Why Are Christian Fundamentalist Parents Allowed to Deny Their Kids Basic Literacy?

By failing to educate their kids, these parents potentially squander a child’s entire lifetime of future earnings and achievements.

The appropriate balance between freedom and harm can be hard to strike, particularly when it comes to religious freedom. In an attempt to find this balance, religious conservatives have been granted exemptions from a wide range of civil rights laws and social obligations. In the last two decades, one of the exemptions they have secured in many states is the right to opt out of school attendance for their children.

Led by a group called Home School Legal Defense Association, a network of institutions and activists have sprung up to advocate the rights of parents to educate their children—or not—as they please. Now the largest generation of home-schooled children are coming of age, and some are telling horror stories that suggest parent privilege may have gone too far. 

recent testimonial posted at Homeschoolers Anonymous opens like this:

It was not so much homeschooling that traumatized me as much as my mother’s mental illness. This was hidden by homeschooling, and the pain that damaged me came from the constant exposure to her psychiatric illness. I feel like someone roasted me over a fire, leaving me with burns to rest the remainder of my life, and I didn’t even know at the time what fire was.

Nationally, the fight over homeschooling is heating up, with dramatic changes to existing laws set to be discussed in both Virginia and Utah during 2014.

On January 8, Virginia statesman Tom Rust introduced House Joint Resolution 92, requesting the state’s Department of Education to review Virginia’s religious exemption to compulsory school attendance. Under current rules, Virginia parents who enroll as a home school must meet basic requirements, but by filing a separate religious exemption they can excuse themselves altogether from the duty to educate their children. Rust’s resolution asks the Department of Education to examine whether the exemption, which is the only one of its kind in the nation, violates a state constitutional provision that makes education a civil right.

Meanwhile, as Virginians look to narrow their state’s exemption to ensure that all kids learn the basics, like how to read, Utah Senator Aaron Osmond has announced his plan to bring Virginia’s unfettered religious exemption to the state of Utah in the form of Senate Bill 39. Osmond told reporters that under his plan religious parents would still be subject to prosecution for educational neglect; however a review of Osmond’s proposal by the Coalition for Responsible Home Education concludes that since Utah defines educational neglect according to their state’s homeschooling requirements, parents who are exempt from those standards would also be immune from prosecution for educational neglect—even if they fail to educate their children at all.

Religious groups have come out in support of the proposal in Utah and are also demanding that Virginia’s Joint Resolution 92 be retracted before the requested inquiry has even begun. These groups claim that the right to education is voluntary, like the right to vote, and that parents should have the freedom to decide whether to exercise this right on their children’s behalf.

Heather Doney, executive director of the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, disagrees: “Parents have the right to direct their children’s education, but they should not have the right to deny them basic literacy.” Doney speaks from experience. As the eldest of 10 children in a devout homeschooling family, she was the only one who could read until her grandparents intervened and the children were allowed to attend school.

As with nutritional or sanitary neglect, lack of education can create lifelong hardships for those it affects. Ask any adult who has taken a college course while working full-time. Then imagine tackling years of remedial elementary, middle and high school courses while supporting yourself—and possibly a family—with a job so menial it doesn’t require a high school education. This outcome may not be the homeschool norm, but on websites like Homeschoolers Anonymous, homeschool alumni are reporting experiences of educational neglect in alarming numbers.

Homeschooling families often portray themselves as a persecuted minority, but compared to homeschooled victims of neglect and abuse, responsible homeschooling parents are a formidable army. Represented by groups like the HSLDA, which has lawyers, publicists and media personalities at its command, these groups can easily paper the walls of a legislator’s office with letters listing their demands. But for young children who are having their futures stolen, these groups offer no solutions.

Boiled down, most arguments for unregulated homeschooling amount to the same thing: “We must ignore the problems of abused homeschooled children to maintain the sovereignty of parents.”

