Better home-school oversight could have detected Perris child torture horror

The abuse at the suburban home in Riverside County was shocking by any standard: Thirteen siblings, emaciated, chained to the furniture, living in filth.

Since last weekend’s arrest of David and Louise Turpin on suspicion of torture and child endangerment, Californians have wondered how such a thing could have gone for years undetected.

The answer is that the couple exploited California’s lax home schooling laws to keep the authorities from finding out what they were doing to their kids.

California law requires children aged 6 to 18 to attend a full-time school, either public or private. But there’s a loophole for parents who want sole control over their children’s education: Merely by filing an affidavit, they can register their homes as private schools.

Public schools are regulated by the state, and can lose their state funding if they don’t meet certain standards. Private schools don’t depend on state funding.

Their instructors need no credential in California beyond being “capable of teaching.” If they are parents teaching their own children, they need no fingerprinting or background check.

Beyond local zoning and fire codes and an annual registration to show that the children enrolled are not truant, private schools have scant oversight in California. The state Department of Education doesn’t approve, monitor, inspect or oversee them. They don’t have to perform standardized testing. The state can’t monitor their academic performance or review their curricula.

Prior to the 1980s, as in most states, home schooling was a fringe endeavor in California. Like the anti-vax movement, it grew as an offshoot of counterculture, religious and libertarian interests.

With numbers came national organization. When Delaine Eastin, then state superintendent of public instruction, hinted in 2002 that home-school teachers should be credentialed, the Home School Legal Defense Association, a national lobby based in Virginia, raised a ruckus that lasted until she termed out a year later.

The group reappeared in 2008 to create a stir over a California appellate court ruling that again threatened to outlaw home schooling without a credential. The court eventually reversed the ruling and replaced it with a narrower decision. As in Perris, that case involved a home schooling child abuser exposed by a runaway daughter. Such cases are not the norm for home-schools, but among child abusers, home schooling isn’t rare.

The Coalition for Responsible Home Education, which advocates for tougher home-school regulation, has a graphic database of home-school abuses, from starved children to teenagers locked in cages. A 2014 study of extreme child abuse conducted by a University of Wisconsin pediatrician and five colleagues found that in nearly half of the school-age cases, the abusers had pulled their children out of classes to home-school; another 29 percent had never even enrolled their children in school.

CRHE believes home-schooled students should have to interact at least annually with certified teachers and doctors, who are mandated to report child abuse if they suspect it. Though enforcement would be tricky, it’s a good idea.

But the potential for abuse isn’t the only reason California lawmakers should shine a light on home-schools. There’s also a fundamental need for better data.

Because advocates have viewed research attempts as government intrusion, we lack information as basic as how many California students are being home-schooled. The best national estimates put the figure at between 1 million and 2 million. More than 3,000 private schools, large and small, are registered in the state, but it’s unclear how many are home-schools.

We don’t have clear information on who home-schools and why, whether for religious, logistical, academic or less well-intentioned reasons. And meaningful research on academic performance in home-schools is virtually nonexistent, according to Rob Reich, a Stanford political scientist who has written extensively on the subject. Most of what’s out there, he wrote in a recent overview arguing for better regulation, is biased by unrepresentative samples, or paid for by advocates.

Assembly members Susan Talamantes-Eggman, D-Stockton, and Jose Medina, D-Riverside, and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson are exploring ways to tighten California’s laws, which are among the nation’s most permissive. California is among 15 states that essentially limit oversight to registration. Another 11 states, including Texas (the Turpins’ last home), require no documentation.

But California could follow the lead of New York and Pennsylvania, which require standardized testing and regular assessments. It might also take the labor-intensive step of requiring site visits, as with private day care centers.

Reich, the Stanford scholar, thinks states, at a minimum, should mandate periodic standardized testing and a home-school curriculum that meets basic academic standards and teaches respect for values beyond those of the parents.

At the very least, lawmakers should convene oversight hearings to give experts from many fields a chance to discuss the benefits and potential drawbacks of additional regulation, and to find a way to gather meaningful data. Research would also show what home-schools may be getting right.

None of these proposals is politically easy. As with the recent tightening of the state’s vaccine laws, entrenched and emotional interests will fight them.

But no one should get to abuse a child and pass it off as an education. Parents aren’t the only ones with rights.