Tipped off by a 17-year-old daughter who had escaped, police entered the home of deranged-looking California couple David and Louise Turpin. There they allegedly found the pair’s 13 children shackled to their beds and starving in their own filth. Seven of the Turpin kids are evidently older than 18, but have been so malnourished for so long, they still look like children. One 29-year-old daughter was reported to be a mere 82 pounds.
It’s hard to imagine what these kids went through during the years their parents allegedly kept them prisoners behind a well-maintained suburban façade. It’s likely mental illness was involved, and looking at the Turpins’ mugshots (I’m serious, look), I wouldn’t rule out demonic possession.
But the press has chosen to focus on one detail about this sad story: The Turpins were registered as homeschoolers in California. Sarah Jones at The New Republic wastes no time in laying the blame for these kids’ plight squarely at the feet of “lax homeschooling laws,” which she claims “protect child abusers”: “We know now that the parents homeschooled their children under the auspices of the Sandcastle Day School, which is simply the name they used when they filed a private school affidavit with the state of California.”
Understanding how the Turpins got away with allegedly torturing their children for so long, she continues, is “a matter of understanding homeschooling law, and of the problems that attend homeschooling deregulation. You can hide almost anything when nobody is watching.”
Homeschoolers: Guilty Until Proven Innocent
Jones uses this as a springboard to go after not only California’s surprisingly favorable homeschooling laws, but homeschooling itself. She pooh-poohs research that shows homeschooling produces, on average, better-educated and more college-ready students, and strongly hints that groups like the Homeschool Legal Defense Association are knowingly running interference for abusive parents.
As evidence, she cites Chelsea McCracken, a senior analyst for the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, which lobbies around the country against freedom in education. McCracken claims her organization has “confirmed 25 cases of child abuse connected to homeschooling families in California since 1996.”
From this, Jones concludes that much stricter government oversight of all homeschoolers is necessary, suggesting regular standardized testing, requiring parents to have teaching licenses, and even imposing annual home inspections by local public school districts.
The attitude here is clear: Homeschooling families are guilty until proven innocent. They are automatically suspect, probably incompetent to educate their own children, and require a heavy, paternalistic hand lest they forget to feed their kids (or, it is subtly implied, forget to stop having kids after a socially acceptable number).
No Data Shows Homeschooling Uniquely Fosters Abuse
But one wonders whether McCracken’s “25 cases” of abuse “connected to homeschooling” in California in the last 22 years really are connected to homeschooling. After all, parents of children enrolled in public school sometimes abuse or neglect their kids, too. Sometimes, they kill them. There is nothing inherent in homeschooling that causes such behavior. This makes it look like what Jones is really arguing for is universal government oversight of parenting.
In her mind, the fact that some homeschooling parents abuse their children is proof that something is wrong with liberal homeschooling laws. But we might also apply her line of reasoning to public schools. There have been 181 school shootings in the United States since 1990, resulting in over 200 deaths and injuries. Public schools are highly regulated environments, and that hasn’t prevented plenty of abuse and other evil occurrences there.
Violence isn’t the only problem in our nation’s schools. A Google search for the term “teacher student sexual relationship” yields 197 million hits. In New Jersey alone (the first state for which I could find statistics), 93 teachers pleaded guilty to sexual relationships with students from 2003 to 2013. Reuters reports that in 2014, “almost 800 school employees were prosecuted for sexual assault, nearly a third of them women.”
According to a 2000 survey by the American Association of University Women, almost 40 percent of students between eighth to eleventh grade were harassed by teachers or school employees. After a headline asking how many kids are sexually abused by their public school teachers, Slate answered frankly: “probably millions.” The fact that states haven’t yet deployed the National Guard into classrooms shows that no one treats public schools in the same way Jones treats homeschooling.
The Data We Have Finds Homeschooling Is Good for Kids
For critics like her, a single insane and abusive couple proves that homeschooling families can’t be trusted to love their kids or provide them a world-class education. The double-standard is breathtaking, not least because it ignores all available data.
Jones casually brushes aside a well-known 1998 study published in Education Policy Analysis Archives, which showed that homeschooled students had “exceptionally high” standardized test scores (in the 70th and 80th percentiles), that 25 percent were enrolled a grade or more above their public school peers, and that their parents had more formal education than members of the general population. For her, this study is too old and may suffer from selection bias, since the homeschoolers volunteered to take the test.
She evidently missed a 2011 study published in the Canadian Journal of Behavioral Science, which confirms previous research, but adds nuance. The study assessed the academic aptitude of 74 children aged five to ten. Half were enrolled in public schools, and half were educated at home. Among the homeschooled, a dozen were instructed using “unstructured” techniques, de-emphasizing textbooks, tests, and traditional teaching methods.
Most of the homeschoolers outperformed their public schooled peers. “They exhibited a half-grade advantage in math and were more than two grade levels higher in reading.” Those educated in “unstructured” homeschool environments underperformed compared with their public-schooled peers.
Here we see a spread emerge that anyone familiar with public schools should recognize. There are good schools, and there are bad schools. There are good teachers, and there are bad teachers. There are districts where students graduate well-prepared for college and career, and there are districts where students graduate barely able to read. The same is true in homeschooling, although on the whole, it yields better results.
We Don’t Use This Illogic Elsewhere
The point is this: Just as no one would suggest cracking down on schools in Fairfax County, Virginia because schools in Chicago, Illinois are failing, we shouldn’t crack down on the incredibly successful nationwide homeschooling movement because two disturbed parents allegedly abused their freedom to take away the freedom of their children.
Nothing about homeschooling drives people to behave this way, and if you experience home education as most of my peers and I did, you will have a more vibrant and edifying social life than would have otherwise been possible. Virtually all homeschoolers are not chained to their beds, literally or metaphorically.
On a more fundamental level, those who want to place additional barriers in the way of homeschooling families have a different worldview. They see the state, not the family, as ultimately responsible for rearing and educating children. They believe stifling cherished freedoms that benefit millions is the answer to rare and tragic cases of abusive parenting. It’s not. As the product of homeschooling, I should know.