Educational Neglect is Not Okay

When I first got into homeschooling, it was with the assumption that homeschooling regulation was generally bad and that homeschoolers, with the exception of a few bad apples, were good people.

Unfortunately, having been around the block a few times, I’m not quite so idealistic anymore. For one thing, I think all homeschool parents should spend a little time reading the stories on Homeschoolers Anonymous if you haven’t already. They range from just disappointing to terrifying, but none of them are good. And there’s typically a slow but steady stream of stories in the media about families who either use homeschooling as a cover to mask abuse or who purposefully practice educational neglect. Just last week, the story of a Texas family who allegedly refused to teach their children because they believed the rapture was coming hit the news again when the Texas Supreme Court remanded the decision to lower courts to decide on different issues than those brought up there, effectively saying it was okay for them to have done that.

It continually frustrates me that homeschoolers tend to close ranks and defend fellow homeschoolers who claim the government is meddling in their affairs, even when evidence comes to light that they indicate are guilty of real neglect. Just look at the case of the Naugler family last year. They raised an inordinate amount of money online from fellow homeschoolers and homesteading families after the state removed the children from the home. However, even images and statements by the mother herself made it clear the children were living in squalor and not receiving any educational efforts.

I want to be clear that I’m not against unschooling or delayed schooling or slower timetables. I’m not talking about when you have a rough few months and less gets done or when you have to take a month or two off for an illness or the birth of a baby. Not having a formal time to “do school” doesn’t indicate educational neglect. Not having textbooks or tests isn’t the same thing as educational neglect. And it’s hard to know from offhanded statements from kids or even parents that they’re not “doing much school” whether that’s true or not. Kids can see the world differently, parents can be humble or just not want to talk about how they’re not fully living up to their own vision and standards. There’s no reason to step in and judge based on that. And no reason for anyone, homeschooler or neighbor or well-meaning family member, to put a child on the spot and quiz them because they’re homeschooled. You’re not doing anyone any favors and asking a bewildered 9 year-old to recite his times tables apropos of nothing is just rude. And sometimes the government does step in and make life a nightmare for a good family based on nothing but a nosy neighbor’s misconception.

However, when a family actively prevents a child from accessing education, that’s not unschooling or any legitimate philosophy of education or childrearing, that’s neglect. It happens. I’m talking about families that refuse to allow their children to go to the library or refuse to teach older children to read or do basic arithmetic, even when the children ask or beg for lessons or materials. These are families where kids ask to attend school, not for social reasons, but because they see that their peers know vastly more about the world than they do. While most homeschoolers are good people who love their kids and do their best, there is a strain of people in homeschooling who are keeping their children home for reasons of control, who are purposefully not equipping them with basic skills. And it doesn’t matter if there’s a religious reason for it. There’s no religion that commands that children be denied basic skills to succeed in their world.

I don’t know exactly what would prevent educational neglect for homeschooled kids. Many of the regulations on the books now are either silly hoops that abusers can easily fake like attendance records or measures that leave too much open to interpretation by the state. In my own jurisdiction, the law asks us to keep “a portfolio of materials” but doesn’t really define what that means. Overly vague statues don’t serve anyone because they give the state power to be capricious in enforcement. Too often, in states with reviews or where plans must be approved, the reviewers know next to nothing about what homeschooling looks like and the guidelines are vague.

On the other hand, I refuse to believe that means that nothing can be done to protect innocent kids from educational neglect. For one thing, families that refuse to jump through those silly hoops like having a child take a test that doesn’t even require sending in results or drawing up some attendance records, seem to be doing their kids a disservice in one way by not following a law that’s easy to follow, so perhaps there’s a correlation that they’re not serving their kids in other ways. A group made up mostly of former homeschooled students, the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, has some recommendations, most of which are reasonable and worth consideration.

As homeschoolers, we shouldn’t just throw up our hands and say, oh well, a few bad apples are going to neglect their children’s education. Often, homeschoolers place their own rights to direct their children’s education above the rights of children to receive an education in the first place. In other words, if there’s a conflict between the state interfering in a homeschool versus trying to protect children, then homeschool families tend to say that the parents’ rights not to have the state interfere should always win. However, I cannot accept that. My right to do less paperwork or be hassled a little less can’t trump a child’s right to a basic education. I just don’t buy that.

