and in part because it’s difficult to learn higher-level math when your teacher isn’t trained to teach it. It’s a problem that still crops up every time I take a standardized test.

Even growing up, I knew I was one of the lucky homeschoolers. My family knew homeschooled children who worked in the family businesses instead of doing school, kids who could barely read and who had learning disabilities that their families were not equipped to even identify, let alone address. There were cases of neglect and shocking domestic violence and sexual abuse. In so many of these cases, the physical, educational, and emotional neglect was never confronted, not even by fellow homeschooling parents, the only people in a position to see it. The abuse remained hidden until it ended up on the nightly news or the wives and children fled.

Perhaps because my own experience was positive, I’ve only recently made the connection between those problems of neglect and abuse and the complete lack of homeschooling regulation or oversight in so many states. In my home state, neglectful homeschooling families had only to notify the state before they proceeded to ignore their children’s education. Standardized tests might have motivated these parents to pay more attention to their children’s education, but when I was in high school a homeschool coalition lobbied to repeal all required testing, and my younger siblings and their friends took no standardized tests at all.

Throughout my homeschool experience, my social circle was limited to other homeschoolers, and since I was one of the older children, I had almost no social interaction with children my age. In the few instances where I was able to interact with strangers, my parents were encouraging and did their best to coax me to be friendly, open up, and focus on other people rather than my own insecurity and fear. Still, without regular social interaction with peers, I struggled with shyness longer than I should have with parents who encouraged me. My siblings have been able to cultivate a wider social circle by joining local sports groups, public school drama groups, and choirs. These rich and diverse experiences have been incredibly valuable to their education and their social skills.

For all of the above reasons, I am in favor of sensible homeschooling oversight that preserves all the best aspects of homeschooling—the rich, individualized, and creative education—while mitigating some of the isolation, neglect, and potential harms. Homeschooled students should be allowed to benefit from the diversity of relationships and experiences they can gain by taking a class at a public school or by participating in public school sports and extracurricular activities.

We also have a responsibility to protect children who may be at risk for neglect or abuse. We need to intervene and assist if a child’s education is being neglected, and we need to ensure that parents are qualified to teach. My parents and the many other responsible homeschooling parents I knew would have easily exceeded the standards proposed by Coalition for Responsible Home Education. For less fortunate kids, these standards would have protected them and kept them from slipping through the system’s cracks.


Alisa Harris was homeschooled in New Mexico K-12, 1991 to 2003. For additional thoughts and experiences from other homeschool alumni, see our Testimonials page.

Elizabeth W.: “I am a survivor”

“My mother informed me that from now on we were all going to be “homeschooled” so that no more nosy teachers would be interfering in “our” (her) lives. One of my youngest stepsiblings had made some mention to a teacher of the rampant domestic violence that routinely rampaged through our home. . . . Homeschooling was the first step my mom took to make sure no one could get involved through children’s loose tongues ever again.”

My name is Elizabeth and I am a survivor. I am the oldest of seven children, two of whom are still trapped in the isolated, abusive world created by our mother. My mother began “homeschooling” in the fall of 1993, immediately after three of her four children were returned to her by the state of New York. I had been placed with my biological father for the previous nine months, while my siblings were in a foster home as both their biological father and our mother were in jail. Our mother had been charged with child endangerment and was mandated to attend counseling. I am unsure whether she did or not. Regardless, her abusive and violent behavior continued only to escalate after this time. I had been miserable being placed with a father who was virtually a stranger to me, over a thousand miles away from my brothers and sisters.  In October of 1993, I finally convinced my dad that I wanted to be with Mom and my siblings, so he took me back to her—a decision I would live to regret in many ways, but, looking back, would not have chosen differently at the time.

My mother informed me that from now on we were all going to be “homeschooled” so that no more nosy teachers would be interfering in “our” (her) lives. One of my youngest stepsiblings had made some mention to a teacher of the rampant domestic violence that routinely rampaged through our home. (Thus the subsequent investigation and arrest of both our parents.) Homeschooling was the first step my mom took to make sure no one could get involved through children’s loose tongues ever again.

