August 30, 2015
This story was co-published with Slate.
In the fall of 2003, police in New Jersey received a call from a concerned neighbor who'd found a boy rummaging in her garbage, looking for food. He was 19 years old but was 4 feet tall and weighed just 45 pounds. Investigators soon learned that the boy's three younger brothers were also severely malnourished.
The family was known to social workers, but the children were being homeschooled and thus were cut off from the one place where their condition could have gotten daily scrutiny – a classroom.
After the story of the emaciated boys appeared in national newspapers, New Jersey Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg was moved to introduce new legislation. "My question was, how does someone fall off the face of the earth so that no one knows they exist? I was told it was because he was homeschooled," she said.
Pennsylvania is the most heavily regulated state for homeschooling in the country. In New Jersey, the word "homeschooling" is not mentioned once in its education regulations.
Her bill, introduced in 2004, would've required parents, for the first time, to notify the state that their children were being homeschooled, have them complete the same annual tests as public school students, and submit proof of annual medical tests.
Soon afterward, a small group of homeschooling parents began following Weinberg around the capitol. The barrage of phone calls from homeschooling advocates so jammed her office phone lines that staffers had to use their private cellphones to conduct business. "You would have thought I'd recommended the end of the world as we know it," said Weinberg. "Our office was besieged."
Many of the "hundreds and hundreds" of calls she said her office received came in response to an email alert from the Home School Legal Defense Association, a small but fierce advocacy group based in Purcellville, Virginia. The email, sent May 3, 2004, urged members to immediately place calls opposing a bill that would "devastate homeschooling in New Jersey" by giving the state Board of Education "virtually unlimited power to impose additional restrictions" – a claim Weinberg said was untrue. Additional alerts with similar language were sent out on May 13, 14, 18, 21, 26 and 28.
"There are very few fights I have given up in the more than 20-some-odd years I have been involved in the state Legislature, but this was one of them," said Weinberg, pictured left. While Weinberg dropped the bill that year, she has picked it up several times since – as recently as 2014 – even removing the testing requirement in favor of reviews of student work in an attempt to compromise with the HSLDA. Each attempt has failed.
To lawmakers who have made similar efforts across the country, this comes as no surprise. Since homeschooling first became legal about 25 years ago, HSLDA's lobbying efforts have doomed proposed regulations and rolled back existing laws in state after state. The group was founded in 1983 by lawyer and ordained Baptist minister Michael Farris, who also founded Patrick Henry College. Although its members represent only about 15 percent of the nation's estimated 1.5 million homeschooled children – up from 850,000 in 1999 – its tactics have made it highly influential.
"To my knowledge, I can't think of an occasion where we went backwards [in our goal]," said Farris, who said the HSLDA has been involved in "virtually all" legislative efforts involving homeschooling in the past two decades.
"Somebody who wants to file a bill, they should expect to hear from every homeschooler in their state. We will do everything we can do to make sure every homeschooler knows what is going on," said Farris.
Judy Day, a former Democratic assemblywoman in New Hampshire, experienced this firsthand when she attempted to pass a bill that would have required annual tests and evaluations of student work, called portfolio reviews, in 2009. In November 2008, before the text of the bill was even released, the HSLDA sent an email alert to its members, listing Day's phone number and personal email address. A subsequent alert sent in January 2009 called the bill the "most serious legislative threat ever faced by New Hampshire homeschoolers."
Day said she often talked with homeschooling parents for upward of an hour, explaining that the only intent of the bill was to catch the children who were receiving a poor education. "The general response was that they weren't that interested in the other kids – they were interested in their own children and that's where it stopped," she said. These discussions, she said, further convinced her that regulation was necessary. The bill went to a vote but overwhelmingly failed. Day believes other legislators didn't want to deal with the blowback she'd received.
