by James R. Mason, III, &
Scott A. Woodruff
"The same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought is still at issue around the globe—the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God."
— President John F. Kennedy, 1961
Throughout 20 years of protecting and advancing homeschool freedom, Home School Legal Defense Association has been continually reminded of the importance of vigilance. So last fall when the media echo chamber began amplifying sensational child abuse cases in North Carolina and New Jersey—leaving the false impression that homeschooling and child abuse are linked—HSLDA anticipated and prepared for the expected fallout in public policy.
We didn't have long to wait
In early January, on the second-to-last day of New Jersey's 2003 legislative session, Assemblywoman Loretta Weinberg (D-37) introduced a bill that would have imposed new regulations on homeschoolers.1 These regulations were not aimed at improving education, but at "protecting" homeschoolers from child abuse by parading them before public school teachers and doctors at least once a year. (Teachers and doctors are "mandatory reporters" of abuse and neglect.)
Proven child abuse is a crime and a tragedy. Offenders ought to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. And implying that any single demographic group is more prone to this crime is a serious charge.
Let's take a look at the events leading up to "Battleground New Jersey."
The dark side of CBS and the New York Times
On October 13-14, 2003, CBS Evening News with Dan Rather broadcast a two-part story entitled "A Dark Side to Home Schooling" and "Home Schooling Nightmares."2 The first segment focused on a supposedly homeschooled North Carolina teenager who murdered his brother and sister and then committed suicide in 2001. The second segment discussed a handful of child abuse cases involving people who purportedly homeschooled. CBS never overtly attempted to establish any logical connection between homeschooling and child abuse—in large measure because the evidence leads to a contrary conclusion. But the sensational stories certainly implied that the two were related by assuming that because one thing follows another, the one was caused by the other. It's like discovering that a homeschooled child has cancer and then blaming the disease on homeschooling.
If CBS had thoroughly investigated this issue, it would have come to the following conclusion: Homeschooling is not a source of child abuse or endangerment—it is generally a safer, more nurturing environment for children than most public schools.
According to the National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect Information (a service of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services), children in America were victimized at a rate of 12.4 per 1,000 children in 2001. That adds up to 903,000 children that year, the most recent year for which statistics are available. More than half of these victims suffered neglect (57%), nearly one-fifth were physically abused (19%), and 10% were sexually abused. Fatalities resulting from child abuse occurred at a rate of 1.81 per 100,000 children.
Applying the rate of child abuse to America's estimated two million homeschooled children would lead us to expect over 36 abuse-related deaths per year within the homeschool population. Considering the media feeding frenzy at the slightest hint of a connection between child abuse and homeschooling, it seems logical to expect that a comparable child abuse rate between homeschoolers and the general population would be extensively reported. The media, however, have not reported 36 deaths—even over the entire last 20 years of the modern home education movement—that could be attributed to abuse in a homeschool situation.
The facts show that homeschooling is not a haven for abuse.
Just days after the CBS broadcasts, reports began to surface about the alleged starvation of four adopted children in a state-approved foster home in New Jersey. Because they were enrolled in the foster parent program, the family had been visited by social workers dozens of times over the previous four years—as recently as September 15, 2003—but the condition of the four boys went either undetected or unreported. According to news reports, the parents homeschooled all or some of their children.
Much of the resulting media attention focused on the notoriously ineffective state of affairs at New Jersey's Division of Youth and Family Services. Nine DYFS workers were suspended and faced possible firing for official misconduct, including falsifying reports. Congress even held a hearing to inquire into DYFS's use of federal funds. (See Congress investigates)
|January 12, 2004: New Jersey homeschoolers lobby with many voices, but one message: Protect homeschool freedom!|
But on November 15, 2003, the New York Times published an editorial entitled "Make homeschooling safe for children."3 Again, like CBS, the Times made no attempt to demonstrate that homeschooling causes child abuse, but it called for increased regulation of homeschooling nonetheless.
On the alert
In the wake of the foster-parent case, HSLDA Attorney Scott Woodruff, who represents members in New Jersey, learned that legislators there were considering drafting legislation to restrict homeschooling. Woodruff alerted members of HSLDA and other groups, and soon the offices of the legislation's proponents were flooded with phone calls objecting to the measure. The lawmakers quickly reassessed and backed away from the legislation before Thanksgiving.
Mindful that a full-fledged battle could be brewing, Woodruff called on New Jersey homeschool leaders to meet together on January 10, 2004. The group would form a strategy to oppose any hostile legislation that might be introduced in the 2004 session.