While mom had always been explosively violent with me I didn’t remember quite so many constant beatings and verbal abuse before this all happened.  After my return from my dad’s house, Mom began to turn on me with sudden and unpredictable rage.  She slapped me across the face multiple times, knocked me down and dragged me around by my hair, repeatedly slamming my head off the floor or walls, all the while screaming that I was lazy, stupid, ungrateful, “just like your father”, “you’re a traitor, you’ve betrayed me”. Often the attacks seemed to be triggered by her simply looking at me and not liking my facial expressions. She would look at me and say that I was looking “rebellious” if I happened to be unhappy and withdrawn that day. I often heard that I looked just like my father, which also seemed to set her off. We stayed in the new apartment for another month or two before mom and my stepdad got back together and moved into a new place in Buffalo, New York, in December 1993.

Mom continued to “homeschool” us, which consisted of buying a few textbooks (sometimes grade appropriate, sometimes not) and telling us to go to our desks and “do school” for a few hours a day.  Many days I was interrupted by mom telling me I needed to “watch” the newest baby for several hours while she talked on the phone or went and did errands. I spent so much time caring for my newborn sisters that two of them actually called me “ma”, until Mom heard.  This was one of many things that set off her punching, kicking, pulling me by the hair and screaming obscenities at me until she was hoarse. I can honestly say that was the extent of my “schooling” for the next six years until I left. Mom did the New York State required “quarterly reports” on our progress, usually late and always false. We also took the mandatory annual CAT tests and usually scored fine on some subjects and poorly on others. Mom officially enrolled us in the Clonlara Homeschool Association that year, which meant she bought “curriculums” from them (which we never used) and we went to their annual conferences a few times.

When I was eleven, my mother arranged for me to work a large paper route that covered 12 city blocks on our street. I worked that route for the next four years, eventually adding another 12 blocks. My mother took all of the money I earned except for what I needed to buy dog food for my dog. She also pushed me to take other jobs. I mowed people’s yards, did landscaping, house cleaning and babysitting. I was never allowed to keep any of the money—this was how she was supplementing the family budget, as she never worked.

Soon after we moved to Buffalo, Mom joined a local homeschooling chapter of born again Christian homeschoolers—LEAH (Living Education At Home). Aside from the one or two weeks a year I was allowed to go to a local YMCA camp, and the occasional summer soccer games with the kids on our street, LEAH was the first regular social interaction I’d been allowed since I left public school in 1993. None of us kids were thrilled with the group, because it was very religious and preachy and we were not (yet). However, it was a few hours a week that we got to leave the house and be out from under mom’s constant supervision and iron rule, so we made the best of it.

The winter I turned 14 our car was repossessed and mom began sending my little brother and I to do all the errands during “school” time. We walked miles through the Buffalo snow to get groceries and the mail (at the post office) every few days. I was also expected to do nearly all of the housecleaning, mopping every room, sweeping, dishes, folding laundry (for seven people), as well as most of the babysitting. There was very little time I could have done “school” even had I been brilliant enough to teach myself a sixth through tenth grade school education. As it was I spent my free hours immersing myself in books I borrowed from the library, ranging from fiction to history and anthropology, classic literature to feminist studies. I credit the natural inclination of my curious and inquiring mind combined with my access to a library with my ability to survive any and all later academic pursuits.

Before long the constant screaming of our mom and my stepdad echoing through our apartment drove our neighbors crazy and they asked the landlord to evict us. In the winter of 1996 we moved a mile down the road into a HUD (low income fixer upper) house, the first my parents had ever owned. Outwardly, things continued much the same, I had my myriad jobs and housecleaning and babysitting duties and mom sat at home and talked on the phone or did “bills” all day. We still attended the LEAH group, though not regularly, and often escaped for a week or two of summer camp. After the move we didn’t make new friends, and so spent even more time in the house and grew gradually ever more isolated. Mom slowly alienated her family, although her parents and sisters made a valiant attempt to stay in touch long distance. Mom had an unparalleled ability to say cruel and hurtful things and make people recoil and stay away. My stepdad’s family was not accepting of the biracial aspect of our family and, with the exception of one uncle, made no attempt to be part of our lives. Neither Mom nor my stepdad had a single friend that I knew of, and no one ever came to our house. We weren’t allowed to have friends over, talk on the phone, use the computer, listen to music, or even have uncensored mail. This quickly put a stop to any attempt on our parts to have even casual friends. Looking back, I can see that after we moved and no longer had immediate neighbors to hear the screaming when she beat me or my brother, she felt much less restrained and the violence increased in frequency and intensity.