"I'm confident that I'm doing a good job for [my children] but I'm willing to give up some of my freedom to make sure that every child is being educated in a healthy and beneficial way." – Karen Myers Bergey, Pennsylvania homeschooler
That same year, David Cook, a former representative from Arkansas, attempted to pass a bill that would have required homeschooling parents to seek approval from the local district to homeschool. "I was a superintendent for 18 years, and in that time I saw a lot of folks that said they were homeschooling and they really weren't," he said. But all of Cook's cosponsors removed their names from the bill after HSLDA-prompted calls flooded in. "They thought it was good legislation until the heat got to them," he said, noting that a similar bill he'd written in 2005 had died in committee. After meeting with several homeschooling groups to attempt to compromise on the 2009 bill, Cook came up empty. "They told me the only legislation they wanted was what Alaska had, which was nothing," he said.
In an alert sent shortly afterwards, the HSLDA thanked its members. "There is no question that your outcry against this terrible bill is what made the difference," the email read. "I have no doubt that had you not contacted these legislators, this bill would have become unstoppable."
The HSLDA's campaigns have continued over the past few years. At the end of 2013, Ohio Sen. Capri Cafaro proposed a bill that would have required social services to interview parents who wished to homeschool. Her office was flooded with angry phone calls from all over the country. She wasn't surprised when the particularly threatening email arrived. According to a copy provided by the senator's office, it said she had made a "fatal" mistake and that she "wouldn't see her next birthday." By that time, she'd received thousands of emails, more responses than she'd gotten for any other piece of legislation during her more than seven years in office. She withdrew the bill two weeks after introducing it.
Last year, Pennsylvania – among the few states that broadly regulates homeschooling – rolled back some of its laws under pressure from the HSLDA. And this year, West Virginia's state Legislature passed bills that would have drastically reduced homeschooling requirements in the state, but the governor vetoed the measures.
"I've never seen a lobby more powerful and scary," said Ellen Heinitz, the legislative director for Michigan Rep. Stephanie Chang, who ran up against HSLDA backlash when she tried to pass homeschooling regulations a few months ago. "They make the anti-vaxxers seem rational."
The HSLDA has even fought and won battles over a broad swath of issues that seem only tangentially related to homeschooling. Farris said the group has three "bedrock" concerns – not only homeschooling, but also parental rights and religious freedom. In Washington, the group's efforts blocked laws that would have allowed grandparents to petition for visitation rights, claiming that such policies made it possible for disapproving grandparents to stop children from being homeschooled. In Montana, the group thwarted proposals that would have made high-school attendance mandatory beyond age 16. Initiatives ranging from prekindergarten programs at public schools to the legalization of gay marriage have pushed the HSLDA to action.
Farris said the HSLDA "always encourages people be polite" and often provides a script to help guide conversations. Threats are not sanctioned by the organization, he said. "I get death threats. I would never want anyone else to receive a death threat," he told me. Still, he recognizes that the calls and visits can get out of hand. He said it comes with the territory. "Look, politics is a rough-and-tumble business at times," he said. "If somebody can't take some criticism, then they shouldn't be in politics."
When Farris established the HSLDA in the mid-1980s, homeschooling was illegal across the country. Today, it's legal in all 50 states, but regulations vary dramatically. Some of the discrepancies (many of which were highlighted in a new report from the Education Commission of the States) include:
In states with more vigorous homeschool regulation, officials have a good idea of how each child is performing. In New York, for instance, parents who wish to homeschool must notify the state and submit an education plan. Each year, they must provide the results of one of several approved standardized assessments – including the Iowa Test of Basic Skills and the Stanford Achievement Test – or, if parents prefer not to test their children, an agreed-upon portfolio review. If their children aren't making adequate progress, parents can be put on probation and eventually forced to enroll their children in school.
But if parents don't like this degree of oversight, they can move across the Hudson to New Jersey. The word "homeschooling" is not mentioned once in the education regulations of New Jersey; it's covered under a broadly worded provision that allows children to receive "equivalent instruction elsewhere than at school." The state is so uninvolved in homeschooling that it took me two weeks and over a dozen phone calls to the New Jersey Department of Education to locate someone who could answer any questions about it. The person who eventually fielded my call said he'd never been asked about homeschooling before and called our conversation "a learning experience."
