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Home Education Magazine

November-December 2004 - Articles and Columns

Taking Charge - Let's Not Link Homeschooling to Partisan Politics - Larry and Susan Kaseman

To homeschool, you don't have to have any specific ideas about politics or religion or lifestyle. In 1984, a newspaper reporter wrote that Wisconsin homeschoolers ranged from "Bible-thumping Baptists to granola crunching back-to-the-landers." A major strength of the homeschooling movement is that it is not limited to any one political perspective or religion or anything else and in that sense is broad-based. Such a base is essential for a small minority that wants to maintain its identity, integrity, and freedoms despite being different from mainstream culture.

However, our broad base is being undermined as the largest and best-known national homeschooling organization, the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) becomes increasingly involved in political activity and so links homeschooling to right wing politics, something that is gaining increasing attention in the media. The problem is the linkage, not the fact that HSLDA is right wing. In fact, many homeschoolers take the same position as HSLDA on various issues, but they realize that their homeschooling freedoms would be threatened if they mixed non-homeschooling issues with their work to maintain homeschooling freedoms. It would be just as problematic for homeschooling to be linked to left wing politics.

To maintain the strength of the homeschooling movement, we need to remember how varied homeschoolers are and what a small minority of the movement HSLDA represents (only about 10% of homeschooling families have paid HSLDA dues). We need to share this information with other homeschoolers, legislators, the media, and the general public.

This column will discuss the importance of not relying primarily on statutes and the courts for our homeschooling freedoms, HSLDA's increasing involvement in politics, the problems this causes, and what we can do.

Importance of Not Relying Primarily on Statutes and the Courts for Our Homeschooling Freedoms

We homeschoolers have learned that we often need to be active politically to maintain our homeschooling freedoms. The vast majority of homeschoolers separate our political activity relating to homeschooling from other causes we choose. We make it clear that we are working to insure that families have the right to choose an education for their children consistent with their principles and beliefs. This approach enables families with widely differing views to work together on homeschooling issues. It is a fundamental reason that we homeschoolers, a small minority without much money or a significant power base, have been able to maintain our homeschooling freedoms in the face of pressure from the educational establishment and others to increase government regulation of homeschooling.

In addition, most of us homeschoolers are determined to be as independent of the government as possible when it comes to homeschooling. Therefore, our political activity in the homeschooling arena has been and continues to be limited to preventing the government from passing laws or regulations that would prevent us and other families from homeschooling or that would give the government or public school officials unnecessary and harmful power and authority over homeschooling.

We realize that the right of families to choose for their children an education consistent with their principles and beliefs comes from God or nature, not from the government. Therefore, we do not ask the government to grant us that right or to protect it through statutes or constitutional amendments. Such statutes or amendments would mean we had looked to the government to grant us rights we already had. It doesn't make any sense to ask the government to protect us from the government!

Then why, you may ask, do so many states have homeschooling laws? In many cases, the state department of education or some other part of the educational establishment convinced legislators that legislation was needed to give public schools the authority to regulate homeschools. Often a broad range of us homeschoolers from within the state united to work to get the legislation amended so it was as reasonable as possible. We got support from non-homeschoolers who saw us beleaguered underdogs trying to maintain our freedoms. We would not have received much of this support had we initiated legislation to protect homeschooling. If we had, legislators would have been more likely to focus on whether they thought homeschooling was a good idea (and, of course, whether homeschooled children would be socialized!) instead of focusing on our rights as a reasonable and responsible minority.

Additional support for the idea that it is not a good idea for homeschoolers to push for legislation to "legalize" homeschooling comes from the fact that there are states such as Illinois which do not have specific homeschooling laws. Homeschoolers in such states are maintaining their freedoms, even when an occasional challenge arises. (For an example, see our previous column at http://homeedmag.com/HEM/202/match.html.)