If I was quiet and withdrawn (which was pretty much always) and Mom decided my quietness was “rebellious” or “disrespectful”, or if I forgot to say “ma’am” after addressing or answering her, she would begin screaming at me, calling me a disrespectful whore/slut/tramp/bitch, while simultaneously slapping me across the face hard enough to knock me down. She began to use bigger and better weapons than her hands and the bristle side of a hairbrush. I was beaten with length of copper pipe, pieces of two by four, a thick wooden yardstick (which broke on me eventually), thrown down stairs, had my wrists twisted until she forced me to my knees screaming in agony, was dragged around the house by my hair and my head bounced off any and all hard objects. I was often punched in the face, back and stomach, or thrown on the floor and kicked repeatedly until she tired. She tried to suffocate me several times, held me down and forced a pillow onto my face with all her weight, while screaming she was going to kill me and she wished I would die. My head and face were forced under a pouring tub faucet and held there until I thrashed my way out of her grasp.  These things happened at least several times a week, sometimes more than once a day, interspersed with the verbal abuse, and her refusal to address me by name, but rather as “bitch” or “slut”. I was regularly told I was “ugly”, “fat”, “disgusting”, “crazy”, and “stupid”.

For those who think I may have been a “difficult” teenager from 11 to 16 or so when this pattern really took off—I never raised my voice to my mother, never cursed at her, never had friends over or snuck out, never wore anything other than black, baggy clothes (which is hardly slutty), never disobeyed a direct order, never did an illegal drug, smoked or drank, and only ever argued by politely stating I didn’t want to do something, or I thought she was mistaken. The latter two always resulting in a beating or several, so rarely did I dare say no to anything. In public, my siblings and I were always perfectly behaved, rarely speaking, never making noise or stepping out of line. Mom only had to give us that angry glare that promised later retribution for us to think twice about doing anything at all. There was no one around who knew us (beyond the brief homeschooling afternoons with the LEAH group) who could have possibly known that anything was terribly wrong in our house. We were very isolated. There was no one I could have spoken to, even had I found the courage to do so. We’d been trained to fear the authorities and child protective services and had no friends or family to speak of.

Mom “volunteered” me to go work at St. Vincent de Paul soup kitchen once a week to win points with the local Catholic church she dragged us to once in a while. At first I was furious that she had volunteered me without even asking me, but after a while I realized it was a few hours a week out from under her thumb and grew to enjoy it. Mom also signed me up for confirmation classes at the local Catholic church, after she had begun attending workshops run by a fundamentalist Catholic homesteading family who also homeschooled their twelve children. Mom decided it was time for all of us to get more “spiritual”, and began three times a day “prayer circles” where we would all be forced to sit and read aloud from the Bible and sing hymns that the “Fahey’s” (the Catholic family she was imitating) sang. She instituted a clothing change, head-coverings for the girls (I refused), she began making ankle length dresses for herself and us (I also refused), and only long sleeved button down shirts for the boys. She threw out our shorts and t-shirts, started getting rid of her college feminist lit, and any and all of our books she found too “worldly”. Mom sold the computer my grandparents had bought for us, got rid of our tiny video and CD collection, and began instituting even stricter rules for us to follow. During these changes I attended confirmation classes at the local church, which I despised and between the forced Bible study there and the forced Bible study at home quickly grew to despise Christianity and the confining, narrow-minded tenets the Bible espouses. I never spoke my thoughts aloud, but my mother could tell from my face when I wasn’t agreeing or complaisant enough and my face invariably led to new beatings and verbal abuse.

Mom began to use the Bible as an additional weapon, quoting the “Thou shall honor thy father and mother” and telling me that God said I must be obedient and respectful to her. (Even though I was always obedient and never voiced any disrespect.) This just furthered my disgust for the Bible, although I now see that, like homeschooling, it was simply being used by my mother to her ends, not necessarily bad unto itself.