Christopher Lubienski, an education professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who studies homeschooling, notes that public-school students are flagged if they are chronically truant, while homeschooled children might be illiterate, suffering from acute medical conditions or enduring abuse and no one would notice. "We put basic requirements and limitations for who can teach our children in schools," he said. "But when you introduce homeschooling outside the ability for the community to see what happens in the home, that becomes even more of a problem." Parents who have committed violent crimes against children, he said, can legally homeschool, and there's often "nothing the state can do."
Similar criticisms have been levied against private schools, which frequently do not require children to pass state-mandated assessments or follow the same background check processes as public schools. In some states, accreditation is optional, giving private schools greater freedom to deviate from public-school requirements. But even these schools are expected to meet minimum requirements and conduct screenings that may expose abuse or neglect. In Texas, where homeschooling is not regulated in any capacity, private schools are at least required to offer vision and hearing screenings, as well as screenings for scoliosis. New Jersey, where homeschooling is also totally unregulated, prevents private schools from using corporal punishment.
Milton Gaither, a professor of education at Messiah College in Pennsylvania and the author of "Homeschool: An American History," pointed out that private schools, by their nature, also fulfill a need homeschooling does not: to have eyes other than the parents' observing the child.
There's one way the government can check in on homeschooled families: by sending social workers. These visits typically happen only when officials get a tip from a concerned neighbor or have other reasons to suspect neglect or abuse.
Farris said his group gets 300 calls a year from dues-paying members worrying about "social workers at the door." This number, however, represents just 0.35 percent of the HSLDA's membership, assuming each call came from a different family.
But Gaither said Farris' view is outdated. When homeschooling was first legalized, social workers often misunderstood the intent of parents who chose to keep their children home, he said, and visited homes unnecessarily. He said similar behavior today is rare because of how mainstream homeschooling has become.
If social workers are particularly interested in homeschooling families, it's not because they assume those parents are predisposed to be abusive, said Barbara Knox, a University of Wisconsin pediatrician who specializes in child abuse. It's because parents who do have a pattern of abuse often pull their children from school under the guise of homeschooling in order to avoid scrutiny. A 2014 study conducted by Knox and five colleagues looked at 38 cases of severe child abuse and found 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.
"This is a pattern all of us see over and over and over again," Knox said. "Certainly there are wonderful homeschooling families. But the lack of regulation for this population makes it easier to disenroll children from public school to further isolate them and escalate abuse to the point of reaching torture."
Farris acknowledged that such cases exist, but believes more often social workers are simply harassing parents who choose to educate their children outside the mainstream.
In 1995, when the organization was first growing into a national power, the HSLDA put out a role-playing guide called "How To Handle Visits From Social Service Agents," written by former HSLDA attorney Chris Klicka. The social worker in the scene is named Orwell, and he forces his way into the home without a warrant and attempts to strip search the children.
Every family who pays the HSLDA's annual $120 membership fee is entitled to legal aid from the group whenever social workers come calling. Farris said families would otherwise find it "almost impossible" to track down a lawyer who understood the applicable laws and had the resources to act quickly.
Whenever a family does reach out to the group for help, the HSLDA sends out electronic alerts to all its other members and posts articles on its site advising families how to avoid the same fate. An article from August 2014 is titled "Social Workers Snatch Sick Kids." Another, from 2013, is headlined "Social Worker Says 'I'll Be Back!' Attorney Says 'Make My Day.' " Another, from 2012: "Let Me In or I'll Huff and I'll Puff and ... I'll Take Your Kids!"
Farris is frequently paid to give talks to conventions and homeschooling organizations on the risks of allowing children to talk to social workers. He published the book "Anonymous Tip" in 1996 – a 470-page fictional account of an overzealous and abusive social worker who fakes bruises in order to take a mother's children away. A fictional lawyer (and fictional graduate of Farris' real-life law school) comes to the mother's rescue.
Julie Ann Smith, who homeschooled her seven children in Oregon until last year, joined the HSLDA after she heard one of the group's attorneys speaking at a conference, telling parents about "difficult cases" in which children were taken from homeschooling parents. She began receiving the group's monthly magazine and clipping out instructions on handling social workers, taping them to the inside of her cupboard for easy access. She even followed HSLDA's advice not to tell any of her neighbors or family members she was homeschooling for fear one of them would call social services. Her children weren't allowed to play outside or answer the door during school hours because she thought someone would report her for truancy. "It robbed my kids of opportunities to be outside, and honestly, it robbed my sanity not to send them outside for a break," said Smith, who now sends her children to a local school.
