More American families than ever educated their children at home during the pandemic, a trend that has continued for many households even after schools reopened.
About one in 10 families were homeschooling near the start of the 2020-2021 school year, the latest available federal statistics show. For businesses, this growing market is lucrative, valued at perhaps $2.5 billion. Many firms are lining up to sell textbooks and everything from bowling alleys to inflatable bouncy houses.
Homeschooling is growing faster in certain states and among particular demographic groups. But there’s a lack of reliable research on how homeschooled children are faring. Among the blind spots: Fewer than half the states even require educational assessments of homeschooled students. And attempts to require criminal background checks for homeschooling parents have failed in at least 12 states.
This rapid expansion is also raising more troubling concerns, with battles over government oversight and individual cases of child abuse unfolding in courtrooms and legislatures across the country.
At the center of these debates is a little-known, relatively small lobbying group with evangelical Christian roots, the Home School Legal Defense Association, whose outsized influence has been shifting public policy for decades.
The group has provided legal advice for parents of children in cases of suspected abuse and has fought some child-protection efforts as government overreach.
The NYCity News Service analyzed hundreds of court cases across the country, combed through lobbying and financial filings, and documented the patchwork of state-by-state homeschooling regulations.
Among the findings:
- Courts across the country are grappling with how to protect children from abuse while HSLDA attorneys have been challenging many aspects of enforcement—even when authorities said they had reasonable cause to be concerned about the safety of children.
- HSLDA’s lobbying efforts extend far beyond education, claiming government oversight limits parents’ rights and religious freedom. A West Virginia lawmaker who proposed a bill to protect children at risk of abuse later said he never dreamed of the backlash he would face.
- HSLDA’s legal efforts encompass more than how children are taught, including actions contesting enforcement of an international chemical-weapons treaty and challenging how the military court-martials soldiers.
- HSLDA’s mission taps into a broader culture war over politics and religion. In our Home Ed podcast, listeners hear from a 30-year-old woman who was homeschooled as she recounts how that mission shaped her family’s life.
An Ever-Widening Battlefront
Courts grapple with protecting children as the Home School Legal Defense Association pushes to stifle regulation across the U.S.
By Mary Steffenhagen
When Jonathan Stanley was 16, he wanted to attend public school. His parents had been homeschooling him and his seven siblings. He’d never been to school outside the home.
The family lived in Hot Springs, Arkansas, and worked to be self-sufficient. They grew food in a garden and orchard. They avoided doctors. They were strict Southern Baptists. As two siblings put it on a family blog, “Our life is based on home. We have home church, home births, home school.”
But Jonathan and a 14-year-old sibling later told state investigators that there was also was corporal punishment, including beatings with a paddle and choking.
An investigator spoke with the family after a neighbor contacted child protective services in 2014 with concerns of physical abuse and neglect. The calls continued, with one reporting “excessive corporal punishment, medical and educational neglect, and inadequate nutrition,” according to court documents.
When 30 government officers returned to the property in 2015, court documents say they were disturbed by what they learned. In the refrigerator was an industrial-grade chemical used for bleaching paper that could, if ingested, cause illness and even liver failure. Two children said they had been “strongly encouraged” to drink it, and that the poisonous substance was aerated through the home’s ventilation system, making them nauseous. The parents, Hal and Michelle Stanley, countered that the substance was legal and they believed it might cure disease.
State police, after some debate, removed the children from the home for three days. Soon, that time was extended, and the children were placed in foster care and sent to public schools.
Hal Stanley told reporters in 2016 that the children’s education at home was a source of tension in the family. “The two teenagers, the top two—they wanted to go to public school,” he said. In the Stanley family’s court filing, they describe Jonathan’s actions as rebellion.
Hal was outraged that his children were sent to public school. ”All the things we’ve wanted to protect them from in public school—they just totally against our wishes put them in public school,” he told The Washington Post.
The Stanley family was reunited after three months of the children living in foster care and going to public school. The parents were later accused of child maltreatment—a charge that was soon dropped—and educational neglect. In court, they argued that officials overstepped their authority and persecuted them because of their religious homeschooling.