I was falling deeper and deeper into a depression that seemed like it was swallowing me whole. I started sleeping really late every day, shuffling through my duties with my head down and my mouth shut. I began snapping at my siblings when mom wasn’t looking, I had no patience for their demands for my attention or their quarrels. My brothers began fighting viciously with each other, first when mom was out, later even when she was home, resulting in beatings for them as well as me. I knew my mother hated me, I didn’t know why. I tried so hard, for so long, to be what she wanted me to be, obedient, respectful, responsible, but never seemed to find her approval or even a respite from her rage. I am, at my core, fundamentally an honest person, having no talent for acting, for pretending to be happy when I am not. This was my downfall. If I had only been a better actress, perhaps I could have fooled her into thinking I was, in fact, what she wanted me to be, rather than merely doing whatever I was told with my face betraying my misery and despair.

I tried to kill myself twice. Once, at summer camp, I stepped in front of an oncoming semi-truck with a feeling of exultant freedom and calm. A boy who liked me happened to be standing nearby and turned around and yanked me out of the road as the truck went by. The second time, my brother Alexander and I were coming home from the paper route and I decided the easiest way to end my misery would be to poison myself. I picked a handful of deadly nightshade berries and was about to throw them down my throat when my brother jumped up and slapped them out of my hands and started screaming and crying hysterically. I felt sad, resigned, and guilty for terrifying him so, and didn’t try to kill myself again.

In 1997, Mom decided my paper route was allowing me too much freedom and she wasn’t making enough money off of it/me to be worth the trouble, so she called my boss and “quit” for me. I was devastated by this as it was among my last outlets for momentary respite from the hell that was my home.

The following year I got my first real job, washing dishes at a local pizzeria for minimum wage. I was ecstatic at being able to get out of the house a few evenings a week and being allowed to save a little money to buy a puppy for my sixteenth birthday. After about six months, my mother called and told my employer that I could no longer work there because I was sleeping with a married 30-year-old man who was a coworker there. All this because I had spoken to him on the phone (about a dog) while she was listening in, and she said she could tell we were having sex by the tone of his voice. Really. There was no other evidence for her accusation, that was it. Mom convinced herself that this was true even though both he and I told her she was mistaken and crazy. She then beat me, off and on, for the next two days for this delusional belief until I could stand it no longer.

I packed my things and lived on the streets of Buffalo for next three weeks. I camped out in the basement of an abandoned apartment building, slept in a refrigerator box when I could, and mostly just tried to process what on earth to do next. Going home was not an option because if I stayed another minute I knew I would kill myself. I felt as if I was being slowly crushed by my life and there was only a spark of life and spirit left. After a few weeks I found a runaway shelter that helped me track down my biological father, who came and got me.


Elizabeth W. was homeschooled in the 1990s in New York State. For additional thoughts and experiences from other homeschool alumni, see our Testimonials page.

Giselle Palmer: “Good home schools will show progress”

“In a country where education is compulsory and all schools and teachers face extreme levels of accountability for their teaching, home schools (while having some degree of curricular freedom) should also demonstrate that they are, in fact, educating children. If parents are providing sufficient education for their kids, this should not be a frightening prospect.”

Giselle PalmerMy name is Giselle Palmer, and I am an advocate for homeschool accountability.

I was homeschooled in Alabama from 1985 to 1989 (2nd to 5th grades), in Florida from 1989 to 1991 (part of 6th and all of 7th grades), and in Tennessee from 1992 to 1996 (9th to 12th grades). During those years, we were registered under “umbrella schools” that helped to supervise homeschool families. I also attended private schools off and on during my school years.

My homeschooling experiences were almost always positive. We started homeschooling primarily because we moved frequently as a result of my father’s job as an engineer. The laws regulating homeschooling in our states of residence varied, and my parents were careful to abide by them. They were conscientious parents and made sure that we were educated in a way that would prepare us for success in life as well as college entrance if we desired to attend. We were registered under “umbrella schools” and completed periodic reporting requirements, based on the state. The reports were reasonable measures of accountability and not invasive. We also took standardized achievement tests regularly and did very well.