Educational neglect is real neglect. Every time these cases surface, it depresses me to see how homeschoolers excuse, dismiss, and defend parents who simply aren’t doing their job to see that their kids get an education. Basically, this is my plea to you not to defend families who seem to be practicing educational neglect. If you see these stories in the media, don’t give them money, don’t talk about how they were probably doing fine, don’t assume every homeschooler you meet is as good as you. Don’t get stuck in suspicion either, but resist the urge to close ranks when there may be a real problem.


12 thoughts on “Educational Neglect is Not Okay

  1. Yup. I totally agree. It makes me so angry to see homeschooled kids unprepared for high school or college. It makes the rest of us look bad when this happens. I want people to take my homeschooled kids seriously as students. I don’t want them to assume that we’re all losers. If anything, protecting those who practice educational neglect endangers everyone’s right to homeschool, because it gives the homeschooling naysayers powerful evidence that in some cases homeschooling is a bad thing.

    I know we’re not all like that, but I don’t want any homeschooled kids to have this disservice. It’s not fair to them.

  2. Most of the stories on Homeschoolers Anonymous involve religious families. The reason I bring this up is because it seems to be a huge factor in this issue that is often overlooked or not properly understood. For example, some of the stories are about kids who were raised in religious families who feel they experienced educational neglect because the parent responsible for their home education program did not teach algebra, or high school science, or some such thing. I have a problem with this. You see, I live in Pennsylvania where the law allows the Amish to actually NOT TEACH SCIENCE at all. The Amish don’t teach algebra at all either, or any other higher math, and if you know the Amish you know that their version of social studies is bound to be a bit unusual. They teach grammar and arithmetic and that’s really pretty much it. They certainly are not concerned about preparing their kids for college, or even for high school. They don’t participate in the state-mandated standardized testing but homeschoolers in PA are required to take standardized tests in certain grades. The Amish get to leave school after the eighth grade, legally excused by their superintendent, for domestic service or farm work. They are taught in small schoolhouses by teenagers with only an eighth grade education themselves. Homeschoolers in PA have to have their educational records scrutinized by a certified teacher every single year, but Amish kids will probably never meet a certified teacher. None of this is considered ‘educational neglect’ for two reasons: 1) They are religious, and 2) They aren’t homeschoolers. SCOTUS backed them up on this. I figure that if the Amish are not considered to be educationally neglecting their kids when they go this route, then those kids in those Quiverful families who missed out on Mom teaching them algebra can not be said to be educationally neglected either. Apparently, it’s quite legal for religious people to skip over huge swaths of academic knowledge because of religion. Well, at least SCOTUS thinks it’s okay. So, why are those folks at Homeschoolers Anonymous so concerned about educational neglect when it’s Quiverful homeschoolers not learning high school science or being prepared for college but not when it’s the routine educational neglect of kids in Amish schools, Baptist church basement schools, or Fundamentalist Mormon or whatever else schools? Why is it okay to say “Oh, the Amish will only grow up to be Amish anyway, so that’s okay” but not “Oh, the Quiverful will only grow up to be Quiverful anyway, so that’s okay”? The only difference is that one is homeschooled and the other is taught in tiny schoolhouses somewhere, if Amish then by teenagers with an eighth-grade education. In Pennsylvania, if you wanted to homeschool your own kids you have to prove you have a high school diploma or a GED, but hey, if you are Amish and you finished eighth grade you can teach in an Amish school. Sure, there are legitimate cases of educational neglect, but unless we are prepared in INSIST that all kids meet certain standards of education, including the children of the Amish and Hasidic Jews and any other non-mainstream religious group, then we have no business pointing the finger at some homeschooling Quiverful parents and accusing them of educational neglect. Further, I strongly suggest that unless and until we are prepared to insist on educational standards for all kids, that we really have no grounds to be accusing anyone of educational neglect as long these religious folks are legally able to totally skip science and end formal education after arithmetic. The folks at Homeschoolers Anonymous have totally missed, or deliberately overlooked, the real problem here. The real problem is not homeschooling. The real problem is religious privilege applied to education.