LaDonna Sasscer had a similar experience when she was homeschooling her two children in Florida. She was so worried about social workers that she became the legislative liaison for her local homeschooling group, and she was the HSLDA's main point of contact for lobbying efforts. She said she encouraged people to join the HSLDA by telling them "scary stories that social workers were going to come and take your children."
"I used to read [the monthly report] cover to cover and flip to my state right away and say 'Oh my gosh! Look what's happening in Florida!' " said Sasscer, who has since left the HSLDA and no longer homeschools. "They had us all paranoid."
Farris rejected the idea that the HSLDA is scaring people into buying memberships. "I think it would be strange that anyone would think I would do anything differently than teach people their constitutional rights," he said. "I don't know how it's scary to tell the stories of my experiences." He adds that Smith and Sasscer represent only a "small percent of people," and that those who are unhappy are free to leave the HSLDA at any time and receive a full refund.
Although the HSLDA is the nation's leading homeschooling advocacy group, its 85,000 memberships – which Farris said encompass more than 250,000 children, an average of three per member – represent only a small portion of the homeschooling population. Some of these families, and almost certainly a majority of HSLDA members, have religious motivations for choosing to homeschool; many use alternative textbooks that teach creationism instead of evolution and offer a Christianity-centered view of American history.
Non-HSLDA members, who constitute about 85 percent of the nation's homeschoolers, choose to homeschool for a variety of reasons, said Gaither, the Messiah College professor and homeschooling expert. Some hope to protect their children from what they see as the systematic racism of public schools, while others want to give a child with special learning needs more individual attention. Some families homeschool because a parent's job requires constant moving, and still others do it simply to become closer to their children.
Karen Myers Bergey homeschools her two daughters, ages 10 and 13, in Pennsylvania, the most heavily regulated state for homeschooling in the country. She said she began homeschooling because she thought she could give her daughters a better, more self-driven education than her local school district could.
"I wanted to be able to live as creative of a life as possible," she said. "If we want to go take in a show in the city, I can have them get their schoolwork done to allow time for that. We can also take a week off to do an educational trip or even a fun trip somewhere without someone questioning that."
While she says her family is faithfully Christian, she doesn't homeschool because of that. She teaches evolution and Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States," which she says her evangelical friends frown upon. While she's confident homeschoolers like her make up much of the population, she said she's frustrated she doesn't see this represented.
"We aren't for or against anything in society at large – we are just experiencing life together with our children. That voice isn't heard," she said. "What you hear on TV and the radio is the HSLDA saying to leave us alone." Bergey said she's never felt like she was "jumping through hoops" to meet Pennsylvania's standards, and says she's willing to deal with the regulation if it means keeping kids safe.
"I'm confident that I'm doing a good job for [my children] but I'm willing to give up some of my freedom to make sure that every child is being educated in a healthy and beneficial way," she said.
Gaither said many parents like Bergey never join homeschooling organizations because their reasons feel so unique to their own families. Secular homeschooling groups exist in every state, but their primary role is to offer support and resources, not to lobby politicians. Even if these groups were to feel strongly about a potential new law, their lack of organizational prowess and funding would make it impossible for them to mount campaigns on the scale of the HSLDA's.
Some of these smaller groups complain that the HSLDA is perpetuating a stereotype. "Because of the HSLDA, people think we are all far-right, extremely religious, maybe even fanatics," said Shay Seaborne, a long-time homeschooling activist and former board member of The Organization of Virginia Homeschoolers.
The HSLDA argues that it is advancing the goals of all homeschooling parents, not only through its lobbying but by funding most of the published research on homeschooled children. There are few independent studies measuring how much these kids are learning, Gaither said, since it is difficult to get a random sample of students because notification laws vary so drastically by state. When homeschoolers take the ACT and SAT, they tend to perform fairly well. But those who choose to take these tests are likely already on the higher-achieving end of the group; as a whole, studies have shown homeschoolers take college entrance exams at a lower rate than their public or private-schooled peers.
