Rachel Coleman was in graduate school when her younger brother, then in high school, contacted her about a girl he knew who was being homeschooled in an abusive environment. Coleman did what she could to help her brother’s friend, and this situation led her to investigate thoroughly her state’s homeschooling laws, which she soon realized were easy to abuse.
Coleman, now the executive director of the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, was homeschooled in Indiana from K-12 herself, though her experience was a more positive one with parents who valued sound education.
But Coleman heard a lot of stories over the years about homeschooling experiences that were not so positive. This led her to conclude that the quality of homeschooling environments can vary widely, especially among Christian fundamentalist families.
The lack of regulation can lead to serious consequences.
“Children who are homeschooled typically have no legal right to access their educational documents. These documents are created and maintained by homeschool parents, who may withhold them at will,” Coleman told Church & State. “This can be especially a problem in cases of religious fundamentalism, where parents may not want their children to go on to college. These parents will frequently say they’re preparing their children for ‘Heaven, not Harvard.’”
Whether a parent is following a religious fundamentalist path or not, unregulated homeschooling gives controlling and abusive parents full say over what their children know, where their children go and whom their children meet, Coleman added.
“This problem has so many facets that it sometimes feels like grappling with a hydra,” she said. “There’s your standard educational neglect and child abuse, but there’s also child labor violations, the withholding of academic documents and medical neglect.”
The religious freedom provisions of the First Amendment have never been interpreted to require a complete lack of oversight for homeschooling and religious day care centers. In fact, just the opposite is true. Because day care centers and schools deal with a vulnerable population – children – courts have ruled that government agencies have the right to exercise oversight.
Most states provide at least some oversight, but others choose to follow a hands-off approach. Critics say the latter practice subjects children to harm.
A 2016 report by the Investigative Center for Reporting’s Reveal News found that 16 states allow religiously affiliated day care programs to skip some of the same regulatory checks that secular centers are required to undergo. This lack of regulation can lead to little or no state oversight at sectarian day care centers, which in turn can lead to problems like understaffing and a lack of training.
Alabama, Indiana, Missouri, Florida, North Carolina and Virginia are especially notorious for having insufficient regulation of sectarian day care centers. In 2012, 1-year-old Juan Cardenas went missing from his day care program in Indiana. He was later found drowned in a baptismal font behind the preacher’s pulpit, and Reveal reported that the staff at Praise Fellowship Assembly of God, where the day care was located, was short-staffed that day, causing a lack of proper supervision for every child.
This was hardly an isolated incident. According to the report, death, serious injuries and illnesses have all occurred under these lax standards. Many religious day cares and schools can simply declare that they are entitled to a religious exemption in their state and free themselves from the standards that secular day care centers must meet.
Despite many disturbing stories of religious day care and school neglect, legal experts note that it’s not difficult for the institutions to get religious-exemption status, although the laws governing religious schools and day cares vary by state.
“Typically a school must simply assert that it is religious, and it will automatically receive the exemption,” Americans United Legal Fellow Carmen Green told Church & State. “It can be difficult and constitutionally suspect for a government officer to inquire whether an organization is religious ‘enough’ to merit a religious exemption, hence states tend to steer clear of even trying to make such determinations and allow entities to simply ‘raise their hand,’ as it were, to alert the state that they should receive the exemption.”
Similarly, many states exercise little or no significant oversight when it comes to parents who engage in homeschooling for religious purposes.
According to a 2015 Georgetown Law Journal homeschooling law study published by Green, 25 states do not require homeschooled students to take standardized tests, and almost half of the states that do require standardized testing allow parents to waive this regulation by claiming religious exemption or by saying that they are operating as a sectarian private school.
“A few states have fairly in-depth requirements, such as creating an educational plan at the beginning of the year that outlines what subjects will be covered and what curriculum will be used, turning in an annual assessment of students’ academic progress,” Coleman said. “Others have nothing. Literally, nothing. In fact, there are several states that do not actually require parents to educate their children.”
There is “almost nothing” to protect children stuck in religious fundamentalist homes from getting a lackluster education or none at all, Coleman said, noting that the laws that do exist are generally designed to ensure that children are being educated. But it’s frequently easy to get around requirements.
For example, Coleman noted, Florida requires annual assessments, but it also allows parents to bypass this requirement by enrolling in a private “umbrella” school set up to enroll homeschooled students for bookkeeping purposes. These “schools” exist mainly on paper, and rarely require any form of assessment or guarantee that education is taking place.
