Adam and Holly Groza are home-school parents in Redlands, Calif., a suburban town an hour east of Los Angeles.
"We met families that home-schooled and they were mature, and thoughtful, and kind," Holly says. "These teenagers would look at you when you talked and actually interact. And, I think we saw that end goal and said, 'That's what we want.'"
The four Groza children, ages 6 through 12, get as much social interaction and life experience as any other student through activities like sports and drama classes.
But just an hour from here, and just three months ago, a home-schooled girl escaped her home in Perris and called 911. Authorities arrived to find the 17-year-old girl and her dozen siblings living in squalid conditions where they were tortured and shackled to beds. The parents, David and Louise Turpin, were arrested and have pleaded not guilty to felony child abuse, false imprisonment, and torture.
Such a discovery of abuse and neglect at a home school is rare, but not unprecedented.
Each state regulates home schools differently; California is one of the more permissive ones. To home-school, California parents simply have to submit an affidavit with their addresses to register their home as a private school. After the Turpins' parents were arrested, California state lawmakers started looking at how to change that.
Right now, two bills in the California State Assembly would reform home-schooling. The first is AB 2756, a bill introduced by Jose Medina, the assemblymember whose district includes Perris. In the bill's initial draft, Medina included a provision that would require the Fire Marshal to inspect home schools once a year – but that met with quick resistance.
Medina heard from home-school advocacy groups as well as fellow Assembly member James Gallagher, who is a home-school parent. They convinced Medina to drop the inspections part of the bill, which they considered invasive and unconstitutional.
Now, Medina is unsure regulation of home schools will go over in California at all.
"I don't know if there is a legislative fix to the problem. I really don't, in all sincerity," he says. "And with that, I decided to take out that first part of the bill."
As of now, AB 2756 only requires that the state gather more data on home-schooling in California. But another bill introduced in the legislature could have a far greater impact.
Assembly member Susan Eggman, a co-author of Medina's bill, introduced another bill mandating that the state create an advisory committee to suggest reforms to the home-school system. That could be anything from home inspections to credentialing teachers to setting specific curriculums. The bill itself wouldn't make those changes – that would be up to the legislature – but it's still got some home-school advocates opposing it.
In an email to members, the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) said Eggman's bill "threatens our private homeschool freedoms in California" and could give the legislature "raw power to regulate private homeschooling, opening up even the possibility of home visits to observe the children and instruction and to inspect the home as the place of instruction."
Assembly member Eggman countered with a statement saying, "[c]ontrary to the concerns being expressed, the bill does not establish any restrictions or requirements on homeschools," but rather forms a committee to discuss the possibilities.
"I believe this is a modest step to take to ensure we are achieving the best educational outcomes for homeschooled children," the statement read.
Some home-school advocates aren't just opposed to the idea of home inspections, or teachers being required to have valid credentials – they don't think any regulation is necessary at all.
Brian Ray, a home-school researcher and advocate, is one of those people.
"The idea of trying to come up with more laws to stop more people from doing bad things before we even know they're going to do anything bad is not the concept of nation that we have under the U.S. constitution and freedom," he says.
Ray has testified in favor of home-schooling rights in courtrooms and in front of legislators. He's released a study claiming there is "no mathematical relationship between how much the government controls homeschooling and the amount of abuse."
He came to that conclusion by examining a database of nearly 400 home schools that were in the news and courts because children in them were abused. He found no statistical significance between a state's regulation on home-schooling and its rate of home school-related child abuse.
Theoretically, that means home-schooled children in low-regulation states like Arizona should be about as vulnerable to abuse as children in high-regulation states like Pennsylvania.
Ray got the data from the Coalition for Responsible Home Education's online database, Homeschooling's Invisible Children. The database lists hundreds of cases of abuse in home schools from media reports and court cases, going back to the 1980s.
But the Coalition says the database is incomplete, and likely undercounts the actual number of child abuses cases related to home-schooling. For that reason, they warn against using it to argue that regulation doesn't protect home-schooled children.
Hännah Ettinger is a volunteer and spokesperson for the Coalition, which is unique among home-school advocacy groups in that it is made up of former home-school children, not parents.
"We would just like to see protections put in place to keep people from falling through the cracks and getting abused," Ettinger says.
Based on their research and some of their volunteer's personal experiences, the volunteers at the Coalition believes home-schooling can keep cases of child abuse unseen by people who a legal and ethical obligation to report it, like doctors and professional teachers.
Accordingly, they have two main policy recommendations: require parents to send their kids to a doctor's check-up and a standardized test with a professional teacher each year.
