Earlier this month, police responded to a 911 call made by a 17-year-old girl, informing them that her brothers and sisters were being held captive in her family home in suburban Perris, CA. On arrival, police found her thirteen siblings, aged between 2 and 29, showing clear signs of malnourishment and abuse. Their parents, David and Louise Turpin, aged 57 and 49 respectively, were arrested and charged with nine counts of torture and ten counts of child endangerment. How could something like this have gone on for so long, undetected, in the midst of a typical middle-class subdivision with multiple neighbors only a stone’s throw away?
Part of the answer has to do with homeschooling. The vast majority of families who homeschool are trying to provide the best education they can for their children, and on the whole they do a good job. Decades of academic research on the phenomenon have found that homeschooled children tend to grow into adults who are very like their public- and private-schooled peers on every variable studied. Yet there have always been outlier cases like that of the Turpins that have come to light, some making dramatic headlines and precipitating calls for reform, but most engendering no public notice or comment. Many of these cases, often horrific, have been compiled by the Coalition for Responsible Home Education on their website Homeschooling’s Invisible Children.
There is a good historical reason why so many abusive families are able to hide behind the facade of homeschooling. As recently as 1970 very, very few families educated their children in their own homes. But in the late seventies a movement began, first among counter-cultural leftists under the leadership of famed education critic John Holt, and later in the early eighties among Christian conservatives inspired by Raymond and Dorothy Moore and other conservative leaders. When these homeschooling pioneers started homeschooling they quickly discerned that state education laws differed widely with respect to the practice, with many states offering little to no regulatory language at all.
Beginning in the late seventies and continuing through the early nineties homeschoolers defended themselves in court against violations of state compulsory education statutes and lobbied statehouses to change these statutes. Their efforts were astonishingly successful. By 1993 homeschooling was clearly legal and relatively easy to do in every state in the country. Since that time homeschooling advocates have continued to work tirelessly and successfully to reduce government oversight of the practice. The one exception to this decades-long deregulatory trend took place in Washington D.C. in 2008, when another horrific case of child abuse gave legislators the backbone to stand up to the aggressive lobbying of homeschooling advocacy organizations and to pass legislation stiffening homeschooling oversight there.
And what about California? Though California has a huge homeschooling population, it does not in fact have a homeschooling statute. In the mid-twentieth century, two California court cases, People v. Turner (1953) and In re Shinn (1961) found that parents teaching their children in the home were not, as the parents claimed, operating a legitimate private school. Another pair of cases, People v. Darrah and Black (1986) found the California compulsory education statute unconstitutionally vague when it came to defining who is capable of teaching and what counts as a private school. Nevertheless, by the eighties it had become common practice for California homeschoolers to register their homes as private schools, for districts across the state to permit the practice, and for state education officials to approve of this arrangement.
In 2008, a California Court of Appeals judge, relying on the precedents mentioned above, rightly noted that this widespread practice was technically not legal. This decision made in the case of In re Rachel L. (2008) precipitated a massive national outcry, causing Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger aggressively to speak out against it. The reaction was so overwhelming that the judge quickly reversed himself (Jonathan L ., 2008). This time the judge found that though precedent was with him and no new statutory language had been introduced to address the unconstitutionally vague provisions in the state law, the legislature’s common practice of accepting the homeschooling-as-private-school arrangement could be interpreted to be a tacit recognition that homeschools were now considered private schools. Things went back to normal in California, meaning that homeschoolers could simply register as private schools and then do as they pleased, free of all oversight — exactly what the Turpins did.
In light of the most recent atrocities, what will the future hold for California homeschooling? Given the sensationalism of the headlines in this case and its international reach, it is possible that what happened in Washington D.C. in 2008 will happen again here. There may be enough political will and momentum to pass a homeschooling law in California. But if calls like those of Assemblyman Joe Medina for a bill come to fruition, it is likely that well-organized homeschooling advocacy organizations with deep grassroots and deeper pockets will put relentless pressure on the legislature to kill the bill outright or to water it down. The result will be more of the same with little to protect children like the Turpins.
Milton Gaither is Professor of Education at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, PA. The second edition of his book Homeschool: An American History was published in 2017, as was a collection of essays on homeschooling scholarship he edited titled The Wiley Handbook of Home Education.