Explore the rest of America Tonight’s education series "Getting Schooled."
Rosanna Ward is a passionate advocate for home schooling. She devotes hours a day in her Tulsa, Oklahoma, home teaching her 8-year-old son, Joel.
"You can tweak your curriculum and your teaching style more to the way your child learns," she explained. "For me, it's an awesome and fulfilling thing to be there when my children are learning."
Ward has some experience. She home schooled her two daughters Ginny and Hannah, and was home schooled herself as a child, which was rare enough at the time that it earned her a picture in the local paper.
In 1980, when it was largely seen as a faith-based fringe movement, home schooling was illegal in 30 states. By 1993, it was recognized as a parent's right across the country. And today, Ward's son is among the nearly 1.8 million home-schooled American children, according to the Department of Education. That's more than double what it was two decades ago, and matches the number of children enrolled in public charter schools. Uniting religious conservatives, progressive "unschoolers" and parents simply fed-up with their local public school, home schooling has become a mainstream educational option, with the reasons for why parents choose it, and the resources, support groups and curriculum available to help them, growing every day.
Despite its explosive growth, home schooling is still a remarkably deregulated enterprise. Half of all states require parents to simply register their intent to home school, and 11 states have no regulations at all. It’s hard to do a comprehensive count of home-schooled students, when in many places, they don’t have to notify anyone that they exist.
Though many home-schooling families and advocacy groups, including Ward, credit the lack of regulation with providing more flexibility and space for creativity, some critics charge it can leave children vulnerable to educational neglect, and even abuse, with few ways of finding help.
Falling by the wayside
In line with their conservative Christian faith, Heather Doney said her parents wanted to keep her and her younger siblings away from the local public school and its wordly influences. But as their family grew to 10 kids, she said her mother and father spent less and less time at their New Orleans home educating them.
“It got really bad. It got to where I was doing a lot of the cooking and the cleaning and the babysitting, and education just fell by the wayside,” Doney said.
By the time she was 12, she was the only one of her siblings who could read.
“There was a little neighborhood boy that I liked and he found out I couldn’t do multiplication and division, and he said, ‘Ha, ha. You’re going to spend your life flipping burgers,’ and I went inside crying,” Doney remembers. “And it suddenly hit me that I was either going to have a life like my mother or I was going to spend my life flipping burgers. He was exactly right.”
formerly home-schooled as a child
That revelation prompted Doney to make a desperate plea for help. She hid behind the couch and called her grandparents, who intervened.
Doney and her siblings went to public school the following year. She worked hard, and did well. She went on to college and then graduate school, where she researched home schooling. Doney realized that her situation was far from unique.
“Some of the most powerful stories I get are: ‘I thought I was alone…. I thought I was the problem. That I was responsible for all these things that happened to me,” said Doney. “I’ve been ashamed and I’ve been hiding all these deficits that I have in my education.’”
The experience prompted Doney, now 30, to start the Coalition for Responsible Home Education (CRHE), an organization of formerly home-schooled kids that is pushing for more oversight of the practice.
A patchwork of regulations
Doney said parents who home school should have at least a GED, a requirement that only exists in nine states, according to a tally by CRHE. She also believes parents should have to show that education is taking place.
While 25 states have some form of assessment requirement, CRHE notes that in all but nine of them, assessments can be circumvented, do not have to be given to officials or, if results are subpar, do not have a follow-up remediation requirement.
Doney doesn’t deny that parents should have the right to home school their children, but she believes they shouldn’t have total control, absent any check. After all, other parties have a stake in the child’s learning, like the state that wants an educated citizen, and the child who deserves an educated self.
“Parents should have the right to oversee their children’s education. Parents should not have the right to decide whether or not their child gets an education,” Doney said. “Right now laws around the country when it comes to home schooling generally do not reflect that.”
But many home-schoolers, from religious conservatives to anti-establishment liberals, are resistant to the idea of more state control. They believe that deciding how their children are educated is their right, and can yield more individualized education for students.