We also don't want the government to grant us favors or special privileges or give homeschoolers money in the form of direct payments, reimbursements, tax credits, or tax deductions. Anyone who accepts money or special privileges from the government should be held accountable because the government is responsible for how taxpayers' money is spent. We don't want the government giving construction companies large sums of money for highways and not checking to make sure the highways are well built. So we can't accept favors, special privileges, or money from the government and expect them not to check on how we are homeschooling.

However, from its beginning in 1983, HSLDA has had a different perspective. Run by lawyers, HSLDA focuses on statutes, regulations, and court cases. Its initial goal was to get the government to "legalize" homeschooling. Having declared that to be accomplished, HSLDA is now increasing its political activity in other areas.

The differences between HSLDA and inclusive grassroots organizations are enormous. Among them:

? Grassroots homeschooling organizations start with the understanding that the right to homeschool comes from nature or God. These are, after all, our children. HSLDA starts with the mistaken notion that homeschooling is illegal unless there are laws or policies that specifically allow it, despite the fact that statutes by their nature are restrictive and there are not specific statutes giving us permission to do most of what we do. HSLDA's approach gives away a lot and has cost homeschoolers in some states significant freedoms.

? Grassroots homeschooling organizations try to stay away from legislation and out of legislatures as much as possible, largely because it is very difficult for a small minority (in this case, homeschoolers) that is seen as a threat by The largest power centers in our society (the educational establishment) to get favorable laws passed or to have court cases decided in their favor. Such organizations often handle situations as they arise, negotiating with school officials and others and setting informal precedents (rather than precedents set by court cases) that will make things easier for future homeschoolers.

By contrast, HSLDA, with its focus on laws, seizes (and sometimes even seems to create) opportunities to introduce legislation, especially on the federal level. They tell homeschoolers that as lawyers they will negotiate with the education community and other key power brokers in legislatures. According to "About HSLDA" on the HSLDA web site: HSLDA advocates on Capitol Hill by tracking federal legislation that affects homeschooling and parental rights. HSLDA works to defeat or amend harmful bills, but also works proactively, introducing legislation to protect and preserve family freedoms.

HSLDA is also much more willing to take cases to court, and homeschooling freedoms have been lost through court cases that HSLDA mishandled and lost, such as Blackwelder v. Safnauer (http://www.homeedmag.com/HEM/185/sotch.html).

? Grassroots homeschooling organizations work on the state or local level. HSLDA is based near Washington, D. C. and tries to cover the whole country, despite the fact that their information about any given state or local area is limited and they are outsiders who will not have to live under the laws or regulations that result.

? Grassroots homeschooling organizations work to empower their members and other homeschoolers to solve their own problems. They offer support and encouragement and share ideas, information they have gathered, and experiences other homeschoolers have reported to them. In contrast, HSLDA is a top-down organization. It tells homeschoolers that if they pay HSLDA $115 a year, HSLDA will handle legal difficulties they may get into. If a problem does arise, its lawyers take over and try to solve homeschoolers' problems for them, despite the fact that they often don't fully understand the situation in the state or local area where the homeschoolers live. This encourages dependence, not strength and confidence, among homeschoolers.

In sum, for over 20 years, grassroots organizations have done well in maintaining homeschooling freedoms, while many of the actions of HSLDA have reduced or undermined our freedoms. For example, HSLDA was very involved in the passage of homeschooling laws in New York, Pennsylvania, and New Hampshire, which have some of the most difficult homeschooling laws. On the other hand, states such as Wisconsin and Illinois have worked hard to keep HSLDA out of state politics and have some of the best homeschooling situations in the country. In addition, HSLDA has not been able to bring large numbers of people from the center or left of the political spectrum to work one-on-one with legislators as informed, articulate voices for the broad principles that underlie homeschooling freedoms.

HSLDA's Increasing Non-Homeschooling Political Activity

HSLDA is becoming increasingly involved in political activity not directly related to homeschooling. The key player is Michael Farris. Farris founded HSLDA in 1983 and served as president until 2000. Since then he has been HSLDA Chairman and President of Patrick Henry College (see below). He also ran for Lt. Governor of Virginia in 1993.

