Critics of Christian Home Schooling Are Calling for Reform. Here’s Why.

In many states, the lack of government oversight puts children at risk of physical abuse or educational neglect.

[Photo: Young child praying over a Bible as they hold a rosary.]
Lax home-schooling laws provide a convenient out for parents who believe that due to Biblical principles, girls should not receive advanced education. Africa Studio / Shutterstock.com

Last month, self-described “exvangelical” and writer Chris Stroop coined the hashtag #ExposeChristianSchools. The hashtag was in direct response to the news that Karen Pence had taken a job at a Christian school infamous for its discrimination against LGBTQ students. #ExposeChristianSchools quickly exploded on Twitter into a collection of personal stories, highlighting the dangers posed by Christian schools for queer students, students of color, and women, which Religion Dispatches also covered.

Just two days later, the hashtag #ExposeChristianHomeschooling also began trending. Since then users have been sharing their stories of abuse, indoctrination, and educational neglect while also advocating for home-school reform.

There were an estimated 1.69 million home-schooled students in 2016, the latest year for which data is available, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. State legislatures, however, do little to ensure home-schooled children are receiving a proper education, largely due to the lobbying efforts of the Home School Legal Defense Association. In many states the lack of government oversight puts children at risk of physical abuse or educational neglect.

A 2015 report from the Education Commission of the States provides a closer look at state-by-state laws. Forty-eight states require no background checks for parents who want to home-school. Forty states do not require home-schooling parents to have a high school diploma and, in fact, 30 percent of home-schooling parents have only a high school degree or less. Although people without high school degrees may be equipped to teach young children, they are less likely to be equipped to teach the advanced math and science courses that many home-schooled high schoolers will take.

Only 20 states require assessments to track the academic progress of students, and only 12 states require standardized tests. Most states that do require standardized testing provide no consequences for families whose children score poorly on tests. And while 36 states require that certain subjects be taught, only 10 of those states hold parents accountable for teaching said subjects. 

The bottom line here is that there is no governing body that regulates home-schooling families. In some states with stricter home-schooling laws, the state’s department of education might ensure that home-schooling laws are upheld. But in states with little regulation, there is no oversight whatsoever.

The stories shared under #ExposeChristianHomeschooling reflect this lack of oversight, but they were hardly shocking to me. I grew up in a fundamentalist Baptist household in rural Missouri, a state with some of the least restrictive home-schooling laws in the country. Unlike many of the stories highlighted by #ExposeChristianHomeschooling, my experience was free of abuse and my mother carefully ensured that I received a comprehensive education. I took just as many hours as my public high school peers and all of the regular courses like Algebra and Chemistry. But many of the children I grew up with weren’t as lucky as I was—especially the girls. The Quiverfull movement had a tight grip on the educations of many of the young women I knew.

The Quiverfull movement, which is prevalent in many Christian home-schooling circles, holds the belief that young women should be raised solely for marriage and motherhood, that families should have as many children as possible, and that birth control is sinful. In Quiverfull families, girls are expected to help raise their many younger siblings, help with the housework, and prepare to be “homemakers.” In this way, lax home-schooling laws provide a convenient out for parents who believe that Biblical principles mean girls should not receive advanced education.

Twitter users like Eve Ettinger, an outspoken critic of Christian home schooling, grew up in a Quiverfull family. In a 20-some tweet thread, Ettinger explains that home schooling was a way of “limiting outside influences.” Ettinger was raised believing “that reading the Bible/cooking for the family counted as school. I was instructed to not read or take seriously other religions/philosophies, not even scientific ones like evolution.”

As Ettinger writes in her #ExposeChristianHomeschooling thread, when she was 12, her family moved to Virginia, a state where at the time there were virtually no laws to ensure home-schooled students were being thoroughly educated. As one of nine children, Ettinger had to help take care of her siblings and run the household. She writes that during “9th grade I did almost zero school work because I was babysitting/mom’s right hand for running a house with toddler twins who had chronic ear infections. No problem, it was life skills training!”