The case wound through lower courts for years before reaching the U.S. Court of Appeals in 2021. In his opinion, Judge James Loken wrote that he could understand the parents’ dismay:
“Without question, the Stanley family suffered emotional pain and disruption during a lengthy ordeal that may have been caused, at least in part, by overzealous government officials who were hostile to or skeptical of parents who home-schooled their children in an isolated, religion-dominated environment.”
Still, he believed local authorities acted properly with the information they had at the time.
“Child protection and family integrity issues often require government officials to weigh conflicting interests in situations when immediate protective action may be necessary,” Loken wrote. The court affirmed the lower court decision.
HOW FAR CAN PARENTS GO?
The Stanley family’s case is one part of a broader legal discussion about homeschooling in America that’s taken on new urgency as the pandemic wears on. More children than ever are being homeschooled. Homeschooled children accounted for just 3.3% of school-aged children prior to the pandemic and that number could now be over 11%.
The NYCity News Service reviewed hundreds of legal decisions from the past 15 years that offer a window into how homeschooling is conducted, how governments regulate it and how children are treated at home. Cases show that local and state governments have wrestled with questions of child safety, religious freedom, public health, obligations to ensure adequate education and how far parents can direct their child’s education. They also show how advocates for homeschooling marshal national resources to fight regulations from state to state.
The legal debate plays out against the tension between families who see homeschooling as simply part of parenting and state authorities, which view it as a type of formal education that is under official purview.
“Most of us don’t see the state as justifiably intervening about most parental choices,” said Robert Kunzman, a professor at Indiana University who studies homeschooling. “So the question is whether that should be the case for schooling at home.”
Allegations of child abuse and neglect are a central flashpoint in some homeschooling cases. And there are other conflicts. Public schools are required to help children with special needs, by providing services such as aides or offering speech therapy. Court records show homeschoolers may not get those services. While children from low-income families get free meals in public school so they do not go hungry, court records show instances where homeschooled children get too little to eat at home. Still other cases reveal that some homeschooled children are not getting an adequate education.
To be sure, some studies have found homeschooled students can excel. A 2012 book by a Vanderbilt University professor found homeschooled students appear to perform about as well as those who go to traditional schools, matriculating to college at similar rates. A 2010 peer-reviewed study found homeschooled students who attended one Midwest college performed better and graduated at a higher rate than those who went to traditional schools. A number of other peer-reviewed studies show mixed results, with homeschooled students performing somewhat better than their peers in subjects like reading yet worse in math, and having similar academic outcomes to non-homeschooled peers in college.
State laws governing homeschooling vary widely, with many requiring little of homeschooling parents as far as instruction time, common subjects, assessment or recordkeeping. Court cases reviewed by the News Service demonstrate how much leeway parents have when they claim to be homeschooling—and how states have trouble enforcing the patchwork of rules that govern the practice.
NOT GETTING SCHOOLED
A mother named Krissy—the family’s last name is withheld in court records—had two school-age daughters that she claimed she was homeschooling. The family bounced around several Western states, never staying in one place for long.
In early 2019, when the family resided in Montana, child protection workers in Washington state, alerted Montana officials about allegations that Krissy had abused the children there.
Montana authorities temporarily took custody of the children, six-year old Ari and seventeen-year old Genesis. They were later returned to Krissy. The family moved to California, where child protection workers got more calls about how the children were being treated, then back to Washington, where abuse allegations continued.
Krissy suffered from mental delusions. Court records show she claimed King Louis V of France, dead for more than a millennium, was her father. She claimed Donald Trump, Michelle Obama, and Queen Elizabeth communicated with her through satellites. While living with Ari’s godmother, she demanded the utilities should be shut off because “Christ was going to send fire from heaven in the form of a cross” on May 27, 2020.
Her delusions endangered her children. Genesis recounted in court documents that her mother once closed her eyes and drove their van into a ditch with Ari inside.
By summer 2020, the family was in Southern California, where a caller to child protection services said they saw Krissy punch Genesis. But investigators could not find the family.
They were found when Krissy herself called the police. She believed a bomb was in the hotel where the family was staying. When police arrived, she stripped and defecated in front of them. No bomb was found. The children were placed in state custody.
Soon questions also emerged about the schooling the daughters received.
