Lack of home schooling oversight ‘obvious danger’ to children, experts say

<span>Photograph: klebercordeiro/Getty Images/iStockphoto</span>
Photograph: klebercordeiro/Getty Images/iStockphoto

As more people in the US choose to home school their children, experts have warned that the lack of oversight over the process leaves children at risk of isolation, receiving a poor education, or suffering abuse and neglect.

The number of Americans choosing to home school has more than doubled in some states since the Covid-19 pandemic. While that represents a small minority of American children as a whole, the rise in children being home schooled has troubled both academics who track the effects of home schooling, and advocates who endured destructive home-schooling environments themselves.

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Much of the reason for that concern is the lack of safeguards to protect children being home schooled – a uniquely American problem not seen elsewhere.

For years, rightwing home school lobbying organizations in the US have successfully fought attempts to introduce regulations over the process. That means the welfare of children is not monitored and there is barely any direction over the quality of education they receive.

“The majority of home-schooling parents have their child’s best intentions in mind,” said Angela Grimberg, the executive director of the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, an organization run by people who were home schooled that advocates for better policies to protect and educate home-schooled children.

Grimberg notes that of those children who were home schooled, some had their education “neglected” because “of a lack of home schooling policy”.

“[They] fell through the cracks,” she said, adding that “on the more severe end of the spectrum” there were children who were “physically abused and neglected”.

Home schooling has traditionally been associated with evangelical Christians, but there are now “a variety of reasons” why people choose to home school, Grimberg said. That can include parents believing they can provide a better environment for children with disabilities, or some people choosing to home school children who have experienced bullying.

There are also some home schoolers who are dissatisfied with the perceived direction of the public school system, including how schools address issues of racial history and sexuality. That concept matches the rightwing war on education, which has seen books banned in schools across the country and the introduction of draconian laws, typically targeting issues of race and LGBTQ+ identity, over what teachers can say in the classroom.

Grimberg, who is from Florida, said her mother did not want to send her to public school “because she thought home schooling was safer”.

“There are organizations out there that just continually perpetuate the narrative that in public schools you have sex offenders that are teachers, you have bullying, you have all of this crime. And my mom really believed that, and so she just decided, you know, let me just keep them at home,” Grimberg said.

Grimberg’s mother worked at home at the time. When she took on a more demanding job, the schooling fell by the wayside.

“My brother’s and my education was neglected and we didn’t receive an education in elementary or middle school and I had to fight my way out of home schooling,” Grimberg said.

When she was 14 years old, Grimberg enrolled herself in Florida Virtual School, which provides e-learning. As she got older, Grimberg found that her home schooling experience was the root of many challenges she faced.

“There were just so many obstacles,” she explained, “when trying to pick up on social cues, make friends, also, in understanding some of the dangers. I was very naive, because I was so protected at home that I didn’t know what dangers outside were and how to overcome them, so I faced a lot of those head-on.”

Grimberg added that she needed “triple the time” to study “to make up for the lost time in my education, to just be able to perform how other students who are performing that were in my grade level”.

“It was a tremendous amount of work and I got very, very lucky,” she said. “My experience is not typical.”

The National Center for Education Statistics reported that 1.5 million children between five and 17 were being home schooled in 2019, the last year figures are available. That amounted to 2.8% of American children. The Washington Post estimated that there are currently between 1.9 million and 2.7 million children being home schooled. The Post also reported that the number of home schooled children had doubled in New York state and Washington DC, and almost doubled in South Dakota, Rhode Island and Tennessee.

The number of children being home schooled has declined slightly in the last year, according to the Post’s analysis, but remains above the 2019 figure. Given that the majority of states do not monitor the quality of education home-schooled children are receiving, and 11 states do not even require parents to notify the state that they plan to educate their children at home, the potential for problems is high.

The level of oversight and regulation to make sure children are safe and receiving an adequate education is “close to none”, said Elizabeth Bartholet, a professor of law emeritus at Harvard law school whose work has specialized in child welfare.

“And that’s pretty true in all 50 states. Even in the ones with regulation on the books, it’s not that significant. Some states require that the parents commit to teaching the essence of the public school curriculum, but I would contend that they don’t do much of anything to make sure that that actually happens,” she said.

“Some states say that kids have to be tested, but many of those states allow the testing to take place at home, where the parents can do the testing, and just turn in the results, [states can] give parents the option of just turning in a portfolio review – and it’s not clear that if the parents don’t turn it in anything actually happens.”

Beyond that, state-run Child Protective Services departments rely on “mandated reporters” – typically school professionals or medical practitioners – to report suspected child abuse or neglect. If a child is home schooled, they are far less likely to come into contact with a mandated reporter.

“Going to school is one of the first and best protections for kids because they are seen – at least during school terms – five days a week by a variety of school personnel, all of whom have this duty to report. Most of the reports that come into our child protective system are from school personnel,” Bartholet said.

“So when you give parents the right to keep their kids at home free from anybody looking at them, including mandated reporters, you’re taking away one of the main protections for children.”

Given the lack of oversight of home schooling, there is little data on its impact and the number of children being educated in unsafe environments.

The Coalition for Responsible Home Education said it was aware of “thousands” of children whose educations were neglected, while the organization’s Homeschooling’s Invisible Children database has documented 600 cases of child abuse and neglect among home-schooled children. Grimberg says this is “an extreme underestimate” of the total.

The potential for harm inherent in the US system is not replicated in other countries. Home schooling is effectively banned altogether in Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and Spain, while Bartholet said most countries that do allow it enforce strict monitoring, which can include home visits by teachers, and require home schoolers to follow the standard school curriculum. (Bartholet said the UK is rare in having relatively little oversight.)

“I think a lot of the people [in the US] promoting the current unregulated regime in home schooling are saying: ‘Parents should have this absolute right to bring up their kids free of government intervention,’” Bartholet said.

“And the rest of the world doesn’t think that way. I think the rest of the world is much more ready to see children as having rights. They don’t see adults as having as sacrosanct a right to be left alone by the government. They see adults as more part of the community and having responsibilities for children, not just rights vis-a-vis children.”

The lack of regulation can be attributed to an aggressive home schooling lobby, which has worked for decades to prevent stricter rules around the welfare of children taught at home.

The types of people opting to home-school may have grown more diverse, but right-wing conservative organizations dominate the lobbying around it. Chief among them is the Home School Legal Defense Association, founded by the rightwing legal activist Michael Farris in 1983.

Under Farris – who later became the CEO of Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian legal group that works to roll back the rights of LGBTQ+ people – the Home School Legal Defense Association has worked with legislators to draft legislation that defends home schooling. The group has also sued states that have attempted to enforce existing laws around home schooling.

Bartholet said there has been little political appetite to introduce better regulation over home schooling. Given the close ties the rightwing home school lobby has with the Republican party - Farris was involved in the effort to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election – bringing the US up to the standard of other countries could take some time. Bartholet said at the very least “there should be some minimal protections”.

“For example, we shouldn’t allow parents to home school without first checking to see if they have a history of serious abuse and neglect,” she said. “And if they have that kind of history, I don’t think they should be permitted to home school.

“I mean, it seems to me fundamental, if you care about kids’ rights, to say that if some parent has seriously abused one of their children, they shouldn’t be permitted to keep this child at home free from any observation by any other human being. It just seems like an obvious danger for children.”