Although our parents were conservative, they were neither abusive nor overly controlling. When I was growing up, I did not have any definite knowledge of families who abused their children, but there were a few families we thought seemed a little “off,” and now I wonder . . . . We also knew families whose children seemed to be a little “behind” academically, and this concerned us somewhat. Looking back now from the perspective of a public school teacher, I realize that most of these children were probably still in the average range for their grade levels. Some of them even attended college as they got older. Some likely had undiagnosed learning disabilities.

My main reason for supporting accountability for homeschoolers is to help prevent the abuse and neglect of children. I have met children who were “homeschooled” and then entered the public schools woefully unprepared. I’ve encountered others who were habitually abused and, because they were homeschooled, no one knew or suspected what was going on in their families.

I believe that the majority of homeschooling families raise and educate their children in good faith, to the best of their abilities, and in a generally appropriate fashion. I do not believe intensive oversight of families is necessary, unless there are serious suspicions of abuse or educational neglect, demonstrated by a lack of academic progress. However, as an educator and a child advocate, I believe that all children have the right to learn and live free from fear and abuse. For these reasons, I support homeschool accountability at the state/county level.

In a country where education is compulsory and all schools and teachers face extreme levels of accountability for their teaching, home schools (while having some degree of curricular freedom) should also demonstrate that they are, in fact, educating children. If parents are providing sufficient education for their kids, this should not be a frightening prospect. I am not suggesting that home schools must follow the same scope and sequence of public schools, just that academic progress should be observable. Children’s abilities vary widely in all educational environments, but good schools show progress from year to year.

Good home schools will show progress, as well.


Giselle Palmer was homeschooled from 1985 to 1996 in Alabama, Florida, and Tennessee. For additional thoughts and experiences from other homeschool alumni, see our Testimonials page.

Holly S.: “If there had only been some protection in place”

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“Many of my friends and I do not have high school diplomas or transcripts. … In addition to the rampant educational neglect that occurred in homeschool circles, the lack of proper documents made it difficult for many of us to access higher education.”

I think that homeschool regulation is important because my life and the lives of my homeschooled contemporaries would have been improved by some degree of regulation. During my time being homeschooled, I suffered from various types of abuse along with educational neglect. I believe that if I had been in school I would have had less time to be exposed to the family members who abused me. Also, I would have had the opportunities to make the most of my education and to take classes that I missed out on in a homeschooling environment.

Many of my friends and I do not have high school diplomas or transcripts. In the states in which we were homeschooled, there was little oversight and no requirement that parents provide such documents to graduating home school students. In addition to the rampant educational neglect that occurred in homeschool circles, the lack of proper documents made it difficult for many of us to access higher education. Sadly, many of my friends are chronically underemployed and trapped in bad marriages because they have no way to support themselves.

Although I have achieved a great deal of educational success, it took me 15 years after high school to achieve my goal of a master’s degree. I wasn’t in school the whole time by any means, but I had to start and stop my higher education career several times.

The most difficult part of my higher education experience was the lack of choice. While most people would assume that an adult could make his or her own choices, a homeschooled student is continually hampered by the lack of documentation. I was not allowed access to my own transcripts, and so I could not apply to college where I wanted to go. My parents preferred that I not go to college at all, but that I go to an apprenticeship program. Because I resisted this option, they eventually allowed me to go to college.  My grandfather had given me money to pay for college, which no one told me until I was eighteen. However, my mother said she would not make up a transcript for any school that she did not choose. I did agree to go to a very conservative college of my parents’ choosing, but it was a bad situation for me.

If there had only been some protection in place that would have allowed me to have access to a transcript, I would have at least left homeschooling as a free adult. Although I still suffered abuse and educational neglect, it was additional abuse that bound me to my parents as an adult “child” to force me to do their will through college. This is one of the reasons I support reasonable regulation of homeschooling. My concern is not that parents be denied rights to raise their children, but that children are given protections. I also think that all children should finish a high school education with the ability to earn a diploma and access to transcripts.


Holly S. was homeschooled 4th-12th, from 1988 to 1997, in South Carolina and North Carolina. For additional thoughts and experiences from other homeschool alumni, see our Testimonials page.