    1. I’m aware of the Amish exceptions. I have very mixed feelings about that. Amish kids receive a basic education of the three R’s and they are prepared for life in their world, but not to leave their world. It’s a tricky situation. However, there at least is an Amish community in which people can thrive and live successful lives. For many kids in Quiverfull families or even more marginalized religious movements or living on the outskirts off the grid and homesteading, there is very little way for them to achieve any measure of security or success in their situation without getting a decent education. Not to mention that the education neglect practiced in some of these families goes far above and beyond any practiced in Amish communities. We’re talking about kids without basic arithmetic or reading. One thing I’d like to see that CRHE doesn’t explicitly advocate for is a right by older kids, perhaps teens only, to access school against their family’s wishes pending mediation.

      I disagree that HA doesn’t see religion and exceptions for religion as the problem. They clearly do see that as an integral part of the picture. I think the contributors to HA are far more aware of the sort of evils that religion can do in a person’s life.

      In terms of staying out of it as long as the Amish get special treatment, I don’t buy that that’s okay. Two wrongs don’t make a right. This is like when people argue that public schools aren’t doing their job, therefore homeschoolers don’t have to either. Some public schools do dramatically fail kids. But that doesn’t mean homeschoolers should get a pass. That’s a logical fallacy.

  3. I really think you made an excellent point. I am currently a 4th grade teacher at a public school, and I had a student this year return to public schooling after a year of being homeschooled. I won’t bring you down with the details of his awful home life, but I will mention that this poor child had no concept of the prerequisite skills for forth grade. He even went as far as saying to me that “I’m pretty sure I didn’t learn or practice any math skills at home last year.” Where is the justice in this? Not only did this boy struggle all year long (even with intensive support,) but he was bullied by students who thought he was “dumb” or “stupid.” This poor boy is so bright, but he just struggles from a lack of background knowledge. When I sat with him 1:1 he would pick up information so quickly, but there wasn’t enough time in the school year to teach him 3rd grade material and 4th grade material. He is truly a great candidate for a GOOD homeschooling experience, unlike the one he received the previous year. Next year he is going to be repeating 4th grade, and I’m very optimistic about the progress he will make. His mother has threatened to homeschool him again because of the retention, and I worry so much that he is going to fall behind again and not receive a proper education. How can I let a child spend a school year playing video games?

    I feel as though Educational Neglect is happening all around us, but nothing is being done about it. I do believe that homeschooling can benefit some children, but how is it fair to children whose parent’s won’t give them a fair shot at a decent education?

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    1. It’s difficult when a homeschooler returns to school when they’re relatively young. Often homeschoolers follow such a different path, especially for language arts. And homeschooled kids often know a lot about history, science, geography, and other content subjects, but have taken a slower path in learning to write – one that’s meant to pay off down the road in middle school and beyond. But if they get thrown into public school 3rd or 4th grade, they may be lacking a lot of the skills that – to public school teachers – seem like they should obviously have had. Other homeschoolers have rich educational environments but don’t do any formal schooling until a child is 7 or 8 years old. Again, down the road, having extra time to play and develop followed by a gentle ramping up of schooling can be fine, but if a child then has to go to school, that’s tough. That may not have been the case for that boy, of course. Hopefully his homeschooling experience did have good elements that aren’t academic. And now, given a little extra time, hopefully he’ll catch up.

  4. I could not agree more. I live in a low-regulation state, and it infuriates me to see fellow homeschoolers posting on local mailing lists to brag about how they’ve flaunted the very few and very reasonable requirements imposed on us. I would happily accept more regulation to ensure that fewer homeschooled children suffer educational neglect and/or abuse by parents who are just using homeschooling to fly under the radar and avoid mandated reporters. My biggest fear as a homeschool parent is that I will fail my child educationally in some way and leave him unprepared for his chosen dream career or higher ed path. To that end, I’m happy to check our progress against our state standards, and pay an outside entity to administer a yearly standardized test to make sure we’re making good academic progress. It completely blows my mind that a parent would deliberately withhold education from a child.

  5. I’m a Christian mom who homeschools and I agree with much of what you’ve said in this article. I also think it’s important for parents to read stories from CRHE because as a parent it gives me a different perspective to think about as I spend time with my kids. Ultimately, I want my children to be filled in a variety of ways and they would be able to go out and reach the world in whatever way they are led. I don’t want their homeschool education to ever seem like it hindered them.

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