Why Homeschooling Needs Oversight: Responding to HSLDA and WORLD

Today WORLD Magazine posted an article listing our policy recommendations alongside a response by the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA). The article’s author, Daniel Devine, did not offer us space to respond, so we will do so below, after a few introductory points.

WORLD Magazine has not been upfront about the fact that its editor-in-chief, Marvin Olasky, holds the Distinguished Chair of Journalism and Public Policy at Patrick Henry College. Michael Farris is both the Chancellor of Patrick Henry College and the Chairman of HSLDA. This conflict of interest on the part of WORLD Magazine is not mentioned here.

That aside, we are happy to read HSLDA’s response to our policy recommendations and hope for the chance to engage with them further on this topic. HSLDA and CRHE’s positions on homeschooling policy differ because they serve two different audiences: HSLDA’s mission is “to defend and advance the constitutional right of parents to direct the education of their children” (emphasis added), while CRHE’s goal is “advocating for homeschooled children.” In theory, though, policy recommendations should be able to benefit both homeschool parents and homeschooled children.

However, HSLDA’s response to our policy recommendations makes it clear that they are advocating for the interests of their members—homeschooling parents—at the expense of the interests of homeschooled children. We do not believe that this is a positive framing for homeschooled children, who may not have chosen homeschooling as their educational method and who may not have a voice of their own.

As we mentioned in our first statement to WORLD, we have been working with HSLDA on their child abuse pages, and we hope to find more common ground in the future. Unfortunately, we remain troubled by HSLDA’s insistence on minimizing the problem of abuse and neglect in homeschooling circles and prioritizing homeschool parents’ convenience over homeschooled children’s safety.

State notification

Coalition for Responsible Home Education: “We recommend requiring parents to provide annual notification of their intent to homeschool. This notice should include at a minimum children’s names, ages, and grade levels, as well as the names of the parents and family’s address.”

Home School Legal Defense Association: “HSLDA is pro-homeschool freedom; we believe that parents as the natural God-given teachers should be allowed to homeschool their children. Most states already require notification, but many don’t, and HSLDA advocates to keep it that way.”

Response:

We believe that homeschooling is a legitimate way to educate children, and that therefore parents—as legitimate educators—should take steps to ensure the welfare of the children they are teaching. Notifying local or state officials when a child is being homeschooled is in no way an imposition on homeschool freedom. Instead, notification provides a safeguard for homeschooled children who might otherwise fall through the cracks, as well as protecting children’s freedom to receive an education—be that through public schools, private schools, or homeschooling.

Finally, it’s worth noting that HSLDA does not merely advocate for those states that do not require notification “to keep it that way,” it has also been active in ongoing efforts to repeal notification requirements in those states that do have them. One such example is Iowa, which repealed its notification requirement last year with a bill shepherded through the legislature by HSLDA.

Parental education

CRHE: “We recommend that the parent providing primary instruction be required to have at least a high school diploma or GED.”

HSLDA: “Most parents in the United States have a high school diploma (85 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau). HSLDA has yet to see research indicating that children of homeschool parents who do not have a high school diploma or its equivalent score lower on standardized tests than children of graduates. In fact, the only research of which we are aware shows that they score similarly.”

Response:

HSLDA correctly points out that the number of parents who do not have a high school diploma or equivalent is comparatively small. NCES data shows that 11% of homeschooled children had no parents with a high school diploma or its equivalent in 2011. However, we do not believe that this segment of the homeschool population is unimportant simply because the percentage is relatively small: roughly 195,000 children are being homeschooled by parents who have less than a high school education.

In the late 1990s, HSLDA hired researcher Lawrence Rudner to conduct a massive study of homeschooled students’ academic performance. That study, the results of which were released in 1999, found that children homeschooled by parents without college degrees scored twenty percentile points lower than those homeschooled by parents with college degrees. More recently, an HSLDA-promoted study by Brian Ray published in 2010 also found that children homeschooled by parents with college degrees perform better academically than those homeschooled by parents without college degrees. In other words, we know conclusively that parental education plays a significant role in homeschooled children’s academic achievement. This holds true even among more privileged and involved homeschoolers, who composed the majority of Rudner’s and Ray’s samples.

Even outside of homeschooling circles, parental educational achievement is highly correlated with higher levels of income and standardized test scores. Dr. Janet Currie, Chair of the Economics Department at Princeton University, has written on the impact of maternal education on children’s test scores in multiple papers. In a 1995 paper on children’s cognitive achievement, she and co-author Duncan Thomas wrote, “the evidence is clear: maternal income and education do affect children’s test scores, even after controlling for [background factors].” In the homeschooling world, mothers are usually their children’s most important academic influence: it would follow that their educational success depends upon their mothers’ ability to instruct them.

