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Underregulation, Miseducation

Original illustration by Sophie Spagna '24, an Illustration major at RISD

Since October 2021, a couple based in Upper Sandusky, Ohio, has been actively helping their homeschooling network raise children to “become wonderful Nazis.” They openly provided thousands of families with lesson plans and other teaching resources infused with Hitler quotes and homophobic, racist, and antisemitic slurs. In February, the leaders of this Neo-Nazi “Dissident Homeschool Network” were unmasked as Logan and Katja Lawrence. In response to public outrage, the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) began an investigation into the operation. A week later, the ODE released a statement concluding its investigation and saying that there was nothing to be done, as this homeschool network meets state standards and complies with Ohio’s new homeschooling law.

Without oversight, the homeschooling system leaves children vulnerable to indoctrination, abuse, and neglect. The United States needs to follow the lead of other nations and advocacy organizations by passing child-centric homeschooling reforms. Questions of who gets a seat at the table in writing these reforms should be decided based on who has the interests of young students, not the power of God, on their side. 

Homeschooling systems in many states are already dangerously under-regulated. The states with the least restrictive laws, which include Alaska, Connecticut, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, Oklahoma, and Texas, often do not even require families to notify their state or district of their intent to homeschool. Now, a recent surge in deregulation is only making matters worse.

The Ohio legislature recently rolled back its already minimal standards for homeschoolers, including the requirements that home teachers have high school diplomas and submit progress reports on their children’s learning. Now, the state only requires parents to send in a curriculum plan and sign a form affirming that they will teach their children for 900 hours each year. There is no mechanism for the state to monitor students’ progress or receive any updates throughout the year. Craig Hockenberry, the superintendent of the Poland School District in Ohio, expressed concern over these changes, stating, “There are some kids that may not be progressing properly, may not be learning to read and write very well, need social interactions, mental health support, medical support, and we no longer can evaluate that or deliver any service to them at all.” 

Under Ohio’s new system, the Lawrences’ homeschool network is not only legal but also may soon receive taxpayer money. The Ohio legislature has introduced a “Backpack Bill” that provides state funding for students to attend private schools or to be homeschooled. If this $1.13 billion bill passes, the Lawrences could be paid $22,000 a year to teach their kids. At least eight other states have passed similar laws. 

The Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), a Christian advocacy organization that “work[s] with legislators to craft homeschool-friendly laws” and “help government officials stay in compliance with those laws,” has taken the lead in lobbying for many of the recent policy rollbacks. The organization believes that “God has given all parents—no matter their religious beliefs or form of spirituality—the right and the responsibility to direct the upbringing and education of their children.” 

The HSLDA’s political wins do not only affect the content that homeschooled students are absorbing but also their safety and well-being. Teachers are the primary reporters of abused children, so keeping young students out of schools may close off a path to safety. Currently, only Pennsylvania and Arkansas provide protections for at-risk children. Pennsylvania prohibits families from homeschooling their children if any adult in the house has been convicted of certain crimes in the past five years, while Arkansas law stipulates that families cannot homeschool their children if there is a registered sex offender living in the house. The other 48 states do nothing to protect homeschooled children from abuse. This is particularly alarming in light of a 2018 report released in Connecticut, which examined six school districts across three years and found that 36 percent of homeschooling families had been reported for suspected child abuse or neglect at least once to the Department of Children and Families. 

That being said, not all hope is lost; although not as successful as the HSLDA, the Coalition for Responsible Home Education (CRHE) is making strides in protecting children’s education and safety, advocating for “child-centered, evidence-based policy and practices for families and professionals.” The group has won small victories, such as persuading North Dakota to pass a law in 2023 that required homeschooled students with learning disabilities to receive formal assessments. In addition, the CRHE’s child-centered policy recommendations provide states with a starting point for creating a homeschooling system that supports children, rather than harms them. Suggested regulations include protections for at-risk children, such as the creation of a flagging system, an annual assessment of children by mandatory reporters, and a prohibition on parents convicted of child abuse or sexual offenses from homeschooling their children.

Homeschooling can be a very beneficial choice for some learners, but in order to prevent disastrous outcomes, there must be oversight and accountability. Instead of caving to the demands of HSLDA like Ohio did, states should enact more homeschooling regulations. New York could serve as one potential model. The state requires that home teachers submit an annual instruction plan for their students, which includes material on subjects such as math and language arts. It also mandates that students reach certain standardized testing benchmarks. 

States can also follow the example of other countries. In Canada, each province determines its own homeschooling policies, but all provide regulation and oversight. For example, Quebec requires families to notify the Minister of Education and school board of their intent to homeschool each July, submit an outline of their students’ learning project for approval, submit mid-term reports on their students’ learning progress with proof of some form of evaluation, attend a monitoring meeting with a representative of the Minister of Education that must be attended by their child, and submit a year-end report with proof of the child’s completion of their learning project. Similar reforms must be implemented in each US state until all state systems are properly regulated. Currently, even states that require notification or hometeacher education often completely lack accountability throughout the school year. The most important reform for states to adopt is the monitoring meeting, as Quebec does. State officials must periodically check in on homeschooled children to protect them from abuse and ensure that they are receiving a quality education.

In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, homeschooling’s popularity has increased significantly, with rates rising by about 30 percent since 2019. To protect young learners, we need more, not less, oversight. Without proper safeguards in place, we certainly should not provide monetary incentives that enable a broken system.