"Both of these encounters would provide children with two interactions with mandatory reports annually," Ettinger says. "So if something is wrong, one of those two encounters should catch it."
Holly and Adam Groza already take their children to a doctor's check-up and an academic assessment at least once a year, and they resist the idea of a law that would force them to.
"I don't think we should be required to do that," Holly says. "We have the freedom to educate our children the way we think is best."
For Adam Groza, it's not just a matter of whether the government should have a say in education. He also doubts that more legislation would do anything to protect children.
"I think that the reality is that there is no system of education that closes all the cracks, unfortunately, in which children can be abused," he says. "The answer to abuse in many ways is enforcing the laws that we have, parents being good parents. And home-school parents by and large are good parents, they're doing a good job."
Adam says the proposed bills in the State Assembly amount to government overreach – and that if they pass, they could encourage home-school families to simply leave California.
"It just is burdensome; it's unfair," he says, "to pass a bill that appears on the face of it to be about children, but beneath the surface really appears to be about discouraging home-schoolers."
The two Assembly bills, AB 2756 and AB 2926, are scheduled to be heard in committee by the end of April. Holly Groza says she plans to go to Sacramento to testify.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Home schooling will be getting a closer look in California as lawmakers there go back into session this week. Questions about regulations around home schooling came up earlier in the year after a California couple was charged with abusing their 13 children. Benjamin Purper of member station KVCR has been talking to people on both sides of the debate.
BENJAMIN PURPER, BYLINE: The Grozas are a home-schooled family in Redlands, Calif., about an hour east of Los Angeles. The four kids, ages 6 to 12, do all of their schooling right here with their mom Holly.
HOLLY GROZA: Well, this is the kitchen.
PURPER: This is the kitchen.
GROZA: This is where actually a lot of our home schooling takes place.
PURPER: The children are taught according to a set curriculum. They like to play and socialize.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: This is my room.
PURPER: This is your room - OK, very nice.
They do sports in a community too. Just an hour from here, a home-schooled girl escaped her house in January and called 911. Police discovered that she and her dozen siblings had been living in squalid conditions, where they were shackled to beds, tortured and malnourished. That kind of shocking discovery is rare. But it was enough to make California lawmakers consider regulating home schools.
All California parents have to do now to home-school is submit an affidavit with their address. Right now, two bills in the California Assembly could reform home schooling. The first one would collect more data on home-schooled families. The second would create an advisory committee to suggest reforms like inspections and credentialing. But some, like Brian Ray, think that's all wrong.
BRIAN RAY: The idea of trying to come up with more laws to stop more people from doing bad things before we even know they're going to do anything bad is not the concept of the nation that we have under the U.S. Constitution and freedom.
PURPER: Ray has testified in favor of home schooling rights in courtrooms and in front of legislators. He also believes...
RAY: There's no mathematical relationship between how much the government controls home schooling and the amount of abuse.
PURPER: He came to that conclusion by examining a database of nearly 400 home schools that were in the news and courts because children in them were abused. He found no statistical significance between a state's regulation on home schooling and its rate of home school-related child abuse. Theoretically, that means home-schooled children in low-regulation states, like Arizona, should be about as vulnerable to abuse as children in high-regulation states, like Pennsylvania.
Ray got the data from the Coalition for Responsible Home Education. The Coalition's website lists hundreds of cases of abuse in home schools from media reports and court cases going back to the '80s. But the Coalition says the database is incomplete and warns against using it to argue that regulation doesn't protect home-schooled children.
HANNAH ETTINGER: We would just like to see protections put in place to keep people from falling through the cracks and getting abused.
PURPER: Hannah Ettinger is a volunteer and spokesperson for the Coalition, which is made up of former home-schooled children. I talked to her via Skype. Based on their research and some of their volunteers' experiences, the coalition believes home schooling can keep cases of child abuse unseen by people who have a legal and ethical obligation to report it, like doctors and professional teachers. So they have two policy recommendations - require parents to send their kids to a doctor's checkup and a standardized test each year.
ETTINGER: Both of these encounters would provide children with two interactions with mandatory reporters annually. And so if something is wrong, one of those two encounters should catch it.
PURPER: The Grozas say they already have their kids tested and seen by a doctor every year. So I asked Holly, what if you had to?
GROZA: I don't think we should be required to do that. I don't. We have the freedom to educate our children the way we think is best.
PURPER: The two assembly bills are scheduled to be heard in committee by the end of April. Holly Groza plans to go to Sacramento to testify. For NPR News, I'm Benjamin Purper in Redlands, Calif.
(SOUNDBITE OF IAMNOBODI'S "BEST BELIEVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.