But for all the demonstrated importance of parental education, WORLD magazine actually incompletely quoted our policy recommendations: we think that homeschool parents who do not yet have their GED should be allowed to homeschool—provided that they do so under the supervision of a certified teacher or other similarly qualified individual, either indefinitely or until a GED is obtained. This provision is similar to models in Ohio, Washington, and North Dakota.

Subject matter

CRHE: “We recommend requiring parents to provide instruction (or facilitate learning) in the same range of subjects (e.g. English, math, science, history, etc.) taught in public schools in the state in which they live. Parents should not be required to use the same textbooks or methods as public schools. Because homeschooling allows for positive flexibility and child-led learning, we oppose requiring students to be at grade level in each subject.”

HSLDA: “[We recommend the] same ‘range’ of subjects, yes, but not exactly what is taught in public school. HSLDA has consistently opposed the state setting what must be taught in each subject. But CRHE’s proposal is already the case is almost every state—even in states like New Jersey or Texas that don’t require notification, there’s almost always a list of subjects that must be taught, or a requirement that ‘equivalent’ instruction has to be given.”

Response:

We are pleased that HSLDA supports our recommendation that homeschool parents be required to provide instruction in the same range of subjects taught in public school, but are disappointed that HSLDA has minimized the number of states that currently do not require this. Thirteen states allow parents to homeschool without requiring them to provide instruction in any specific subject. These parents are not held to any sort of “equivalent instruction” requirements, and are not required to have their children’s academic progress assessed. In these states homeschool parents can legally neglect to educate their children in science, or math, or history, or all of these.

We believe that homeschooled children in every state should have access to a well-rounded education, and we hope HSLDA will work with us to change the law in those states with inadequate or nonexistent subject requirements.

Record-keeping

CRHE: “Parents should be required to maintain academic records for each child they homeschool. Parents should be required to submit copies of each child’s birth certificate, immunization records, and annual assessment to be kept on file by either the local school district or state department of education or, when applicable, an umbrella school.”

HSLDA: “We have always recommended to our members that they keep good academic records for their own legal protection, no matter what state they live in. We would strongly oppose requiring parents to submit sensitive information such as birth certificates and immunization records to the government.”

Response:

We believe parents should keep good academic records not merely for their own legal protection but to ensure their children’s academic success. Homeschool parents are responsible for writing their children’s high school transcripts, a task that is difficult when good records have not been kept. Furthermore, the records homeschooling parents keep are often the only evidence homeschooled children have that they have received an education.

Keeping basic academic records should not be optional for homeschool parents, as these records are not optional for their children’s success in adulthood. We would like to see these records submitted to the local school district annually and kept on file, subject to the same privacy requirements as other children’s academic records, in order to ensure that homeschool parents are keeping the required records and to ensure that homeschool graduates, including those whose parents might withhold these documents in an effort to control them, have access to them.

We recommend requiring parents to submit their children’s birth certificates to the local school district or the state department of education in order to verify the child’s age and ensure that the child has not been kidnapped or trafficked. Sadly, there are numerous cases where kidnapped or trafficked children have been homeschooled in order to keep them from detection. If homeschool parents are required to provide notice and submit the children’s birth certificates, this could be avoided. As for immunization records, we believe homeschooling parents should be held to the same vaccination requirements as all other parents, which includes submitting immunization records or exemptions.

Finally, we find it odd that HSLDA objects to requiring parents to submit their children’s birth certificate “to the government” when these documents are issued by the government.

Assessment

CRHE: “Students’ academic progress should be evaluated and reported annually. Parents should be allowed to choose between a number of different assessment mechanisms, including standardized tests and portfolio reviews. Failure to make adequate academic progress should result in intervention.”

HSLDA: “We oppose submission of annual evaluations for homeschool students, as do a majority of states in the United States. However, for states that do require assessments, we agree with CRHE that the assessments should ‘take into account the flexible and innovative nature of homeschooling,’ and we agree that parents should have a choice of options.”

Response:

At issue here is accountability. While many homeschool parents provide their children with an excellent education, others fail to provide instruction in even basic subjects. In states without an assessment requirement, there is nothing to protect these children’s interest in receiving an education. Half of all states (25) require some form of assessments for homeschooled children, but 7 of these states do not require that the assessments be submitted or have no minimum score and 11 of these states offer additional homeschool options with no assessment requirement. We believe that every homeschooled child should have access to an education, and that basic accountability is an important part of ensuring that access.

Stories from homeschool alumni testify to the importance of accountability. One homeschool graduate writes of being homeschooled in Pennsylvania, where yearly assessments kept her and her mother motivated and on track, and then moving to New Jersey, where “things fell apart” due to the lack of assessments or accountability of any sort. HSLDA may urge parents to see accountability as a violation of parents’ freedom to homeschool, but not all homeschooling parents see it that way. “Opposition to oversight and accountability within education seems foolish,” explained one such parent.