The HSLDA has funded dozens of studies on homeschoolers' academic performance, most of them conducted by Brian Ray at the National Home Education Research Institute. Every study Ray has published on homeschoolers indicates they are performing at or above the level of similarly situated public school students. Studies not funded by the HSLDA do not tend to be as positive or have such definitive findings, though most find that the small sample of homeschooled students studied are not performing demonstrably worse than their peers.
Gaither said Ray's studies are generally as sound as surveys, but they don't necessarily indicate how homeschooling impacts the average student, since they rely on voluntary surveys given to members of HSLDA and similar organizations. Parents whose children do poorly, he said, are unlikely to volunteer to submit their results.
The HSLDA tends to draw conclusions from Ray's studies far beyond even Ray himself. While Ray typically includes disclaimers that the studies should not be used to draw broad conclusions, one HSLDA pamphlet touting his research leaves this out, claiming, "Homeschoolers are still achieving well beyond their public school counterparts 2014 no matter what their family background, socioeconomic level, or style of homeschooling."
Ray acknowledges the way in which his work is used by the HSLDA. "I wouldn't say it's fine, but it's what they do," he said. "I try to be responsible for what I write, but I'm not their policeman."
Over the past few years, some members of the first homeschooled generation have begun advocating for stronger regulations. Ryan Stollar is the co-founder of Homeschool Alumni Reaching Out, with a mission of improving homeschooling for future generations. "When homeschooling is done responsibly, it can be amazing," the group says on its website. "What we oppose is irresponsible homeschooling, where the educational method is used to create or hide abuse, isolation, and neglect."
Stollar said the homeschool alumni he has spoken with "never felt like they had a right" to speak out because they were always expected to be "perfect examples and show homeschooling can work." Now, he said, that's changing. "These last three years have been the first time people have felt like it's okay to say, 'Hey, everything wasn't perfect.' " On the HARO website, alumni are encouraged to share their experiences of abuse and neglect and provide critical analysis of the curricula, principles and leaders who dominated the field when they were growing up.
Rachel Coleman, a co-founder of the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, said she felt for years that if she criticized homeschooling she would be labeled "a traitor." Her group advocates for homeschool reform and aims to make homeschooling "a child-centered option, used only to lovingly prepare young people for an open future."
When asked about the groups, Jim Mason, an attorney with the HSLDA, told me that, while he takes issue with what he called their "tone," he thinks "some of their criticisms [are] very well taken or valid." The HSLDA is "certainly open to considering constructive criticism" he said. But when I spoke to Farris, he dismissed both organizations outright, calling them "a group of bitter young people" who are "fighting against homeschooling ... to work out their own issues with their parents."
Farris has rebuttals to each of the five practices recommended by CRHE, Coleman's group. At the moment, no state follows all five recommendations, and only a small percentage of states follow any of them.
First, CRHE said all states should require homeschooling parents to annually notify the state of their intent to homeschool. "Do we ask parents to annually notify the state that they are feeding their kids?" Farris responded. "No. But that's necessary for well-being, too. We trust parents to feed their kids, and we have an elaborate infrastructure called society that interfaces with people and checks up on them. Does it work every time? No. Do people fall through the cracks? Yes. Nonetheless as a free country we have decided that we do not want the country invading every home."
The HSLDA also takes issue with CHRE's second suggestion: that all parents who choose to homeschool are subjected to a background check. The HSLDA contends such a policy would be redundant, as parents convicted of abuse are already subject to additional oversight. But Coleman said this isn't always the case, as social workers tend not to remove children from the home unless extreme circumstances are present. Also, she said, parents convicted of crimes such as drug abuse or assault against someone other than their child may still have custody.
The CHRE's third recommendation is that homeschooled students complete annual standardized tests or a portfolio review, to be assessed by a non-relative. The HSLDA strongly opposes all types of standardized testing, which Farris said forces a curriculum onto parents by default. The group recently succeeded in lobbying the state of Arkansas to repeal its testing provision, which an HSLDA news alert said had "no stated purpose." (This was true – the test had no minimum score and was not submitted to the state, which meant it could not be used to intervene in a child's education.)
