Life, liberty, and the pursuit of homeschooling

The increasing presence of homeschoolers on the US election campaign trail testifies to the growing strength of this highly organized constituency.  Could they rival the influence of labor unions?

“The Department of Education doesn’t educate our kids, they indoctrinate our kids,” Texas Congressman and third party presidential hopeful Ron Paul told a crowd of about 1,000 people in Iowa at a rally for less government involvement in education in 2011. “It’s a propaganda machine.”   

Paul, who has proposed tax cuts for homeschoolers, said that advocates of homeschooling made up a big part of his support base in his 2008 presidential bid.

In 2012, Missouri Republican congressman Todd Akin, whose wife, Lulli, homeschooled their six children, had groups of homeschoolers campaign for his US Senate bid even after many party leaders censured him for his comment that women had ways of getting rid of babies produced by “legitimate rape.”

Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum and his wife homeschooled each of their seven children. They brought the Duggars, a reality-TV homeschooling family with 19 children, along on the campaign trail, and had homeschoolers knock on doors for support.

None of these candidates were successful in their races, but the increasing presence of homeschoolers on the campaign trail testifies to the growing strength of this highly organized constituency.

Rob Langworthy is among the politically engaged homeschoolers who opted out of public education for most of his life. Growing up, he was homeschooled in Southern California. A year and a half after graduating from Patrick Henry College, a school predominantly for homeschoolers, he went to work for Americans for Prosperity (AFP), a conservative think-tank funded by David and Charles Koch, who own Koch Industries, the second-largest privately held company in the US. AFP and other Koch-sponsored groups played a big role in the 2010 Republican takeover of the house.

Like 65 percent of homeschoolers, Langworthy is an evangelical Christian, and he is emblematic of a movement which seeks to influence government policy at high levels.

“We are people of strong religious beliefs and a strong faith background, and my parents wanted me to be in a place where the Bible was allowed to be taught,” Langworthy says.

Almost 80 percent of homeschoolers are white, and almost 90 percent come from two-parent households. More than one third of these households have annual incomes of $75,000 or more.

According to the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics, collected in 2007, two million children - three percent of America’s school-age population - are currently homeschooled: a 74 percent increase from 850,000 in 1999, and a 34 percent increase from 2003. Some statistics show a consistent growth rate of between seven and 15 percent per year.

“Do not mess with the homeschoolers”

Thoughts of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century education conjure bucolic images of one-room log-cabin schoolhouses surrounded by corn and waving wheat fields. But in reality, a large proportion of children were taught at home until the mid-nineteenth century, says Dr. Milton Gaither, the author of Homeschool: An American History.

“This was not a deliberate, ideologically motivated thing. It was a simple pragmatic necessity given the sparse population and limited institutional infrastructure of colonial and early national life.”

As the population grew denser, one of the first things settlers did was to build schools and by 1870, all of the states had free public elementary schools.

By 1900, 34 out of 45 total US states had laws mandating compulsory education (just four of those states were in the South). By 1910, 72 percent of American children attended school.  Even groups, like Catholics, who opted out of public schools were still sending their children to be educated outside of the home.   

“Early European settlers who taught their kids in their homes stopped doing so as soon as they could. They wanted schools. They only taught their kids at home because there was no other option,” Gaither says.

The roots of the contemporary homeschooling movement are in the counterculture of the 1960s, when Americans from across the political spectrum grew disenchanted with public schools.

“You saw it emerge on both the radical left and right at about the same time,” says Gaither. The earliest leaders came mostly from the left, he says, citing education reformer and liberal homeschool pioneer John Holt.

At that time, homeschooling was still against the law in most states. It was not legal in all 50 states until 1993.

The movement’s legislative victories can be traced in part to the creation, in 1983, of the Homeschool Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), by Christian conservative leader Michael Farris, who decided to homeschool his children after hearing about it on evangelical leader James Dobson’s radio show.

“Before HSLDA, left-wing and right-wing homeschoolers banded together to fight against laws they found unjust, to go to court, and so on,” explains Gaither.

But as HSLDA became more and more organized, a rupture between conservative Christians and other homeschoolers grew into a deep divide. Groups who had worked together for a common end broke on doctrinal lines.

Gaither says that conservative Christians became the public face of homeschooling not only because they were a larger group, but because their church affiliations gave them an organizational advantage. He also says they were more comfortable with hierarchy and male leadership.

“Liberals, being more comfortable with consensus and egalitarianism, tended to do a lot of talking that never really got anywhere.”

After the death of Holt, Gaither says, “HSLDA was able eventually to pretty much take over the political- and national-level movement leadership and become, for all practical purposes, the public face of homeschooling.”

