The Homeschooling Lobby and the Dangers of Deregulation

When asked about powerful lobbying organizations, state lawmakers across the country often don’t point to the NRA; instead, they refer to the astonishingly influential Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA). The organization, founded in 1983, rose to prominence concurrently with the fundamentalist Christian movement in the eighties. Today, it boasts approximately 80,000 members and a lobbying team that often succeeds in vanquishing proposed homeschooling regulations and rolling back those already on the books. Regardless of the benefits of homeschooling on balance, HSLDA’s lobbing has left the practice virtually unregulated — leaving a door open for harmful practices to which children should not be subject.

Homeschooling as an institution is a relatively recent phenomenon. The practice has gained popularity in recent years, posting a 74 percent increase in participants during the last decade, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The incentives for homeschooling range from academic to religious. In fact, homeschoolers on average score nominally higher on standardized tests than public school students. The religious benefits of homeschooling factor largely into this increase; as many as two-thirds of homeschooling parents do so in part for faith-based reasons. Homeschooling parents point to a perceived growing secularization of American education as a motivation for homeschooling. Yet other causes abound. Rob Reich, a political scientist at Stanford, finds that the types of homeschooling parents range from Christian conservatives to secular humanists. The common denominator among these otherwise dissimilar groups is the belief that they alone should decide how their children are educated. This reasoning is partly driven by distrust of the public school system, which many believe is failing. Nine out of ten homeschooled students have parents who say that a concern about the environment of other schools in the area was a main reason for their decision to homeschool.

Most of the aforementioned facts are based on surveys and estimations, given the fact that it is highly difficult for state and federal agencies to acquire anything other than surface level statistics on homeschooling. In fact, homeschooling is so minimally and unevenly regulated that even just knowing exactly how many homeschoolers are out there is impossible, although it’s estimated to be around two million. The lack of regulation is stark: a majority of states do not set requirements for student attendance, instructor qualifications, or student assessments. One homeschooling mom who ultimately enrolled her children in public school stated that, “Because I was so overwhelmed with my life…It was a real struggle to do the basics, so it didn’t take long for my kids to fall far behind. One of my daughters could not read at 11 years old.” These cracks in academic achievement — which shouldn’t overshadow some of homeschooling’s good outcomes like superior test scores — indicate the need for more oversight. The last time homeschooling did receive serious scrutiny was in the eighties and nineties, with some states banning it outright. But current law, or lack thereof, reveals how much the states have departed from that trend. In order to ensure that all children receive a high-quality education, states should be more proactive.

Homeschooling is so minimally and unevenly regulated that even just knowing exactly how many homeschoolers are out there is impossible, although it’s estimated to be around two million.

Unfortunately, educational concerns are sometimes the least serious consequence of homeschooling. When a child attends public school, administrators, counselors, and teachers can intervene if the student displays signs of neglect or abuse. Yet in the case of homeschooling, this safeguard doesn’t exist. A 2014 study conducted by Barbara Knox, a University of Wisconsin pediatrician, analyzed thirty-eight cases of severe child abuse and found that that nearly 50 percent of parents had either removed their children from public school or never enrolled them, telling their respective states they were homeschooling. Similarly, the Associated Press reported on an incident in December of 2015 where a homeschool father beat his seven year old son to death and fed his remains to the family’s pigs. In 2003 a team of police in New Jersey discovered a forty-five pound nineteen year old rummaging through garbage looking for food. He as well as his brothers were nominally homeschooled. Such horrific stories are not as rare as the general public may assume, since people remain unaware of the problem because of the extent to which homeschooling has been deregulated. While abuse is not endemic to the practice of homeschooling and certainly is not caused by homeschooling, the lack of oversight has allowed for such malicious practices, regardless of their rarity, to go unnoticed, so homeschooling clearly needs government oversight just like any other activity that concerns children.

Disturbing tales like these have sparked some lawmakers to call for action. After the incident in New Jersey, Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg introduced legislation that would have mandated better testing, documentation, and medical evaluation of homeschooled children. After the bill was introduced, the HSLDA pounced on the proposed legislation and began a relentless lobbying process that ultimately scuttled the bill. Versions of the legislation have been reintroduced as recently as 2014 but have met similar results. After legislators in New Hampshire and Arkansas tried to pass similar measures, the HSLDA sent mass email alerts to its members. The backlash against the lawmakers sponsoring the bills caused all of said sponsors to remove their names from the proposed legislation. In response to the defeated Arkansas legislation, the founder of the HSLDA, Christian activist Michael Farris, remarked that “[t]o my knowledge, I can’t think of an occasion where we went backwards in our goal.” The lobby’s scorched earth tactics have created a situation where homeschooling could hardly be less monitored.

The lobby’s success, similar to that of other successful groups like the National Rifle Association, can be attributed to its dissemination of a perfunctory argument to its tens of thousands of members and nonmembers alike. The organization is dedicated to making sure federal, state, and local officials stay completely out of homeschooler’s homes, in accordance to the group’s conservative nature. HSLDA publicly advises its members to deny social workers entry into their houses without a warrant. The organization’s low tolerance for any semblance of regulation stems from an overarching fear within the HSLDA and the larger homeschool community that the general populace views the practice with suspicion, and that the ultimate intent behind any regulation stems from a distrust and dislike for homeschooling. When viewed within the larger context of the homeschool regulation debate, this argument holds little water considering the fact that growing calls for regulation are even coming from within the homeschooling community. Rachel Coleman, a homeschool alum and director of the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, has been leading the charge in calling for increased oversight. While her experience with homeschooling was positive, her group has documented over a hundred fatalities due to homeschooling neglect and child abuse, bringing her to the conclusion that the HSLDA’s work may be doing more harm than good.

As the HSLDA continues to march towards deregulation, the costs of continued governmental neglect to homeschooled children carry heavy risks and serious dangers. Combating this problem will certainly require state lawmakers to muster up a modicum of courage to take on this fierce homeschool lobby if they intend on making sure all children, regardless of circumstance, can learn in a safe and effective environment. Unfortunately, the past decade has shown that political capital is simply not there to take on this peculiarly formidable lobby. Perhaps the issue’s relatively recent ascension into the national discourse will provide a catalyst to getting some form of meaningful regulation on the books. With that being said, the time has long since passed for state and local legislators to do their jobs and protect the people they were sworn to protect, and that especially includes even the most invisible and vulnerable in our society.