Captive kids case renews debate on home school rules

Carolyn Thompson
Associated Press

Just over a week after California officials found 13 malnourished siblings allegedly held captive and apparently not missed by schools because they were being home-schooled, home-schooling advocates say they are bracing for calls for stricter oversight of the practice.

The advocates say they were horrified by accusations that the children’s parents kept them shackled in a filthy home in the Southern California city of Ferris, and some said they support mandatory medical visits or regular academic assessments of home-schooled children.

But others contend moves to step up home-schooling controls in the name of exposing child abuse earlier could lead to overregulation and intrusion that punishes parents.

“Right now the biggest threat is that lawmakers might make a decision based on the emotion of the moment, rather than looking at the empirical evidence,” said Scott Woodruff, senior counsel with the Virginia-based Home School Legal Defense Association.

He said national organizations that track risk factors for child abuse, including the U.S. Commission to Eliminate Child Neglect and Fatalities, don’t list home-schooling among them.

Disputes over the right level of home-schooling regulation have simmered for years as the number of home-schooled children in the U.S. skyrocketed from about 15,000 in the 1970s to about 2 million today.

The practice was first driven largely by families’ preferences to include religious teaching at home along with standard education. It gained wider acceptance as parents dissatisfied with their neighborhood schools turned to it to customize their children’s education and nurture family bonds.

In the absence of federal guidelines, levels of oversight vary widely by state.

Alaska and Idaho have virtually no regulations, while New York and Pennsylvania families must submit annual instruction plans to the district, administer standardized tests taken by public school students statewide and provide academic progress reports.

California treats home schools like other private schools and requires them to register. Private schools are subject to annual fire inspections but no agency regulates or oversees them.

The Massachusetts-based Coalition for Responsible Home Education lobbies for mandatory medical visits or academic assessments that would ensure home-schooled children are seen by someone trained to recognize abuse. Less than half of the U.S. states now require academic assessments, the Education Commission of the States said in a 2015 report on home-school regulations.

“There’s no better way to isolate your child if you are an abusive parent than to home-school,” said Rachel Coleman, executive director of the coalition, which maintains a database of home-school abuse cases.

In recent years, the trend in state laws has been toward loosening government oversight of home-schooling, said Joseph Murray, a Vanderbilt University education professor who has researched home-schooling.

“There are states now where you don’t really have to do anything. You don’t even have to notify anybody that you’re home-schooling,” Murphy said.

Recent efforts to put more controls on home-schooling at the state legislative level have largely failed.

After two home-schooled children were found dead in a Detroit freezer, a 2015 Michigan bill would have required documented meetings with a teacher, doctor or clergy. The bill stalled in a legislative committee.