2022 Student Journalism Award, Portfolio: Student Team finalist

When Home is School

About the Project

The United States is in the midst of a homeschooling boom. The trend escalated during the pandemic, and is forging on for many households even in the wake of school reopenings.

About one in 10 U.S. families were homeschooling near the start of the 2020-2021 school year, the latest federal statistics show. For businesses, this growing market is lucrative, valued at perhaps $2.5 billion. Firms are lining up to sell textbooks and everything from bowling alleys to inflatable bouncy houses to families seeking activities for homeschooled children.

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 of states require educational assessments of homeschooled pupils. No one really knows how much these students are actually learning.

And attempts to require criminal background checks for homeschooling parents have failed in at least 12 states — despite documented cases of those with records of child abuse remaining alone with youngsters, sometimes with tragic results.

Meanwhile, battles over government oversight and individual child abuse cases are unfolding in legislatures and courtrooms across the country.

As our series documents meticulously through court records, the ranks of those homeschooled include parents who have engaged in troubling abuses. Mentally disturbed parents have been allowed without question to say they are educating their children, and those youths have been found later to have gone years without schooling.

At the center of these debates is a little-known, relatively small lobbying group with evangelical Christian roots and outsized influence: the Home School Legal Defense Association, which 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 our findings:

Courts across the U.S. 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 pupil safety.

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 also include 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.

This package represents a deeply reported and nuanced examination at the issues facing America as more families engage in homeschooling and local governments grapple with how to oversee this shift.