At the heart of this claim is religious homeschoolers’ insistence that God has elevated parents above any earthly authority. This is an attempt to resurrect an Old Testament-era legal theory, which afforded children no more right to life, liberty and self-direction than a sheep or a goat. It’s true thatbiblical fathers could do anything—including selling off their sons and daughters—but outside of homeschooling circles, few Americans would argue for a return to that kind of absolute parental license.

In America, children are not possessions for parents to use or destroy. Rather, children are recognized as dependent beings whose bodies and futures are held in trust by their parents. Educational neglect is an abdication of a parent’s legal obligation of good stewardship. By failing to educate, parents potentially squander a child’s entire lifetime of future earnings and achievements. It’s difficult to imagine a more brazen theft. 

In a recent blog post, religious homeschooler Rosanna Ward summarized her own argument in favor of unregulated homeschooling:

“I, as a parent, have the right to train up my children in the way I believe is right, including homeschooling. If someone else doesn’t like it, they have the choice not to homeschool—and they don’t even have to watch me homeschool.”

The core of her suggestion is that when we suspect child abuse, we should simply look away. This idea is echoed when groups like HSLDA maintain that, because homeschooled victims of educational neglect are relatively few, they deserve no legal consideration.

Ironically, while insisting that the government has no role in balancing the needs of powerless children against the rights of politically connected parents, well-funded religious groups like HSLDA vocally demand that government defend their members from an imaginary conspiracy to outlaw homeschooling. To my knowledge, no one in Virginia—or anywhere in America—is talking about banning homeschooling. Rather, conversations are about how to limit serious abuse with minimal collateral interference, while also giving victims access to justice in egregious cases. The suggestions include commonsense things, such as having parents submit a syllabus or requiring children to appear in person for yearly registration.

The final reason offered for doing nothing is that no amount of intervention can possibly prevent every instance of neglect and abuse. The homeschool alumni who are calling for reformhave never claimed otherwise. But when we see a parent slugging a three-year-old, we don’t look the other way because “some amount of abuse is bound to happen.” We don’t tell victims of other kinds of abuse to take their cases to God in the afterlife. And we certainly don’t fail to prosecute people who beat and molest because to doing so might inconvenience someone else.

Lastly, it is worth noting the many homeschool abuses that have nothing to do with education. In the recent past, we could say that when a child was beaten, starved or molested, the way she was schooled was likely incidental. However, as homeschool loopholes have become well-known, they have attracted folks who are motivated to intentionally skirt child protections—whether to keep their victims from receiving sexual and physical abuse education, to keep other adults from seeing a child who is bruised, dirty or demonstrating behavioral symptoms, or to duck out of an already opened social services investigation.

The tip of this iceberg can be seen in cases like that of Kenneth Brandt. By declaring his intention to homeschool, Brandt managed to effectively conceal the existence of several children he’d adopted from another state. Suspicions were raised when a child molester volunteered details about his dealings with Brandt during an unrelated online child prostitution investigation. When the full facts emerged, Brandt was shown to have gone through a lengthy adoption process with two boys and one girl before his predatory scheme finally unraveled. He was convicted of raping his adopted sons and of prostituting one of them to multiple men via Craigslist.

In Brandt’s case it is glaringly obvious that homeschooling was integral to his crime. From murdered homeschooled children like Hana Williams and Lydia Schatz to the bloody physical torments of Christian homeschoolers Pam and Dwayne Hardy, examples of homeschooling as a child-abuse coverup abound. A handful of sensational stories have received national attention, but the majority of homeschool abuse cases do not. To bring awareness to the stunning breadth of the problem, another group of former homeschoolers—some survivors of abuse and some not—has created an online repository, called Homeschooling’s Invisible Children. There, reports of less publicized cases are meticulously collected and categorized.

Given the severity of the problems that victims of homeschool abuse face, from the financial setbacks of illiteracy to the devastations of unchecked sexual and physical abuse, and even the risk of death, homeschooled children deserve careful, compassionate oversight backed, when needed, by the strength of the law.