One example of HSLDA's increasing involvement in political issues beyond homeschooling is Farris' February, 2004, letter about teens becoming involved in political campaigns through HSLDA: Rest assured we are going to carefully screen the races in which we ask our teens to volunteer. Only candidates who are pro-homeschooling, favor the original intent of the Constitution, and possess a strong loyalty to liberty and self-government will receive our assistance. And yes, we will feel rewarded when the work of homeschooled young people helps to elect better leaders for today. But our real goal is training the leaders of tomorrow.

Here are some of the ways in which HSLDA's political involvement has increased and moved beyond homeschooling.

? In 1990, HSLDA founded the National Center for Home Education (NCHE) as a division of HSLDA that is fully funded by HSLDA. According to the NCHE web site, NCHE's functions include:

"Hosting periodic national legislative briefings on Capitol Hill to inform state leaders of key legislation of concern to their states and to parental rights."

"Maintaining a lobbying presence at the federal level on Capitol Hill."

"Commissioning studies of successes and benefits of home schooling."

"Performing many public relations functions with the media."

? Then, according to the NCHE web site, "In 1992, Mike Farris, then--president of the National Center for Home Education--a division of Home School Legal Defense Association--created the Congressional Action Program (CAP). CAP's purpose is to monitor issues moving through Congress and generate immediate and accurate responses that express home schoolers' support or opposition. When a certain piece of legislation requires a response, CAP takes action through telephone blitzes and personal visits to the entire Congress or to targeted committee members."

The web site also includes, "What does CAP do for me? CAP works on behalf of families and individuals by speaking as one voice to Congress, both in opposition and in support of legislation that will affect home schooling."

Note the phrase "as one voice." Many homeschoolers object to HSLDA's claim to in effect speak for all homeschoolers, especially when only about 10% of homeschooling families are HSLDA members. It's obvious that homeschoolers are so varied that no one group can or should speak for them.

? In September, 2000, Patrick Henry College (PHC) opened with Farris as president. According to the HSLDA web site, "In 1997, the HSLDA board of directors approved the concept of helping found a self-supporting college...The college rents space from HSLDA in our office building." PHC's mission is "to train Christian men and women who will lead our nation and shape our culture with timeless biblical values and fidelity to the spirit of the American founding." Seven of the nearly 100 interns in the White House last spring were from the roughly 240 students enrolled in PHC, and during the last 4 years, 22 conservative members of Congress have had interns from PHC.

? In February, 2004, Farris announced that HSLDA was starting a Political Action Committee (PAC). (A PAC is a committee formed by a special-interest group to raise money for political candidates.)

? In February, 2004, Farris announced Generation Joshua (a division of HSLDA), a four-part program for teens. One part is civics education through an online course developed in cooperation with faculty and senior students at PHC. The second is church-based voter registration that is "a concerted effort to register more evangelical Christians." Third are student action teams, groups of 50 to 200 teens who will campaign for candidates who have been surveyed and endorsed by HSLDA PAC. Their travel, food, and lodging costs will be paid. Fourth are the Benjamin Rush Awards for "completing the online civics courses, recruiting new members of Generation Joshua, registering new voters, writing letters to the editor, and volunteering on a local campaign."

Despite all this activity, the HSLDA web site as of September, 2004, included the following under Frequently Asked Questions:

13. Is HSLDA politically active?

No. HSLDA's tax-exempt status forbids us from partisan activity. However, we do lobby in the legislature and public arena on issues that affect parental rights and religious freedom.

People who have tracked HSLDA for years are not surprised that they have published a statement that is so at odds with reality.

In addition, the Christian Science Monitor article cited below included this paragraph:

Scott Somerville, staff attorney for HSLDA, insists that the organization exists simply to promote homeschooling. "It's not that the religious right is using homeschoolers to advance their agenda," he says. "It's that homeschoolers on both the left and right oppose the government's interference in teaching their kids."