In the three states where they lived, requirements for homeschooling vary. Montana requires a yearly notification from parents who intend to homeschool their children. California collects annual notifications and keeps a registry of homeschooling families and enrollment records. Washington requires notification and also says that parents must demonstrate an ability to teach, like having a certain number of college credits. Children are also required to take annual assessments to track their progress.
The court record is unclear whether Krissy followed any of these state regulations. She contended that the state of California didn’t have the jurisdiction over her case, and asked the court to dismiss the case due to “lack of evidence.” The judge remained adamant about one point: Krissy lied about giving her children an education.
That is not the only time courts have come to that conclusion.
In another 2021 decision, a mother that Arizona state courts call Eileen C. had been found in a Mohave County hospital suffering from “paranoia and hallucinations.”
She said she had been fleeing with her two teenage children from child protective services in Texas, Nevada, California and Utah. The father of the children had died. She was unemployed and had no fixed address, claiming she was en route from Las Vegas to Mesa, Arizona. Arizona child safety officials confirmed previous reports of neglect to officials in New Mexico and California.
As authorities unraveled her case, they found she had filed a recent affidavit with Arizona authorities that she intended to homeschool the children. A month later, she filed a similar notice in Nevada.
The court found that the two teenagers had not attended school in any formal setting for more than 10 years, and they were “developmentally delayed.”
SPECIAL NEEDS UNMET
While many states have passed laws allowing homeschooled students to take part in extracurricular activities like sports in their local public schools, states are not required to provide access to disability-related services for homeschooled students. Court decisions show that when parents opt out of these public services by homeschooling, children also may not get them from another source—even when help is provided for free by the government.
Bud and Rhonda Marks had a child who was born with cerebral palsy in Texas. The child, referred to in court documents by the initials “B.G.M.,” had trouble walking but her mental acuity was sharp. Her parents decided to homeschool her rather than send her to kindergarten. B.G.M.’s doctor agreed that “nothing would prevent her from learning and growing emotionally and intellectually.” Texas is one of 11 states that doesn’t require any notification of intent to homeschool.
The family lived below the poverty line for years. Neither graduated from high school. They relocated to east Texas along the Louisiana border when B.G.M. was 8, in 2006. The family lived in a trailer with a leaky roof and no air conditioner. For power, an extension cord ran from a nearby trailer that belonged to B.G.M.’s aunt.
An adult daughter, Tiffany Parsley, lived nearby and visited the family. The relationship had not been easy. When Parsley was 19, she had taken out a restraining order against her father after he became enraged over her decision to marry. The father “sat on top of me and he punched me in my face until I was black and blue, until there was blood in my eyes,” Parsley, then 25, recalled in court documents.
After several visits in 2008, Tiffany became concerned for her younger sister’s wellbeing. She also noticed that B.G.M.—now 10 years old—wasn’t attending school outside of the home. “They would leave her on the computer by herself to do this home schooling by herself,” Parsley said.
The girl could barely read or write. She could only recite even numbers, not odd ones. She could not spell her first name. The parents claimed that B.G.M. had dyslexia, a disability that makes reading difficult. So Parsley called child protective services.
The neighboring aunt became B.G.M.’s guardian and enrolled her in a local public school. School counselors could not find evidence that she was dyslexic or had any learning disabilities. They found B.G.M was bright but academically behind other students her age. With special attention and classes, she soon began to catch up with her classmates.
Additionally, investigators found that B.G.M. had also not received physical therapy for her cerebral palsy, despite the state providing it for free due to the family’s financial circumstances. Rhonda Marks told investigators she hadn’t taken B.G.M. to the doctor in four years. In therapy, B.G.M. revealed that she was scared of her parents, who fought frequently and abused alcohol. She rarely had enough to eat. She recounted once pouring cereal out of a box only to find it was infested with roaches. “She had to pick roaches out of it before she could eat it,” according to court records. In an ensuing custody battle, the court found that B.G.M.’s lack of education at home had significantly hindered her emotional development and was a factor in affirming her aunt’s guardianship.
OPTING OUT OF VACCINATION
While most students in public schools need to be vaccinated, homeschooled students are not held to the same standard. Some limited studies show that for some parents, immunization requirements play a role in their decision to homeschool. When immunization is in question, some parents battle it out in the courtroom.