Langworthy, who was homeschooled through most of the 1990s and early 2000s, agrees.

“Growing up in California, it is pretty hard to be homeschooled and not be aware of HSLDA. If your parents decide to homeschool you, if you’re not a HSLDA member, you still know what it is.”

After achieving legality in all 50 states, the HSLDA brought lawsuits and lobbied for homeschoolers to receive access to resources, partial schooling and extracurricular activities. The organization currently has 80,000 member families from all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

In 1994, Farris organized homeschooling parents across the country to voice opposition against a bill that would require that all teachers meet specific standards. Despite statements from the bill’s sponsor that the law would not apply to homeschool teachers and parents, calls and faxes from 1.5 million angry parents temporarily shut down the Congress’s telephone system.

“It was the biggest phone blitz that had ever hit Congress,” says HSLDA spokesman Jeremiah Lorrig. “They were so overwhelmed that when it came to a vote, there was only one vote in favor, the author of the bill. If you’re in D.C. and talk about it, [congressmen] will tell you, ‘do not mess with the homeschoolers.’”

In Florida, a 1996 law permitting homeschoolers to compete athletically in their local public school teams paved the way for New York Jets quarterback Tim Tebow - whose famous touchdown ritual is a prayer of supplication and thankful victory in one - was twice named his state’s high school player of the year. He speaks frequently about his evangelical Christianity to the press and always attributes his game-day triumphs to God.

After the movement’s years of court victories, homeschoolers face very little regulation. In some states, parents don’t even have to inform anyone that they have chosen to homeschool their children.

Only one attempt toward increased regulation has succeeded in the last 15 years, says Gaither, since efforts to regulate are normally quashed by well-organized homeschool families. In 2008, Washington, D.C. added more reporting requirements for homeschool parents after police found the decaying bodies of children who were supposedly being homeschooled.

In December 2012, homeschool families campaigned successfully against a bill before the US Senate that would have ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Homeschool families argued that it would have redefined parental rights and, to a lesser degree, impinged upon US sovereignty.

Advocates of homeschooling say it places no burden on the state and is far more cost effective than public schooling.

“The average family spends between 400 and 600 dollars per child per year, whereas according to the National Education Association, public schools spend around $9,963,” Lorrig says.

Moreover, he argues, homeschool students score consistently in 80th percentile, while the average is lower for public school students across America.

College matriculation rates for homeschool students are less clear.

“For Christ and for liberty” 

Gaither argues that the internet is bringing about the decline of the HSLDA, as homeschoolers have won most political and legal victories, and they are no longer the gatekeepers of information easily accessible over the internet. Additionally, more families who chose to homeschool do so through internet education programs accredited by public schools, known as “Cybercharters.” 

But Farris is working to ensure that doesn’t happen. In 2005 he wrote that he believes that “Homeschool teens could become one of the most powerful forces in American politics, rivaling the labor unions in effectiveness.” In 2000, he founded Patrick Henry College so that conservative Christian homeschooled students could continue their education. The motto “For Christ and for liberty” is emblematic of his expressly stated goal of moulding students into powerful policymakers.

Between 85 and 90 percent of students at Patrick Henry were homeschooled for some or all of their time before entering Patrick Henry. Admissions adhere to strict criteria: the median SAT scores of those who matriculate there are comparable to the University of Virginia or the College of William and Mary, Virginia’s flagship public universities.

Farris has also started offshoots of HSLDA co-located with Patrick Henry, including groups such as Parental Rights and Generation Joshua, both of which are geared toward getting Christian youths more active in politics. Generation Joshua offers online courses in citizenship sponsors writing contests and offers college scholarships to young people who become civically engaged. HSLDA also has a political action committee.

And HSLDA is going global: it sponsored its first international conference in Berlin in 2012, with 150 people from 30 countries attending.

After attending three of Patrick Henry’s academic summer camps for high schoolers, Langworthy went there to study International Relations. He says at Patrick Henry, the culture is in line with “the typical things college students do, outside of alcohol and drugs.” Males and females are not allowed past one another’s common areas, and a midnight curfew is enforced by student patrols.

“I was grateful because people are there to work. There is a business casual dress code. The whole atmosphere is more, ‘we’re preparing smart young people for professional life.’ ”

Langworthy graduated in 2009 and started working as Operations Manager for Americans for Prosperity (AFP) after a year and a half at a small engineering firm and four months of job hunting.

“It all happened so fast . . . I knew that I alone could not have made that happen. I firmly believe that that was God’s plan for me.”

 

 

 

About the author

Valerie Hopkins is an American journalist based in New York City.  She spent three years in the Balkans reporting primarily on politics, transitional justice, organized crime and corruption.