This increasing political activity has been the subject of several articles in major mainstream media. Among them:

? "George Bush's secret army," The Economist, February 28, 2004.

? "College for the Home-Schooled is Shaping Leaders for the Right," The New York Times, March 8, 2004.

? "U.S. college grooms the home-schooled for political paths: A conservative pipeline / Interns for the White House," International Herald Tribune (Paris), March 9, 2004. (Essentially the same article as the one above.)

? "Homeschoolers keep the faith," The Christian Science Monitor, March 23, 2004.

? "The Bible college that leads to the White House; The campus is immaculate, everyone is clean-cut and cheerful. But just what are they teaching at Patrick Henry College? And why do so many students end up working for George Bush?" The Independent (London, UK), April 21, 2004.

? "All Work Is Homework," The Harvard Political Review, July 19. 2004.

? "Reading, writing & right-wing politics," The Boston Globe, August 15, 2004.

How HSLDA's Political Activity Affect Our Homeschooling Freedoms

Both the increase in political activity by HSLDA and the increasing attention the media is giving it raise concerns about the effect it will have on homeschooling freedoms.

? HSLDA's broad non-homeschooling political activity links homeschooling to one political perspective in ways that many homeschoolers object to, including many homeschoolers who take the same position as HSLDA on various issues. The linkage gives inaccurate and misleading information about what homeschooling is and who homeschoolers are. It displaces the fact that homeschoolers are widely varied. It is the linking and the limiting that are the problems, not the specific political perspective HSLDA has. It would create problem to have homeschooling linked to any political perspective.

? HSLDA's increasing political activity is dividing the homeschooling community even more than its actions have in the past. This is both costly and unnecessary. Homeschoolers with widely differing positions on social issues can agree on the importance of maintaining homeschooling freedoms. Since the late 1970s, that has been enough to maintain a strong, cohesive movement.

? To maintain our homeschooling freedoms, we need support from both political parties. But because HSLDA is linking homeschooling with the one political position, homeschooling could easily become a partisan issue.

? The article in the Christian Science Monitor cited above includes: No one is saying that Mr. Farris and his compatriots don't have a right as individuals to promote their viewpoint in the halls of Congress. But critics are troubled by the idea of taking an organization - the HSLDA - that purports to support all homeschoolers and making it the feeder system for an evangelical Christian political network.

What We Can Do

? We can remember that although HSLDA gets a lot of media attention, only about 10% of homeschooling families have paid HSLDA dues. HSLDA does not speak for the vast majority of homeschoolers. Also, HSLDA is not an organization committed solely to homeschooling. It is an organization with a clear political agenda that has used homeschooling as a way to gain power and attention.

? We can explain these points to other homeschoolers and use them to correct inaccurate stories in newspapers, magazines, and on radio and television that rely on information about or comments from HSLDA. We can write letters to the editor.

? We can write our own stories or articles or agree to be interviewed for media pieces that emphasize the wide range of perspectives, beliefs, lifestyles, and approaches to education among homeschoolers.

? We can keep other causes to which we are committed separate from homeschooling organizations to which we belong and work to ensure that these organizations avoid mixing causes and stick to homeschooling issues.

? We can encourage other homeschoolers, whatever their political views and whatever causes they want to promote in addition to homeschooling, to do this independently of homeschooling and homeschooling organizations.

Conclusion

To maintain our homeschooling freedoms, we need to remember that they come from God or nature, not from the government, and not ask the government to codify them. We also need to work to maintain a broad base for homeschooling and not allow homeschooling to be linked with any one political perspective, despite the fact that HSLDA is increasing its political activity and thereby undermining the media's and the general public's understanding of homeschooling and our homeschooling freedoms.

2004 Larry and Susan Kaseman

2004 Larry and Susan Kaseman

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