HOUSTON (CN) — Stoked by school shootings, bullying and underfunded public schools, interest in homeschooling is growing, and proponents in Texas says the state’s hands-off approach makes it an ideal place for home education.
There are around 2.3 million home-educated students in the United States, and an estimated 150,000 Texas families teach their children at home, according to the National Home Education Research Institute and the Texas Home School Coalition.
The coalition’s president Tim Lambert said he and his wife started homeschooling their four children in the 1980s. “We wanted to be able to integrate our faith in the education of our children and we realized that you can’t do that in a public school anymore,” he said.
Lambert said it surprised him when he got several calls from Texans interested in homeschooling after the Valentine’s Day shooting at a Parkland, Florida high school that left 14 students and three adult staff members dead.
“I think the Parkland shootings just raised the concern of safety for a lot of families. Probably they already had some concerns about safety. … It’s not uncommon for us to get calls from people whose children are getting bullied, or targeted by gangs,” Lambert said.
But Jube Dankworth, founder of Texas Home Educators, said she saw an unusual spike in people inquiring about homeschooling in January, before the Parkland shootings, and that the trend has continued.
Dankworth got involved in the movement in the 1980s when she removed her special-needs child from a public school.
“There’s another upswing like I have not seen since the ‘90s,” Dankworth said, citing the Texas Supreme Court’s 1994 ruling in the class action Leeper, et al. v. Arlington ISD, et al.
The state supreme court held that like private school students, children taught at home are exempt from the attendance requirements of public school students, effectively establishing the state’s lax homeschool regulations.
“So once Leeper was decided, a lot of people who were looking at homeschooling but were hesitant to because of the legal ambiguity were no longer afraid … and homeschooling surged,” Dankworth said.
A spokeswoman said the Texas Education Agency does not oversee homeschools, other than asking parents to comply with a vague requirement that coursework include lessons about “good citizenship.”
She referred questions to Lambert’s group, the Texas Home School Coalition.
Lambert said in a telephone interview that many parents choose to homeschool to ensure their children are getting a quality education. That’s a valid concern in Texas, which ranked 43rd in the nation on spending per public school student in fiscal year 2015, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Texas spent $8,861 per pupil. Top-ranked New York spent $21,206.
Lambert likes to tout the freedom Texas gives its homeschoolers.
“There is no need to register with your school district. No need to inform them of any extracurricular activities, no need for testing, and no need to have your child evaluated annually by a psychologist,” he says in a primer video titled “Is It Legal?” on his group’s website
“In fact, the only requirement for Texas homeschoolers is that they pursue math, reading, spelling, grammar and good citizenship in a bona fide manner.”
For Kathryn Brightbill, no U.S. state, even her home state Florida, which mandates yearly evaluations of homeschooled children by a licensed teacher, is adequately regulating homeschooling.
As a member of the board of the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, which she formed with other homeschool alumni during her last year of law school at the University of Florida, Brightbill keeps close tabs on reports of abused homeschoolers.
Brightbill said she got an excellent education from her parents, who homeschooled her from first grade through high school, especially in math, because her father is a trained math instructor with a master’s degree in education.
But she also saw the dangers of homeschooled children being victimized by their parents.
Brightbill said she and her family lived in a rural area in Florida, and would go to dinners at the home of Keith and Susan Ludwig, who homeschooled their two adopted daughters.
Brightbill said shortly after her family moved to a city away from the Ludwigs, one of the Ludwig girls told someone at church her parents were beating her and her sister and locking them in makeshift cages. The churchgoer called Child Protective Services.
“And when CPS showed up, because it was an unannounced visit, they found everything,” Brightbill said. “And I assume that the reason the girls never confided in the homeschool adults or the homeschool kids they were friends with is because they probably thought that was the normal thing with homeschool families.”
The Ludwigs’ story is reminiscent of the arrest of David and Louisa Turpin.
Police raided their home near Los Angeles in January and found their emaciated children, three of whom were chained to beds, after their 17-year-old daughter escaped from the house, called 911, met with police and showed them photos of the inside of their home.
Prosecutors said the Turpins, who have been charged with holding their 13 children captive in the home, had taken advantage of a California law that calls for parents to do nothing more than register their homeschools, which the state classifies as private schools, with the state.
Brightbill’s group supported a bill California lawmakers proposed in February amid outrage over the Turpin family. Assembly Bill 2756 would have required fire marshals to inspect homeschools each year. But the inspections are not part of an amended version.
Homeschool advocates were also put on the defensive by news that Mark Anthony Conditt had been educated at home by his Christian parents in central Texas,
Conditt, 23, blew himself up in his pickup in an Austin suburb on March 21 as police closed in after they learned he had left package bombs that exploded at Austin homes, and rigged a bomb with a trip wire, killing two people and injuring five others, in a spree that started on March 2.
Brightbill said Conditt is among a long list of homeschoolers, including Adam Lanza, who have killed people. Lanza, 20, shot and killed 20 young children and six adults at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut in December 2012 before shooting himself. He started the murder spree by killing his mother.
Brightbill said she does not think homeschoolers are more inclined to violence than the rest of the population, but she sees Conditt and Lanza as cautionary tales.
“It’s something that needs to be discussed, about how that kind of unregulated echo chamber can end up helping radicalize people who are already leaning in that direction,” she said.
Corinne French said she did not let her six children become isolated when she homeschooled them in the 1990s and 2000s before a divorce forced her to get a job and enroll them in public school. As a coordinator at the University of North Texas in Denton, French helps prepare high school seniors to enroll in the university.
Her children had no trouble making the transition from home to public school, French said, because they were used to learning in large groups. They belonged to a group of around 150 homeschool families who gathered on Fridays for teaching lessons.
French taught scrapbooking, baking and speech to the co-op’s students. There were also classes on robotics, Spanish and history, she said.
French, a self-described “book nerd” who loves to buy books and urges her two youngest children to read the SAT practice worksheets she puts in their bathroom, said her ex-husband got annoyed with her for bringing puzzles for their kids to do at doctor’s offices. “He would say, ‘Corinne, they don’t have to be learning all the time,’” she said.
Since she kept her children busy with social activities, any abuse would have been obvious, she said.
“If I was doing something to my kids, these people saw my kids,” French said. “They saw them at church on Sunday. They saw them at Boy Scouts on Tuesday. They saw them at music practice.
“So I think when you are committed to some kind of group like that, I think some of those abuses, if there were warning signs, I think somebody would have noticed them,” she said.