In most states, fundamentalists who take part in homeschooling are free to teach what they want. Children may learn creationism in the place of modern science. If they later attend a secular college, many may need remedial education in this area or may simply not be able to pursue fields of study in science.
Public schools, and most private schools, are eager to work with students who want to go to college. That is sometimes not the case with homeschools run by rigid fundamentalists. Some of them don’t believe in higher education, especially for women, and their lack of cooperation can make it difficult for students who want to continue their education.
“One thing we’ve seen that I didn’t expect starting out is the withholding of educational documents as part of a concerted effort to sabotage a child’s future,” Coleman said. “I’ve spoken with individuals whose parents refused to give them a diploma unless they attended the college of choice, generally a Christian college.”
Other stories of abuse or neglect that people may not be aware of are emerging from religious educational institutions that also justify the lack of oversight under the guise of “religious freedom,” Green argued.
“Many of the worst stories have emerged from residential educational facilities for so-called ‘troubled teens,’ yet those institutions have been allowed to dissolve when facing scrutiny in one state only to reappear, as a new corporate entity but with the same leadership, in another,” Green said.
In 2011, for example, Mother Jones, a progressive magazine, published a chilling story about the repetitive abuse of “troubled” teens in a Missouri girls’ home called New Beginnings Ministries. The magazine reported that girls at the home suffered abuse and isolation to the point where they were cut off from communicating with parents and family members.
They’re not alone. The report notes that religious homes for girls are similar to “an unknown number of ‘troubled teen’ homes catering to the Independent Fundamental Baptist community – a web of thousands of autonomous churches linked by doctrine, overlapping leadership and affiliations with Bible colleges… so it’s little surprise that families faced with teenage drinking, smoking or truancy might turn to programs promising a tough-love fix.”
Despite the leeway religious educational institutions have, the right-wing Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), which Green describes as a “strong lobby,” advocates for even further deregulation of religious educational entities and homeschooling.
Founded by Michael Farris in 1983, HSLDA has worked to oppose laws that provide some protection for children who are being homeschooled. In 1994, for example, the group led an effort to defeat a provision in a federal law that would have required teachers to be certified. (Farris, who founded Patrick Henry College in Virginia, currently runs Alliance Defending Freedom, the nation’s largest Religious Right legal group.)
“Any time that proposals to increase oversight are floated, this lobby springs to action,” Green explained. “At times, they have resorted to threats and harassment of legislators who dare to introduce bills this lobby dislikes. The homeschool parent lobby has killed even attempts to study homeschooling outcomes.”
Although the laws regulating religious homeschooling, day cares and schools vary by state, at the federal level, the Donald J. Trump administration has backed sending taxpayer money via vouchers that often go to private religious schools and homeschooling that lack the same accountability as public schools.
In January, HSLDA urged the U.S. Senate to confirm now-Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who has repeatedly turned a blind eye to holding the private religious education system accountable.
HSLDA is so extreme that Education Week reported in January that “shortly after DeVos’ nomination, HSLDA’s William Estrada, the group’s director of federal relations, also said that, ultimately, HSLDA would like to see the Department of Education abolished. But if it’s going to exist, the group is pleased with the idea of having a homeschooling supporter at its helm.”
Organizations such as HSLDA, which advocate against holding religious institutions or parents accountable, utilize the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom as their first defense, Green said.
“There is a pervasive belief that any state intervention in religious education, be it education provided by a parochial school or through homeschooling, would violate the First Amendment,” Green remarked. “That simply is not true. The state can and should take the necessary steps to ensure that children are safe and well-educated.”
Holding parents and religious institutions accountable, Coleman said, could save and improve the well-being of children across the country.
“Homeschooling enables medical neglect on a scale impossible in the public schools,” she argued. “There’s confinement. There are cases where children have been locked in a single room, or a bathroom or a closet, for months or years on end … There are cases where children have been chained in basements, hogtied with zip ties, or kept locked in cages, but there are no outside adults to see these children, to notice and report signs of abuse, no trusted adults for these children to go to for help. The consequences can be disastrous.”
Coleman emphasized that advocating for homeschooling oversight is not anti-homeschooling, and she pointed out that many parents who engage in the practice do a good job. But, she noted, a few simple forms of oversight could prevent educational neglect and child abuse. She pointed to requiring background checks for homeschooling parents and barring parents from homeschooling if they have a concerning history of Child Protective Services involvement as two avenues that would help prevent abuse.
“We want to ensure that children who are homeschooled receive a quality education in a safe and loving home environment,” Coleman said.