Neo-Nazis in Ohio: How a home-school group slipped through the cracks

Ohio made national news this week after reports that an Upper Sandusky couple supplied neo-Nazi educational materials to parents who home-school their children.

According to Vice and HuffPost, the couple used a Telegram messenger channel called “Dissident Homeschool" that was littered with racist slurs, praise for Adolf Hitler and criticism of modern public school curriculum. For example, HuffPost reported, part of a lesson plan about Martin Luther King, Jr. instructed students to practice cursive by writing a quote from American Nazi Party founder George Lincoln Rockwell.

"Dissident Homeschool" has been shut down, but its existence prompted swift condemnation from Ohio elected leaders, education officials and home-school advocates.

Oct 12, 2022; Columbus, Ohio, USA;  LGBTQ+ allies protest outside the Ohio Department of Education building as the board hears public testimony on a resolution that opposes proposed changes to Title IX, the federal law that prohibited discrimination in schools on the basis of sex. Introduced by board member Brendan Shea, the resolution lays out an "unequivocal opposition" to the Biden Administration's proposal to expand Title IX's protections to gender identity and sexual orientation. Mandatory Credit: Adam Cairns-The Columbus Dispatch

"There is absolutely no place for hate-filled, divisive and hurtful instruction in Ohio’s schools, including our state’s home-schooling community," interim State Superintendent Stephanie Siddens said. "I emphatically and categorically denounce the racist, antisemitic and fascist ideology and materials being circulated as reported in recent media stories."

But those who write Ohio's education policy don't agree on how the state should respond.

Democratic lawmakers worried that lessons in Nazism could be a consequence of weak home-schooling regulations.

"We need oversight and accountability from anyone who takes taxpayer dollars," Senate Minority Leader Nickie Antonio, D-Lakewood, said. "That includes home-schooling."

Gov. Mike DeWine condemned the racist and antisemitic language detailed in the reports, but a spokesman stopped short of saying whether the governor would explore any policy solutions.

Republican Senate President Matt Huffman, R-Lima, said he didn't think stricter home-school policies were necessarily the right answer.

"I hope, frankly, that people will not try to take some political advantage or policy advantage," Huffman told reporters Tuesday. "Basically trying to decide that a couple of sociopaths somewhere in Ohio who are doing strange things, that that somehow should affect policy and the rest of the state."

What are the home-school laws in Ohio?

In 2022, more than 51,000 children were home-schooled in Ohio, according to data from the Fordham Institute. That's about 2.8% of all K-12 students in the state.

Current law requires a parent to notify their school district that they plan to home-school and submit proof that the parent or person teaching has a high school diploma or other equivalency.

Each family also promises to provide at least 900 hours of annual instruction in subjects like reading, science, health and music. But they can skip anything that conflicts with "sincerely held religious beliefs," according to Ohio Revised Code.

Ohio does not approve curriculum for its home-schooled children, but it does ask parents to submit brief outlines and textbook names for "informational purposes."

It's unclear whether this couple submitted anything implying they taught racist or antisemitic ideologies. But reports indicated that the couple offered advice on how to conceal such teachings and when children would be old enough to keep certain lessons secret.

Still, there might not have been much the Ohio Department of Education could do.

Do the rules need to change?

House Minority Leader Allison Russo, D-Upper Arlington, and Rep. Jessica Miranda, D-Forest Park, penned a letter to Siddens on Monday requesting an investigation and "review of whether tax dollars are funding hate school in Ohio."

"One bad apple shouldn’t ruin the bunch," Miranda said. “But, there are several bills currently being backed by Republicans at the Statehouse that would weaken, not strengthen, home-schooling oversight."

She was referencing Senate Bill 1, a major piece of legislation that would change who runs Ohio's public education system.

Part of the legislation proposes relaxing certain requirements for home-school parents, such as eliminating the need to prove their qualifications to teach. It would also ban the new director from adopting any additional rules regarding home education.

More:Ohio Senate trying again for education overhaul giving more power to governor

Antonio told the USA TODAY Network Ohio Bureau that teaching pro-Nazi ideology has the potential to be "very, very dangerous," and she's not sure why the state shouldn't review the outlines from home-school parents more closely.

"I’m a former teacher. That makes absolutely no sense to me," Antonio said. "That sounds like the state of Ohio is just throwing up its hands and saying we’re not going to be responsible for educating these children. Why would we walk away from them?"

But Rep. Riordan McClain, R-Upper Sandusky, whose wife home-schools their five children, isn't sure more government oversight would prevent this from happening again.

"People home-school because they want to have the freedom to home-school. It is important to protect the parents' right to do so," McClain said. "This was an extreme outlier."

Parents who send their children to public schools or private schools could also share hateful ideologies with them at home. Creating new hurdles for home-school parents might not capture couples like the one in McClain's hometown.

"Parents instill the values into their children that they have," he said. "And in a free society, there are people who don't see the world the way you see it or the way I see it. I don't agree with every idea every parent has, but I do agree with the idea that every parent has the right to raise their child as they see fit."

How do other states regulate home-schooling?

Ohio has more rules in place for home-schooling than other states, according to a ProPublica review of policies across the country. For example, states such as Illinois and Missouri don't require parents to notify districts of their intent to home-school their children. Other states don't require parents to teach certain subjects.

But advocates for home-schooling oversight say the practice has largely been deregulated across the country. Carmen Longoria-Green, a board member for the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, said conservative Christian groups pushed state legislatures to strip away rules for what parents can teach at home. As a result, there are few mechanisms in place for school districts to identify problematic curricula.

Policing lessons too closely could also bump up against First Amendment concerns, said Longoria-Green, who was home-schooled in Missouri as a child. But though the example in Ohio is extreme, she said, children have been learning alternative history at home for years.

"That is an intentional political movement by far-right Christian fundamentalists ... who are intentionally restricting children’s access to information so they will grow up to vote a certain way," Longoria-Green said.

Her group advocates for children to have access to education and information beyond what they may learn at home. She believes states should use more meaningful assessments to monitor students' development and ensure they aren't just being exposed to one perspective.

"You can ace one of those standardized tests and still have been raised to believe neo-Nazism is good," Longoria-Green said.

Anna Staver and Haley BeMiller are reporters for the USA TODAY Network Ohio Bureau, which serves the Columbus Dispatch, Cincinnati Enquirer, Akron Beacon Journal and 18 other affiliated news organizations across Ohio.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Ohio officials condemn neo-Nazi home-school group, disagree on action