A unified response
"Homeschoolers have a reputation for being fiercely independent," says Woodruff. "But when they band together, they are an awesome force."
Looking back to 2000, Woodruff recalls when a diverse group of New Jersey homeschoolers banded together to oppose intrusive guidelines. Five organizations—Education Network of Christian Home Educators, Traditions of Roman Catholic Homes (TORCH), New Jersey Home School Association, Unschoolers Network, and HSLDA—participated in intense negotiations with New Jersey state and local school officials. As a result, a policy hostile to homeschooling was dramatically improved.
"The unprecedented level of cooperation among these disparate homeschool organizations was a key to success," says Woodruff, who participated in the negotiations.
Four of the original five4 organizations involved in the 2000 negotiations, and two additional organizations, Catholic Home Schoolers of New Jersey and Tricounty Home Educators, agreed to attend the January 10 strategy session—coincidentally scheduled for the Saturday before the end of the 2003 legislative session on January 12.
This timing turned out to be providential.
Jamming the phone lines
The week before the meeting, Woodruff learned that Assemblywoman Weinberg intended to introduce a bill regulating homeschooling, and would possibly attempt to sneak it through before the end of the 2003 session.
Assembly Bill 4033 would have forced all homeschoolers to submit to the same standardized assessments as public school students (a move that would be illegal under federal law). Even worse, it would have required homeschooled children to take these tests at public schools under the monitoring of public school teachers. The bill also would have required homeschoolers to file proof that their children had received an annual medical examination as a prerequisite for being allowed to homeschool. No other group of parents in New Jersey—or in America, for that matter—is required to provide proof of annual medical exams for any educational purpose. Finally, the bill would have given the New Jersey Board of Education virtually unlimited power to impose additional restrictions.
A4033 was an attempt to blame homeschooling for the failures of DYFS.
On January 6, HSLDA warned its members and the other organizations about this threat. Reminiscent of the 1994 battle to defeat H.R. 6 in Congress, calls began pouring into Weinberg's office asking her not to file the bill she had drafted. By midday Wednesday, her phone line was jammed almost beyond use.
Undeterred, Weinberg pressed ahead. Contrary to her staff's assurances to a local homeschooling mother, the assemblywoman filed her bill on Thursday, January 8. Because half of the bill's four co-sponsors were legislators who would not be returning for the next session, it became apparent that the bill was slated for fast-track passage, without the usual debate.
The coalition of homeschool organizations swung into action, urging their members to call every state senator and assemblyman to prevent a potential "dark of the night" passage of the bill on Monday, the last day of the session. On Friday, a group of legislators friendly to homeschooling vowed opposition to the bill—and asked that their offices be taken off the call list. In a debate on the radio with HSLDA Attorney Scott Woodruff that same day, Assemblywoman Weinberg remained defiant and inflexible in her plans to regulate homeschoolers.
In fact, she stated in a later interview televised February 12 by Channel 4, WNBC, "Parents don't own their children and we in society have certain responsibilities just to make sure all our kids are safe—and that's all this is about."
When the homeschool organization leaders met on Saturday, January 10, they did not discuss anticipated future legislation as originally planned—they came to a war council to defeat the immediate danger of A4033. The leaders decided to ask a small contingent of homeschoolers to lobby lawmakers that Monday. They agreed there should be many voices, but one message: protect homeschool freedom to its fullest.
When the New Jersey Assembly opened on Monday, the last day of the session, it immediately voted to suspend its normal procedural rules. This meant just about anything could happen, including a vote on Weinberg's bill without any committee hearings. Spurred on by this threat, an estimated more-than 200 homeschoolers who had rallied at the state house (no small contingent!) drove home their message to lawmakers emphatically. If homeschoolers had not alerted lawmakers, it is possible the bill could have become law that day without the usual debate and deliberation.
Because a solid foundation of trust had been built in 2000, the homeschool leaders presented a united front for homeschooling freedom. The feverish activity of the last day of the session ended without a vote on Weinberg's last-minute bill, and homeschoolers declared a victory.
All agree, however, that there is still much work to be done this year. On January 22, Weinberg refiled her bill (now labeled A1918) for the 2004 session. Although she does not seem to have gotten the message that this bill is a threat to homeschooling freedom, her fellow legislators have. Not a single lawmaker has signed on to co-sponsor the refiled bill.