In one case decided in New York in 2021, a father sought to modify a custody agreement after the mother refused to vaccinate their 10-year-old son, who was due for immunizations against polio and hepatitis A. The mother pulled him out of school, saying she intended to homeschool the child. The father claimed that the mother didn’t have “an appropriate plan for his [the child’s] education.”
School workers testified that the child, who was two grades behind reading level, was “really benefiting from” public school. He had an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) that included counseling and smaller classes. The mother, who could have continued the plan at home, opted against it. Court records said the child told his court-appointed attorney that he wanted to be in school.
A state appellate court upheld a family court decision to grant custody to the father, who planned to get the child the needed immunizations and re-enroll him in school.
Yet courts do not always prioritize vaccination. In a California case litigated in 2021, two siblings (ages 8 and 6) were barred from returning to in-person classes at a private Montessori school after their parents would not get them vaccinated. They did school work at home but their attendance was spotty and eventually, they were dropped by the school.
Their family life was difficult in other ways. The children were in and out of foster care, social workers said, because of allegations that the father was violent toward an ex-girlfriend. The San Diego County juvenile court ordered that as part of a solution, the children attend in-person school and be vaccinated.
The parents contested the order, claiming they knew of two schools that would accept their children without vaccination and that they were considering homeschooling. They still were seeking a doctor to grant a vaccine exemption. The father wanted to exhaust all options to not vaccinate the children.
An appellate court agreed and said the juvenile court “abused its discretion” in taking away the right to make educational decisions from the parents. While the children had “unmet educational needs” and the parents did not provide a clear plan for their schooling, the lower court should have first explored other options as required by state law, like having another adult make decisions for the children’s education.
The case was sent back to the lower court to first consider other options.
NO ABSOLUTE RIGHT TO HOMESCHOOL
The scope of a parent’s right to direct their child’s education is frequently at issue in legal cases involving homeschooling. Parents and homeschooling advocacy groups say they have a constitutionally-protected right to homeschool. Courts continue to rule that this right has limits.
Rachel Long was being homeschooled with her siblings in Los Angeles by their mother, Mary—all 11 children in the family were homeschooled. Their school days, Rachel told investigators when she was 14, were “sometimes two hours. Sometimes half an hour. It depended on what homework it was.”
She read school books on citizenship, math, English and science, and took a yearly test administered by a local private school to move on to the next grade. But Rachel later told investigators that she couldn’t add, subtract, multiply or divide.
Court records state that Rachel said her father physically abused her, with his hands and with objects like “shoes, hangers, canes, and broom sticks,” leaving bruises. Her mother did nothing to stop him, Rachel said in court filings.
Nor did her parents believe her when she said a family friend had repeatedly molested her as a child. “They were just like, ‘whatever,’” she said.
She began cutting herself to cope with her depression. Her father responded by threatening to beat her. She tried running away when she was 14, choosing to live on the streets for months instead of returning to the family home, before eventually calling the local police department.
Due to the abuse, Rachel and two other siblings were declared “dependents” of the state in 2007. The Long family was known to local agencies due to previous abuse of other children, including to the point where one daughter was removed from the home and the father arrested.
The court ordered that the three children attend a public or private school outside of the house because of the history of abuse. The parents argued this violated a constitutional right to homeschool their children.
“I believe the creator wants us to protect our children from things we believe are hazardous to their character,” Philip Long told the San Francisco Chronicle at the time.
While this ruling was specific to the Long family’s situation, the judge also wrote in his decision that the mother, who had an 11th grade education, wasn’t properly credentialed to teach under California law.
To homeschooling advocates, this case threatened the legality of homeschooling itself, potentially opening the door to a ban on homeschooling in California. As the parents appealed, organizations across the country submitted legal briefs supporting them.
The state’s Court of Appeals affirmed homeschooling was permitted under California law in 2008. But the judge also stated that “no such absolute right to home school exists” particularly when there is abuse and neglect. The Long children could continue taking classes in school.
The court also underscored a key concern often raised by supporters of homeschooling regulation: “The safety of the child cannot be guaranteed when the child is shielded from all mandated reporters of child abuse.”
