Homeschooling didn’t begin as a fundamentalist movement. In the 1960s, liberal author and educator John Holt advocated a child-directed form of learning that became “unschooling”—homeschooling without a fixed curriculum. The concept was picked up in the 1970s by education researcher Raymond Moore, a Seventh-Day Adventist, who argued that schooling children too early—before fourth grade—was developmentally harmful. Moore’s message came at a time when many conservative Christians were looking for alternatives to public schools.
Moore’s work reached a massive audience when Focus on the Family founder and Christian parenting icon James Dobson invited him onto his radio show for the first time in 1982. Dobson would become the most persuasive champion of homeschooling, encouraging followers to withdraw their children from public schools to escape a “godless and immoral curriculum.” For conservative Christian parents, endorsements didn’t come any stronger than that.
Over the next two decades, homeschooling boomed. Today, perhaps as many as two million children are homeschooled. (An accurate count is difficult to conduct, because many homeschoolers are not required to register with their states.) Homeschooling families come from varied backgrounds—there are secular liberals as well as Christians, along with an increasing number of Muslims and African Americans—but researchers estimate that between two-thirds and three-fourths are fundamentalists.
Among Moore and Dobson’s listeners during that landmark broadcast was a pair of young lawyers, Michael Farris and Michael Smith, who the following year would found the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA). With Moore’s imprimatur and Dobson’s backing, Farris and Smith started out defending homeschooling families at a time when the practice was effectively illegal in 30 states. As Christians withdrew their children from public school, often without requesting permission, truancy charges resulted. The HSLDA used them as test cases, challenging school districts and state laws in court while lobbying state legislators to establish a legal right to homeschool. By 1993, just ten years after the association’s founding, homeschooling was legal in all 50 states.
What many lawmakers and parents failed to recognize were the extremist roots of fundamentalist homeschooling. The movement’s other patriarch was R.J. Rushdoony, founder of the radical theology of Christian Reconstructionism, which aims to turn the United States into an Old Testament theocracy, complete with stonings for children who strike their parents. Rushdoony, who argued that democracy was “heresy” and Southern slavery was “benevolent,” was too extreme for most conservative Christians, but he inspired a generation of religious-right leaders including Dobson, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson. He also provided expert testimony in early cases brought by the HSLDA. Rushdoony saw homeschooling as not just providing the biblical model for education but also a way to bleed the secular state dry.
With support from national leaders, Christian homeschoolers established state-level groups across the country and took over the infrastructure of the movement. Today, when parents indicate an interest in homeschooling, they find themselves on the mailing lists of fundamentalist catalogs. When they go to state homeschooling conventions to browse curriculum options, they hear keynote speeches about biblical gender roles and creationism and find that textbooks are sold alongside ideological manifestos on modest dressing, proper Christian “courtship,” and the concept of “stay-at-home daughters” who forsake college to remain with their families until marriage.
HSLDA is now one of the most powerful Christian-right groups in the country, with nearly 85,000 dues-paying members who send annual checks of $120. The group publicizes a steady stream of stories about persecuted homeschoolers and distributes tip sheets about what to do if social workers come knocking. Thanks to the group’s lawsuits and lobbying, though, that doesn’t happen often. Homeschooling now exists in a virtual legal void; parents have near-total authority over what their children learn and how they are disciplined. Not only are parents in 26 states not required to have their children tested but in 11 states, they don’t have to inform local schools when they’re withdrawing them. The states that require testing and registration often offer religious exemptions.
The emphasis on discipline has given rise to a cottage industry promoting harsh parenting techniques as godly. Books like To Train Up a Child by Michael and Debi Pearl promise that parents can snuff out rebellious behavior with a spanking regimen that starts when infants are a few months old. The Pearls claim to have sold nearly 700,000 copies of their book, most through bulk orders from church and homeschooling groups. The combination of those disciplinary techniques with unregulated homeschooling has spawned a growing number of horror stories now being circulated by the ex-homeschoolers—including that of Calista Springer, a 16-year-old in Michigan who died in a house fire while tied to her bed after her parents removed her from public school, or Hana Williams, an Ethiopian adoptee whose Washington state parents were convicted in September of killing her with starvation and abuse in a Pearl-style system. Materials from HSLDA were found in the home of Williams’s parents.
I know from experience that there are few topics that elicit as an emotional response from my readers as that of homeschooling. However I am also compelled to bring these facts to your attention, because this is how many Fundamentalists are undermining education in this country, isolating their children from their communities, and keeping social services from discovering harmful activities happening within their homes.
I have had some contact with children who were home schooled in the past, and most of them were seemingly quite well adjusted. Others exhibited symptoms of isolation, paranoia, and social awkwardness.
However the fact remains that there is a very purposeful agenda within the home school community, and it is NOT to better educate our children.