Fourth, the CRHE advocates for a system that would flag homeschooling families with a troubling history of social services involvement, subjecting them to additional oversight such as random visits or additional testing. Mason, the HSLDA lawyer, said this ran counter to American principles by punishing families for unproven wrongdoing. "We live in a country of presumed innocence," he said. "Suspicion of wrongdoing shouldn't limit the actions of anyone."
Knox, the abuse expert, disagrees. She supports increased communication between family services agencies and school systems, so that when a child with a history of family services involvement is removed from public school for homeschooling they can be flagged and monitored.
Finally, CRHE said homeschooled students should be subject to the same medical requirements as public-school students. At the moment, almost every state requires public school students to submit medical forms filled out by a doctor. The HSLDA is neutral on whether parents should vaccinate their children, but it opposes "any attempt to weaken exemption provisions currently in state law" and sends out emergency alerts when states propose removing exemptions. This year alone, alerts have been sent out warning parents of bills concerning vaccination requirements in Maine, California, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Oregon, Maryland, and Mississippi.
Rob Reich, a professor of political science at Stanford who has written extensively about homeschooling regulation, said it's "hard to oppose" laws that would limit abusive parents from homeschooling. But, he said, legislators should first pass laws that gather data on homeschooling.
"The HSLDA points out their success stories, and the skeptics point out the abuse," he said, but neither side has real numbers to back up its claims.
Luis Huerta, an associate professor of education and public policy at Teachers College-Columbia University, is also in favor of CRHE's data collection proposals and says he's fascinated by the group's emergence.
"Never have we had this strong of a group who are advocates [of homeschooling] and who are also demanding that we have information from which to be able to draw empirical conclusions that influence policy decisions," he said. "This can potentially change the landscape."
Farris is frustrated by the criticism from groups like CRHE and HARO, insisting that many of these groups will "say the opposite, no matter what we say." When I told him that I'd spoken to homeschoolers who told me HSLDA doesn't represent their views, he responded, "We don't ever say that we do. But 15 percent, I will say, is bigger than anything they can organize."
Stollar, the co-founder of HARO, said his group is constantly struggling to let legislators know there are other perspectives out there. Last year, he and several other former homeschoolers showed up at the Virginia statehouse to lobby in favor of a resolution proposed by Tom Rust, a Republican assemblyman. Rust had proposed a study of the state's religious exemption law: In Virginia, homeschoolers are officially required to register and document their children's progress. But parents who file a religious exemption are allowed to forego school without any requirements at all. About 7,000 Virginia children are currently homeschooling under this provision. Rust said he wrote the bill after receiving phone calls from constituents who felt members of their extended family were receiving a poor education under the exemption.
HSLDA quickly sent a notification out to its member families, urging them to "accept the possibility that Rust's call for a study is a mere pretext, and that his true intention is to try to take away some of your freedom once the study gives him some 'cover.'" Carol Sinclair, Rust's legislative assistant, answered most of the group's phone calls, which came from all over the country. She said most of the callers were "downright difficult" and refused to acknowledge that some homeschooled children were being poorly educated. "If you care enough about homeschooling, I would think you would want to make sure children didn't slip through the cracks of the system," she said.
Until I spoke to Rust, he had assumed, as many legislators do, that the HSLDA represents the majority of homeschooling families. "They clearly came across as speaking for all homeschoolers – that's certainly the impression they gave – and to be honest with you, I thought that's what they were doing," he said.
It may take some time to change that impression, said Stollar. When he and his fellow homeschooling alumni showed up at the statehouse to voice their support for Rust, many of the legislators assumed they were part of the HSLDA and dismissed them immediately.
"One legislator in particular put her hand up and said 'I'm not even going to talk to you guys,' " he recalled. "We explained our position several times, and she just didn't get it. Finally, it dawned on her that we were in favor of the bill. She was astonished by that."
Jessica Huseman recently graduated from the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University, which provided support for this project.
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