Ettinger’s story puts a personal face on the reality: State legislators are failing to protect some of their most vulnerable citizens. Ettinger isn’t the only one with a story like this.

Samantha Field is a board member and policy advocate for the Coalition for Responsible Home Education (CRHE), “a national nonprofit founded and run by home-school graduates who advocate for the well-being and educational success of home-school students,” as Field put it. She weighed in on #ExposeChristianHomeschooling on Twitter, where she described the physical abuse she suffered at the hands of her parents.

“Beating and whipping children up into their teen years was not just commonplace, it was actively encouraged by the culture,” Field wrote. “Books like ‘No Greater Joy’ have been implicated in several deaths and child torture cases.” She went on to explain how the Christian patriarchy denied her access to education, “No girl I knew received any higher level math or science. We were all left to our own devices, to ‘self-teach’ (ie: read the textbooks, if we had any, and take/grade our own exams).”

Stories like Ettinger’s and Field’s illustrate the fact that the lack of government oversight opens children up to abuse and miseducation, without recourse. So why aren’t legislators doing more to protect home-schooled students? Enter the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA).

Founded in 1983 by Michael Farris, the current president of the virulently anti-choice, anti-LGBTQ Alliance Defending Freedom, the HSLDA lobbies against any and all home-school reforms. Using fear-mongering (through convincing their base that stricter laws will result in children being taken from their parents) and its base’s hatred of big government, the HSLDA has effectively silenced state legislators into submission. While some legislators may be aware of the dangers in unregulated home schooling, the tenacity of the HSLDA has ensured that the perspective of their religious right base is often the only one legislators will hear. The HSLDA keeps a close eye on any bills that may seek to regulate home schooling and sends out alerts to its 80,000 members to inform them how said bill will harm their families. Growing up, my own family was a member of HSLDA. We received frequent newsletters and emails about how big government wanted to tear children out of their Christian homes.

Despite the destructive power of organizations like the HSLDA, critics like Ettinger and Field have continued to push for reforms. While neither want home schooling to be banned, they are loudly advocating for change. Ettinger wants to see “mandated annual medical exams of children, all home-schoolers to be registered with their local school boards and the school boards empowered to update those rolls, and standardized annual testing administered by a non-relative.”

Field told me she is an advocate for “responsible home schooling,” which she describes as ensuring “that students are receiving a competent education that prepares them for any future of their choosing, and that education is conducted in a safe, developmentally appropriate, and loving way.”

In her position as a policy advocate for CRHE, Field tracks bills around the country and is in direct contact with lawmakers to help develop legislation that, Field said, “takes a student-centered approach to home schooling, bills that prioritize student safety and success while still ensuring home-school freedoms are protected.”

I asked what specific policies CRHE advocates, but because laws vary so widely from state to state, there is no panacea. “Generally,” Field said, “we try to bring the home education experience in line with the traditional school experience in the sense that home-schooled students have access to the same resources and protections as their peers. We also believe that the best policies are ones that ask for what a responsible, loving parent would already be doing. Asking for an annual pediatrician visit, for example—a responsible parent is already taking their children to the doctor.”

This isn’t too much to ask either.

In 2015, ProPublica spoke to home-schooling parent Karen Myers Bergey about educating her two daughters in Pennsylvania, the most heavily regulated state for home schooling in the country. Bergey said at the time that the stringent regulations are a small price to pay if it ensures that other children are safe. “I’m confident that I’m doing a good job for [my children],” Bergey said, “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,”

That perspective—and the perspective of the thousands of users weighing in on #ExposeChristianHomeschooling—is too often missing from the national dialogue around home-schooling law. While organizations like the HSLDA may currently have a stronghold over state legislatures across the country, the voices of people like Ettinger and Field are gaining traction. And this is all survivors of Christian home schooling are asking for—that their stories be heard and that state lawmakers take measures to protect future generations of home-schooled students.