This position has some serious political muscle behind it in the form of the Home School Legal Defense Association, a conservative Christian organization with a powerful lobbying arm. The HSLDA has been instrumental over the last 30 years in getting states to lift their bans and loosen their restrictions on home schooling, helping to propel the fringe practice into the mainstream. Today, with a dozen full-time lawyers, the organization continues to lobby against regulation.
"I believe the government should always be accountable to the people and not ever the people to the government," said Ward, a member of the HSLDA. “Public schools in Oklahoma are failing, so to be held accountable to a public system that is failing is ridiculous."
The leading reason parents say they home school is concern about the environment of public schools, followed by dissatisfaction with the academics, according to a 2013 survey from the National Center on Education Statistics. Desire to provide religious instruction came in third, with 12 percent of parents calling it their primary motivation.
Motivated to educate
For many parents who choose to home school, catering education to an individual child’s needs is a major draw. And with the Internet, the resources, curriculum and guidance for parents who home-school their children have exploded.
Along with four other “home schooling sisters,” Ward runs Next Gen Home School, a blog to help other home-schooling parents by sharing their own experiences with different home-schooling models, providing home-schooling reviews and building a network to connect with others about what’s working.
Ward says any regulation is "the beginning of taking away that parental right," adding that the vast majority of parents who home-school their children do an excellent job.
With few regulations, there are no comprehensive studies comparing the academic outcome of home-schooled students to their non-home-schooled peers, but studies have shown that the motivated home-schooled students who apply to or go on to attend college do well.
In 2002, the College Board, which administers the SAT test, reported that home-schooled students who took the test scored 71 points higher than the national average. In 2010, a study published in the Journal of College admission found that home-schooled students at an un-named, medium-sized university in the Midwest earned higher ACT scores, scored higher grade point averages and graduated at higher rates within four years than non-home-schooled students.
Those statistics, as well as anecdotes like home-schoolers’ domination at the National Spelling Bee – indicate that home schooling can help bright young minds flourish, particularly when parents are deeply invested.
“There are parents that are going to fail,” said Ward, “and they are going to fail if their kids go to public school or not.”
The potential for abuse
Beyond educational neglect, those calling for more regulation of home schooling cite incidents of outright abuse. Doney and her colleagues are compiling cases of child abuse where parents keep their kids home, under the guise of home schooling – and away from the prying eyes of teachers and counselors. These children, Doney said, become invisible.
Doney said that children removed from school or never sent to school, and kept in isolation in dysfunctional homes, have been starved, beaten, abused and sometimes killed. It’s a horrifying litany – dozens of cases – and no one knows exactly how many are out there. Until Doney started her work, there was no attempt to even keep track.
The case of John and Sonja Kluth is one tragic example. The Oklahoma City couple is now serving extended prison sentences in Oklahoma, after testimony that the couple beat, choked and burned their three home-schooled children in 2011, locking them in dog crates and feeding them dog food. The case came to light when police found the oldest boy, 16 at the time, sleeping in a box behind an ice cream shop. All three children were illiterate. In Oklahoma, the only state where the right to home school is enshrined in its constitution, there are no regulations.
Cases of abuse like this are not unique to home-schooling parents, of course. There are parents of all stripes who hurt their children. But home schooling makes victims of abuse particularly vulnerable because they can be kept away from other adults who could intervene, and from other children who could help them realize that their experience isn’t normal.
“It’s distressing to me because I see the kids who don’t have a future because they’re able to hide,” Doney said. “I can’t sleep sometimes thinking about it. It just makes me mad.”
Doney and her siblings have made up for their early deficits. She feels lucky.
“We were rescued pretty much in the nick of time for my family to be OK today,” Doney said. “And for a lot of families, it happens too late.”
Are you involved with home schooling? We want to hear from you.
Tell us the best and worst parts of your home schooling experience, and whether you think your state should regulate it more. Share your responses with us here, or using the hashtag #homeschoolkid on Twitter.