CRACKS IN THE SYSTEM
Homeschooling poses a challenge to the patchwork of local and state agencies that deal with child abuse and neglect. These rely heavily on in-person contact between children and mandated reporters to help spot signs of potential abuse.
Across the country, certain professions are legally designated as mandated reporters of child abuse. In New York, mandated reporters include a long list of professionals, including medical workers. Texas extends the law to all individuals. In West Virginia, mandated reporters include Christian Science practitioners, religious healers and commercial film processors. According to federal data, school employees account for 21% of reports of suspected abuse.
Those who call for more oversight say that homeschooling removes children from this safety net of adults with a legal duty to be watchful.
“In 49 out of 50 states, it’s legal to homeschool your child if you have been convicted of a crime against children,” said Jeremy Young, then interim executive director of the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, a nonprofit advocacy group founded by homeschool alumni that advocates for legislation to increase accountability for homeschooling parents. (Young is referring to Pennsylvania, the only state with an explicit legal provision that applies the same restrictions to prospective homeschool parents as to people working in public and private schools: barring those convicted of various crimes such as sexual assaults, kidnapping, stalking, drug-related felonies, and other certain violent crimes. Pennsylvania also requires homeschool parents to meet an educational qualification, such as a high school diploma, along with 10 other states.)
The organization maintains a database of confirmed abuse and neglect cases of homeschooled children, called Homeschooling’s Invisible Children. It is one of very few collections of data on this issue, with 480 entries since 1981 (some of which account for multiple children in one family).
“We think there should be basic background checks for homeschooling,” Young told the News Service. “We think you should have to notify people that you’re going to [homeschool] so that there is a record that your kid is being homeschooled. We think that there should be some kind of annual assessment, and an annual wellness check with a mandated reporter.”
“These seem like easy things to fix,” he said.
Legislators in several states have proposed ways to increase oversight, typically after a case of child abuse in a homeschooling family makes national news. But these efforts often fail after vocal opposition from state and national homeschooling groups.
In 2013, Ohio State Senator Capri Cafaro introduced a bill in response to the death of 13-year-old Teddy Foltz at the hands of his mother and her boyfriend. Foltz had been withdrawn from school to be “homeschooled,” specifically to isolate him from mandated reporters, his grandparents and father alleged.
The bill would have required that social service workers interview prospective homeschooling parents and children, as well as check parents’ records in the state’s child welfare database.
“Essentially getting another pair of eyes on the situation,” Cafaro told the News Service.
Cafaro said her office was flooded with calls from homeschooling parents around the country. The Christian Home Educators of Ohio called it the “most highly invasive policy that has been proposed since the inception of the Ohio home education regulations.”
“The concern was that it would inadvertently ban homeschooling and take away parent’s choice. And none of that was the intention,” Cafaro said.
By the end of 2013, Tedesco asked that the bill be withdrawn because “the true intent of the bill to curtail child abuse has been eclipsed the by the issue of homeschooling.”
Another push happened in 2018 in California, after it was discovered that 13 siblings were imprisoned and tortured by their parents for years. The family was legally registered to homeschool but there are no independent checks on homeschooling families, who are considered the operators of private schools under California regulations.
State Assemblyman Jose Medina introduced a bill proposing that local fire departments conduct yearly inspections of all homeschools in their areas. Under criticism from state and national homeschooling proponents, who contended that would be government overreach and an excessive invasion of privacy, Medina revised the bill to remove the inspections and instead merely create a separate designation to better track home schools. The proposal died in the Assembly.
A frequent voice in these public conversations is the Home School Legal Defense Association, a nonprofit legal advocacy group whose stated mission is to “defend and advance the constitutional right of parents to direct the education of their children and to protect family freedoms.”
Jim Mason, HSLDA’s president, told the News Service that the organization fundamentally disagrees with the premise that more regulation could prevent child abuse that happens under the legal auspices of homeschooling. (At the time of this conversation, Mason was HSLDA’s vice president of litigation and development.)