The media smear campaign attempting to link homeschooling to child abuse has rippled out with a heart—wrenching effect on individual families. Dean and Patricia Clarke (names changed), HSLDA members who live outside New Jersey, were notified on October 6, 2003-before the CBS story and the foster-parent case—that they had been selected to adopt a child from New Jersey. A home study had already been completed by social workers in the Clarkes' home state, where they had previously adopted two children through private agencies. All that remained was a home visit by a New Jersey social worker, scheduled for the second week of January.
The Clarkes became acquainted with the 3-year-old child and his foster mom by telephone and began the bonding process. They also told their two other adopted children that they were about to adopt a brother. They had waited until they were sure the adoption would go through because they didn't want their other children to think that somehow their own adoptions were not final.
Instead of coming to visit in January, the New Jersey caseworker called to tell the Clarkes that their selection had been reversed because they homeschool. Devastated, they called HSLDA for help. We assured the family that we would challenge such a policy in court.
"I told our caseworker that we had just talked to our lawyers at HSLDA and we were ready to fight!" says Dean. "Before the day was out, our caseworker called us back to say that the agency had reconsidered its decision and would go through with the adoption."
Two social workers came for the home visit in February. "Everything went well," reports Patricia. "We had homemade chocolate chip cookies to offer. Our 4-year-old turned on his charm and even pointed to the alphabet chart on the wall and told the workers what each letter was! Our 7-year-old was just as sweet as always.
"We are waiting for one piece of paperwork, then we can schedule our flight. They are planning on letting us bring him home with us. Not a word was mentioned about placing him 'in school.' They are hopeful that he can be here by the middle of March."
Although the Clarkes' adoption is nearly finalized, there are as-yet unsubstantiated reports that the New Jersey DYFS will deny adoptions to all future prospective parents who homeschool. DYFS is already taking steps to ban foster parents from homeschooling foster children. The proposed adoption policy only compounds the department's previous problems by denying needy children loving homes. Either policy will make DYFS responsible for unconstitutionally discriminating against responsible parents.
|OPPOSING A4033: New Jersey homeschoolers held a press conference during their lobby day on January|
Preparing for a marathon
In a recent syndicated column entitled "Homeschoolers in the trenches,"5 David Limbaugh pointed out that in the battles homeschoolers fight to be free, "[t]hey are carrying the banner of liberty for us all." And he's right. Homeschoolers are in the vanguard of the most significant counter-cultural movement since the tumultuous 1960s. But far from being iconoclasts, they seek only to exercise the God-given liberty of raising their children according to their own convictions without intrusive state regulation.
In New Jersey, where homeschool leaders just held a second strategy meeting to defeat A1918, the banner of liberty is again being lifted high. Parents choose home education because they want to protect and nurture their children. Now they are gearing up to defend that loving choice against, ironically, the charge of child abuse. Past challenges to home education—such as the socialization and quality-of-education myths—have been successfully overcome. Homeschoolers can do it again, but they may be facing a marathon.
1Misguided attempts to regulate homeschooling are not new. Usually, such measures are based on misperceptions of homeschooling, such as concerns that parents are not really capable of teaching their own children. However, research has found that homeschooled students on average achieve better educational outcomes than their public-schooled peers and that the extent of state homeschool regulations makes little to no difference in students' test scores.
Dr. Larry Rudner found that the longer a child is homeschooled, the wider the achievement gap between the homeschooled child and other children becomes (Home Schooling Works!, Dr. Larry Rudner). Additionally, according to the American College Testing Program, homeschoolers score significantly higher on average in college placement tests than public school students.
Numerous studies have shown that homeschooled children are well-socialized. (See "Socialization: Homeschoolers Are in the Real World" by Christopher J. Klicka.) In 2003, Dr. Brian Ray of the National Home Education Research Institute released findings from his survey of homeschool graduates. He concluded that homeschool graduates are happier, more satisfied with work, more involved in community activities, and more likely to vote than their traditionally educated peers (Homeschooling Grows Up, Dr. Brian Ray.)
2CBS Broadcasting Inc., "A Dark Side to Home Schooling," CBS Evening News, October 13, 2003; "Home Schooling Nightmares," October 14, 2003. See also "HSLDA sends letter to Presidents of CBS and Viacom," October 17, 2003; Home School Legal Defense Association, "The Dark Side of CBS," October 23, 2003.
3"Make Home Schooling Safe for Children," New York Times, November 15, 2003. See also "HSLDA Answers New York Times Editorial," November 18, 2003.
4TORCH was unable to send a representative to the 2004 meeting.
5David Limbaugh, "Homeschoolers in the Trenches," June 18, 2003.