Protections for at-risk children

CRHE: “We recommend barring from homeschooling parents convicted of child abuse, sexual offenses, or other crimes that would disqualify them from employment as a school teacher. We also recommend creating a process for flagging at-risk children, such as those in families with a troubling history of child protective services involvement, for intervention or additional monitoring. Finally, we recommend that the annual assessment requirement be conducted by mandatory reporters such as certified teachers; these individuals should be trained in how to recognize signs of abuse and how to report suspicions of maltreatment.”

HSLDA: “We oppose this blanket sledgehammer approach in favor of a more individualized response. As an example, I worked with a family a few years ago where the mother had been convicted of child abuse. The juvenile court had the child attend public school for a year, then allowed the mother to begin homeschooling under court supervision for two more years. When it was obvious that the previous issues had been dealt with, the court closed the case.”

Rebuttal:

There is no way to institute an individualized response without a system in place to identify families at additional risk of abuse or neglect. HSLDA has in the past opposed efforts to create such a system by flagging families with prior child abuse convictions or investigations for additional monitoring. Indeed, HSLDA is on record above supporting the status quo in states with no notification requirements for homeschooling. If parents need not notify anyone when they begin homeschooling, how are those with prior child abuse convictions or other risk factors to be identified for extra monitoring? As we know and as HSLDA surely knows as well, homeschooled children whose parents are convicted sex offenders or child abusers, or whose families have a troubling history of social services involvement, are at higher risk of child abuse. Only two states currently offer any protections for these at-risk homeschooled children.

We have spent over a year researching and analyzing cases of abuse and neglect in homeschooling settings in an effort to identify common themes and create policies that will most effectively protect at-risk homeschooled children. In many cases, children have beenabused or neglected by parents who homeschool specifically to conceal their maltreatment. These families often begin homeschooling after an unsubstantiated child abuse investigation following a report by a teacher. In some cases these childrenhave died. Homeschooled children have also been abused by parents who were convicted sex offenders or by parents who had previously had a child removed due to abuse. Homeschooled children’s interest in a safe and non-abusive upbringing must be protected.

Public school services

CRHE: “We recommend allowing homeschooled students to enroll part time in their local public schools and to participate in extracurriculars, including sports. Public schools should have cooperative policies for awarding credit and assisting with the transition for homeschooled students who want to transfer in.”

HSLDA: “Traditionally, HSLDA has been neutral on this issue. We have members who are passionately in favor of more access and members who are completely opposed. However, if a state does allow access, we will advocate on behalf of our members if they are discriminated against.”

Response:

There is no reason why HSLDA members who oppose access to public school services should block access for homeschool students who do wish to be involved. Those not interested in public school extracurriculars need not participate. Making educational decisions for your own children is one thing, but making educational decisions for other people’s children is something HSLDA claims to oppose. We believe that homeschooled children benefit from access to public school extracurriculars and classes and see working toward public school access in every state as part of advocating on behalf of homeschooled children.

Public funding

CRHE: “Public school districts should receive funds for services provided to homeschooled students. State funding should be made available to fund oversight of homeschooling.”

HSLDA: “We would be in favor of public school districts receiving funds for services provided to homeschool students. We would be opposed to school districts getting extra funding just to further regulate homeschooling.”

Response:

We are pleased that HSLDA is in favor of public school districts receiving funds for services provided to homeschooled students, a system which expands homeschooled students’ options and is already in place in states like Idaho and New Mexico. However, we are concerned about their unwillingness to fund oversight of homeschooling. One of HSLDA’s regular criticisms of school districts providing oversight for homeschooling has been that districts do not have the resources to effectively monitor homeschooling families. It is inconsistent to oppose adequately funding school districts and then turn around and oppose oversight on the basis of inadequate funding.

Conclusion

Most of HSLDA’s rejections of our proposed recommendations seem to be based on the principle of maintaining the status quo. The insistence on this principle belies the fact that HSLDA has been working to roll back homeschool oversight for decades now, and it obscures the reality that HSLDA has created that status quo—they are the ones who prevented oversight provisions from being enacted in those states that do not have them. Further, HSLDA is actively lobbying for less oversight in states that already have it, such as in Pennsylvania, and describing mere calls for research on the efficacy of current laws, such as HJ-92 in Virginia, as a “faith-based attack”.

In both this and last week’s WORLD magazine article on this topic, HSLDA has pushed back against calls for oversight by arguing that the majority of homeschoolers are fine under the current laws. This may be true for many homeschoolers, but it is not true for all homeschoolers. We are contacted regularly about abusive or neglectful homeschooling situations and are in contact with large numbers of homeschool alumni who grew up in bad homeschooling environments. There are homeschooled children today, as we write and as you read, who are being denied access to an education, or abused without access to mandatory reporters. These children need protections. We find it very strange indeed that a resolutely Christian organization like HSLDA is spending so much time caring for its current flock and so little time considering the stray lamb.