“I don’t concede the premise that regulation or lack of regulation played a role. I don’t think that’s true. People do bad things. People who send their kids to public school do bad things, public school teachers do bad things. You can’t regulate bad things out of people,” Mason said. “You can punish people for when they do bad things, but you can’t regulate bad acting.”
This stance has guided HSLDA’s advocacy in courts and legislative houses and they are vocal critics of increased homeschool regulation. They often head up legal battles between homeschooling parents and state agencies.
In West Virginia, elementary school teachers believed Raylee Browning was being abused at home. They made repeated reports to the state’s child protective services. Her father and his wife withdrew her from school in the midst of an investigation, saying they would homeschool the child. Police would later allege Browning got scant education at home.
Instead, police said, she was starved, abused and neglected. Browning died in 2018 from an untreated infection stemming from pneumonia, which medical workers attributed to neglect. They also found bruises, burns and cuts all over her body. She was 8 years old. Her father, his wife and her sister have since been charged with death of a child and child neglect causing death; the prosecution is ongoing.
State Delegate Shawn Fluharty proposed a law in 2020 that would prevent parents under investigation for child abuse, or with a previous child abuse or domestic violence conviction, from removing their children from public school to homeschool.
“At the time, quite frankly, I thought this was an easy fix,” Fluharty said. “Let’s implement these types of safety nets to make sure that there’s not another Raylee in West Virginia that could be easily preventable.”
Fluharty was soon inundated with calls and emails from homeschooling parents around the country and HSLDA representatives. They called the bill unconstitutional and blamed state child protection workers’ lack of action for Browning’s death. One email told him it was a “witch hunt” against homeschoolers. Despite a bipartisan group of sponsors, Fluharty says, the chair of the education committee—Delegate Joe Ellington, a homeschooling parent—has not presented the bill for a committee vote. So it has yet to reach the full House of Delegates floor for a hearing. Ellington did not respond to requests for comment.
“We need this type of legislation, because there are times when our current system fails,” Fluharty said. “Why wouldn’t we want another layer of protection? It’s really that simple.”
A Patchwork of Regulations
Rules differ greatly from state to state
By Mary Steffenhagen
Every state in America regulates homeschooling in some way yet the policies vary widely.
Many states require that parents notify a governmental agency such as the local school board that they want to homeschool their children, according to the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, a nonprofit that tracks state laws.
But in 11 states—including Idaho, Connecticut and Michigan—parents do not need to notify officials at all.
Six states—including Delaware, Mississippi and Utah—have no rules for assessing what homeschooled children are learning or requiring a minimum number of hours studying.
Only 14 states—such as New Mexico and Ohio—have some requirement that parents are considered qualified to teach, by having a high school diploma or its equivalent.
Fewer than half—24 states, including Georgia, Massachusetts and Colorado—require some kind of student assessment, including standardized tests or portfolio review.
Before the 1980s, most states did not have laws that allowed parents to meet compulsory attendance requirements through at-home education.
When it comes to access for activities and services available to public school students—like participating in sports or special-education programs—rules also vary greatly.
Thirty states have provisions allowing homeschooled students to join public school sports teams—so-called Tim Tebow bills, named after the noted college football quarterback who was homeschooled in Florida and played on a public high school school team. But 20 states—including Montana, Kansas and Connecticut—bar homeschooled students.
Federal law requires school districts to offer assessments and develop education plans for students with disabilities. But there is no federal requirement that schools provide those special services. There are ways that homeschooled students may access some services, particularly in states where home schools and private schools are not legally distinct. According to the Coalition for Responsible Homeschooling, individual districts may have some leeway to provide those services to homeschooled students with disabilities.
When it comes to vaccinations, 26 states—including Arizona, New Hampshire and Missouri— do not require homeschooled students to have any immunizations. Others have opt-out provisions such as religious or medical exemptions.
Just two states have measures in place that allow states to specifically deny homeschooling to those convicted of certain crimes. Arkansas law bars sex offenders living in homes where homeschooling is taking place, but parents can petition for a waiver. Pennsylvania prevents those convicted of certain serious crimes or abuse in the past five years from homeschooling their children.
Keith Paul Medelis
When School is Home was produced by students at the Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY‘s NYCity News Service under the guidance of Andrew Lehren, John Mancini and Christine McKenna.